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Sunday, June 6, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nicole Brodeur / Times staff columnist

When the homeless get a home

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St. Charles was born in 1538 and lived in a castle with his wealthy Italian family. As a priest, he founded schools for the poor and worked with the sick and dying during the plague.

So it makes sense that Seattle's newest refuge for the homeless is named for this man who walked great halls and dirty streets — and that it is a former hotel where local swells used to sleep off a night at the adjacent opera house.

For the St. Charles Hotel may just be the place where we can put our old beliefs about the homeless to rest and rouse a more personal view of this community.

Usually, that view is fleeting: Eyes met with, then diverted from the guy standing at the traffic light. The hurried "sorry" for the panhandler.

When news broke last month that a tent city would settle in a county-owned field near Bothell, hundreds of neighbors spoke, spewed and sued in protest. Ultimately, the homeless encampment rose in a nearby church parking lot, but so did these questions:

What is the solution for the estimated 8,000 homeless who live in Seattle and King County? And why do they stir up so much in all of us?

The Plymouth Housing Group thinks it has the answers. With the opening of the St. Charles last week, Plymouth marked its 12th property dedicated to permanently ending homelessness.

Since 1980, Plymouth has taken the homeless off the streets and offered them low rents, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, medical supervision, job skills and a community.

Rents are paid with 30 percent of the resident's income (most are mentally disabled and receive disability), as well as vouchers from the Seattle Housing Authority. The balance and services are paid by federal and private grants.

Tara Connor, one of the program coordinators, will start to place the 65 residents over the next two months, choosing from a waiting list of 925. Only one person will move in per day. Any faster, Connor said, and it can be overwhelming.

The simple act of being handed a room key can unlock a flood of emotions. Many of the residents haven't closed a door behind them in years. They don't know what it's like to shower or eat without first standing in line.

"It's not unusual for them to cry, or stare at the key for a while," Connor told me.

I hope to unlock some new perspective at the St. Charles by following one or two residents over the course of a year, and offering monthly dispatches from Third and Cherry.

It will be unvarnished, unromantic and unvictimized. My subjects may disappear, or disappoint; I have no expectations.

But the hope is to show how the homeless are like us, how they're not, what they're up against and where the rest of us come in beyond the brief street encounters.

I walked the halls of the St. Charles before the opening the other day. Then I sat in one of the rooms and took in the bed, the table, the microwave and the towels, wondering who would get the key, close the door and call this home.

The smell of paint hit me as it always does: a fresh start.

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

The windows show more than most.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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