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Wednesday, May 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Meeting basic needs of homeless is goal of new downtown facility

Seattle Times staff reporter

Few places in Seattle are open to homeless people during the day. So they often end up on a park bench, in a doorway, or walking the same streets over and over.

The city hopes to change street life for some with "Connections," a new $2 million daytime service center that opens downtown today. It is designed to meet basic needs by providing lunches, showers and toilets.

But with access to the Internet, free local phone calls and case managers, the center aims to serve as more than a hangout. It will seek to connect people to jobs and permanent housing.

"This is a one-stop place to go for not only for information but also to receive assistance," said City Councilman Tom Rasmussen, who sponsored legislation to pay for the center.

Today's opening follows years of planning and community debate over the location. It also is part of the countywide Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness developed by government, nonprofits and religious groups. The city estimates that 2,500 people are living on the street in King County without transitional housing or shelter.

"The things I would like are to have the services available," said Councilman Richard McIver. "I don't want to just baby-sit men off the streets."

The city plans to spend $1 million a year to run the center, hoping to serve about 3,000 people this year and move 50 into permanent housing.

Downtown Emergency Service Center, a nonprofit serving homeless adults, will run the 8,000-square-foot two-story center in the former Morrison Hotel. Connections can accommodate about 200 people at any given time, with showers and bathrooms, laundry facilities, 16 computers and a lounge area with books and magazines — but no television. The center also will offer job training through the nonprofit Seattle Jobs Initiative. Those who want to use the facilities will be admitted through a reception area.

This lunch won't be exactly free.

If people use the center more than 10 days, the staff will expect them to sign contracts agreeing to put together a transition plan, said Bill Hobson, executive director of Downtown Emergency Service Center.

"If you're just coming in to use the bathroom, we're ultimately going to grow impatient," he said.

"We will start ratcheting up the pressure to develop a transition plan. If they do not, we're going to assume our resources could be more profitably applied to other people. There are lots of people who need these services."

The shelter targets "higher functioning" people, especially single men, who are homeless for economic reasons. Those who are physically disabled, have serious mental-health problems or are chronically abusing alcohol or drugs will be referred to other service providers, Hobson said.

Whether permanent housing will be available is another question.

Hobson says he is getting "absolutely no traction" trying to persuade developers of affordable housing to make referrals from Connections a priority, given their own lengthy waiting lists.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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