Putting an end to homelessness "can be done"

After lunch, Bill Block was crossing Fourth Avenue downtown when someone he knew brushed past.

"Hey, have you ended homelessness yet?" the man asked.

"Yeah, yesterday," Block said.

"Yesterday" is the punch line. But ending homelessness — Block is dead serious about that.

Not shelter it, feed it or clothe it. End it.

An intractable social problem — created by the economy, drug addiction, mental illness, domestic violence, the justice system, lack of health care — can be solved, he says.

That's his job. Until recently, Block was a high-powered attorney — responsible for negotiating some of the city's biggest real-estate deals. He is a former Sonics part owner and adept political player who decided to give up his law-firm partnership to head the Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County.

The county has an estimated 8,000 homeless people, and Block is charged with finding a home for all of them.

Homelessness will end, the plan says, when we build a roof over every bed.

"It can be done," Block said. "We see it all over the country."

At its worst, the Ten-Year Plan is a naive campaign that gives false hope to society's most downtrodden and will inevitably end in failure. At its best, it is wildly idealistic and maybe crazy enough to work.

To accomplish its goal, the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, an alliance of government, business and nonprofits, must create 9,500 units of housing. Its members — who include King County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels — have given themselves a deadline of 2015.

They hired Block to be the conscience who will hold them to that promise, the mediator who will make government agencies and nonprofits work together — and the lobbyist who will get the money out of elected officials.

Block estimates that creating the housing will cost about $80 million a year. He says it will be cheaper than paying for all the other costs of caring for homeless people, such as shelters, emergency-room visits, court processing and jail nights, which currently cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year.

The committee has made headway since the clock started ticking last year. This year, it reported that 934 housing units were opened in 2005 and 2006, with 713 more in the pipeline.

Some people in the homeless community have seen past efforts sputter. Leo Rhodes, who has been homeless off and on for 20 years, is familiar with the plan. A resident of Tent City, he has gone to committee meetings and spoken up.

Right now he says he is choosing to stay homeless: "I'm tired of seeing the revolving circle of the nonhomeless people trying to end homelessness."

A movement begins

"To paraphrase the Bible, the homeless have always been with us and always will be to some degree," said Walt Crowley, a Seattle historian.

As a modern phenomenon, chronic homelessness became common in the late 1970s, when the closing of mental institutions put thousands of people onto the streets. Then, federal support for public housing fell in the 1980s.

Over the past two decades, gentrification has driven up housing prices here. Pioneer Square, for example, used to be filled with cheap single-room apartments; it's now full of offices and high-priced lofts.

The latest effort to end homelessness began in 2000, when Tent City set up camp in the parking lot of St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle.

Dean Robert Taylor, the head of St. Mark's, convened a conference on creating the political will to end homelessness. He invited businesspeople, nonprofits, social-service providers, government officials, faith groups and homeless people.

That first meeting sprouted the Committee to End Homelessness, with Taylor as its first chairman. Members came up with the Ten-Year Plan, mirroring efforts elsewhere in the country.

Initial results in other cities look promising. The number of homeless in San Francisco fell from 8,640 to 6,248 between 2002 and 2005. Portland, which focused on chronic homelessness, moved 660 people into permanent housing in 2005, and 79 percent have stayed put for more than six months.

Real-estate expertise

Bill Block's role model is not the other Bill — the one who stepped aside at Microsoft to save the world — but Jim Ellis, the lawyer and citizen activist who led campaigns to clean up Lake Washington, build the Kingdome and establish the Mountains to Sound Greenway.

Block first heard about Ellis in college after growing up in Chicago's Hyde Park, surrounded by struggling neighborhoods on the South Side. He says he got jumped 13 times by the time he was 13; his bicycle was taken more than once.

Block's dad was a lawyer who had always done pro bono work. Dinner conversations revolved around social justice and liberal politics — his family invited Eugene McCarthy to stay at their house during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

After law school, Block clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. He was in a drama group with Ken Starr, who later became a U.S. special prosecutor.

Block thought he would "one day be an undersecretary or go someplace big enough to be interesting but small enough to know my family."

He chose Seattle.

Block started as a litigator, then switched to real-estate law. He became known for a quick mind, quiet energy and an ability to mediate complicated deals.

Block negotiated landmark deals all over the city — Amazon.com's offices in the PacMed building on Beacon Hill and the Starbucks building in Sodo. He bought what he calls a "tiny" piece of the Sonics for $250,000 as part of Howard Schultz's ownership group.

Like his father, Block volunteered and became active in politics. He held fundraisers for Sims and former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice.

With his expertise in real estate, Block decided to work on low-income housing issues, serving on the Seattle Housing Authority board and nonprofit boards. He was president of the board at AIDS Housing of Washington when it built the Bailey-Boushay House in Seattle, a home for people with AIDS.

"I grew up with feeling it was wrong to leave people on the edge of disaster, a basic gut feeling," Block said.

In 2005, he took the job as project director for the homelessness committee because he believed he could listen and find solutions. He makes $86,000 a year.

One of his best friends, David Eitelbach, said, "One time I was complaining about something, gun control, I said 'we need to do something about gun control.' And he turned to me and said, 'Well, what are you going to do about it?'

"He challenged me. I didn't have an answer. He does. He takes on the whole world."

This year, Block had back surgery and for weeks it was painful to sit upright. Instead of taking sick leave, he asked Eitelbach to drive him to meetings, with Block lying on the back seat of his old Subaru. He dragged an air mattress to a daylong committee retreat and conducted the meeting lying down.

Accepting the challenge

The problem of homelessness may be too big for one man and a committee.

"The challenges are about money and money and money ... and money," said Dean Taylor, of St. Mark's.

If the federal government sharply cuts rent subsidies for the poor, the plan will fail. If the county chooses to spend money reducing greenhouse gases instead of creating low-income housing, the plan will fail.

The $80 million mark Block hopes to hit each year would not all be new money but is substantially more than what is being spent now. Block says it's hard to say exactly how much is being spent on homeless people by government and nonprofit and religious groups.

In his first year, Block said, "substantial progress" has been made on housing. In 2007 and 2008, Seattle will spend $3 million in new money and King County will add $7.2 million. Suburbs are spending comparatively less.

But even if the housing gets built, it could be seen as a new form of welfare. If you give homeless people apartments — either free or on a sliding scale — what incentive would they have to get a job?

Block says some people would eventually move into their own housing, making room for new people who become homeless. Others may stay for life, he said, such as those recovering from addiction or dealing with mental illness.

"There are people who will require support all their lives. It's important to support people and not make them homeless, because they have needs."

What if he can't end homelessness? What if people are sleeping in doorways in 2015?

"Obviously it's a risk," Block says. "But it doesn't keep me from going for it."

He can see working on this for four or five years, then doing something else.

What's next? Finding peace in the Middle East?

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

Bill Block gave up a law-firm partnership to tackle the plight of the homeless in King County. (ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness

Goal Create enough long-term housing to put a roof over every bed by 2015 with services people need to stabilize and advance their lives

Major funders King County, city of Seattle, United Way of King County and local private and nonprofit organizations

Governing-board members King County Executive Ron Sims, co-chairman; Car Toys Chief Executive Dan Brettler, co-chairman; Mayor Greg Nickels; King County Sheriff Sue Rahr; Dean Robert Taylor of St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral; Blake Nordstrom, president of Nordstrom Inc.; Bellevue City Councilman Phil Noble; and other community leaders

How the committee works Governing board meets quarterly. An interagency council of social-service and housing providers coordinates work. A board of homeless and formerly homeless people provides feedback.

For more information 206-296-5251 or www.cehkc.org.

Source: Committee to End Homelessness in King County

Bill Block

Age: 57

Home: Mount Baker neighborhood, Seattle

Family: Married 25 years. Wife Susan Leavitt is a social worker. Three sons, 24, 21 and 18.

Civic experience: Seattle Housing Levy Oversight Committee, Seattle Center Advisory Board, boards of the Seattle Housing Authority, Pike Place Market Foundation, AIDS Housing of Washington, Downtown Emergency Services Center, Urban Enterprise Center, Mount Baker Housing Alliance, Port Jobs

Education: Bachelor's degree in history, Pomona College; law degree, University of Chicago

Work experience: Buck & Gordon law firm, clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun

Real-estate deals negotiated: Amazon.com's lease in the old PacMed building on Beacon Hill, Starbucks' lease in Starbucks Center in Sodo, worked on Pike Place Market real-estate matters for almost 30 years

Hobbies: Running marathons. Used to be on the board of Intiman Theatre.