The BLOCK Project

"Yes! In My Backyard"

The BLOCK Project | October 2023


Might you consider sharing your backyard with a person experiencing homelessness?

This is the question The BLOCK Project asks those who are making noise about the rising rates of homelessness afflicting so many American cities post-Covid. It’s an invitation that confronts: It confronts one’s moral self-perception, it confronts the scope of one’s social responsibility, and it confronts the complicated story each one of us carries around a life made from the givens of context and the mysteries of agency. And, like all questions that trouble, it is, in an age of converging global crises, increasingly impossible to evade.

Nick bolton Gqb C4 Xs 0i4 unsplash
Nick Bolton / Unsplash

This is a freeze frame of Seattle’s brand right now, a city battling one of the more intractable homelessness crises in the country. Debates rage as to how the number of unhoused ballooned, but estimates are that at least 53,500 people in King County experienced homelessness at some point or another in 2022, with 40,000 of these qualifying as more permanently unhoused. This means 40,000 human beings have to move regularly between camps, cars, sidewalks, and sofas, filling out a shadow world that exists ever more visibly inside the sixth wealthiest city in the United States.

Frustrations abound. “I’m concerned for my kids’ safety.” “The encampments are human cesspools of drugs and degradation. They make Seattle look like a dump.” “Needles strewn on the sidewalk threaten customers away from my business.” “This seems like an increasingly blue problem. Why can’t progressive politicians offer solutions that work?”

In a 2022 survey of residents commissioned by the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce, 76 percent of respondents said that Seattle is on the wrong track, with 81 percent indicating that the quality of life in the city is worse today than it was in 2018. 73 percent say they feel less safe in the city than they did two years ago, and 91 percent say that downtown Seattle can’t fully recover until homelessness and public safety issues are addressed. Since the pandemic, 67 percent have considered moving away, with 35 percent of those citing the cost of living and housing, 29 percent citing public safety and crime, 12 percent citing homelessness, and 9 percent citing the city’s politics as the reason for their leaving.

Img427 positive

Swirling through all these is a growing unease around what “home” means – how secure it is, whether it is increasingly only available to the most privileged. Researchers say that the rise in people who are unhoused in Seattle is a unique problem, and it boils down to one thing: unaffordable housing. According to the Washington Office of Financial Management, median home costs more than doubled in the last decade, from $223,900 in 2011 to $560,400 in 2021. This kind of leap breaks the bank for all but the most socially supported low- and middle-income earners. Add heavy zoning regulations and the immovable borders of mountains and the ocean, and imagination for how to build additional housing is flattened into turf for political warfare.

“Housing in King’s County is like musical chairs,” says Greg Colburn, an assistant professor of real estate at the University of Washington. “Imagine ten friends in a circle with ten chairs, and they all stand up. A leader starts playing music, they all walk around in a circle, the leader takes one chair out. In this case, Mike has an ankle injury, and is on crutches. Given his impairment, he is unable to move quickly. If we asked Mike why he lost the game he’d say, well, I had a bad ankle. But if we take a step back, it was the fact that we didn’t have enough chairs. It’s an analogy for what’s going on in Seattle right now.”

Colburn wants to dispel the theories that Seattle is especially afflicted because of its progressive policies or temperate weather, both of which, in critics’ minds, suggest a problem of attraction: homeless people are moving to Seattle from experiences of homelessness elsewhere. Colburn says there’s just no correlation in the data to support these hypotheses. “Each story of homelessness is unique, tragic, and different factors come together and interact to produce an outcome,” he says. “The research is very clear that individual factors like poverty, that drug use or addiction, mental illness increase the risk of homelessness.” But these factors are not the root causes of homelessness in King County. Returning to the game of musical chairs, Colburn completes the analogy: “Ankle injuries – the stand-in for vulnerabilities [like poverty, addiction, mental illness) - don’t cause homelessness. But they do identify the people who are most likely to experience homelessness in a constrained housing market like Seattle.”

So the million-dollar question becomes, how to inject some new affordable housing into the market? If Seattle needs to add at least 112,000 new units by 2044 to meet present and future needs, where can one create space – both spatially and legally – to begin providing more of a community-based solution?

The BLOCK Project is charting an answer.

Img416 positive
Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

A Big Idea in a Tiny House

The origins of The BLOCK Project began in relationship. Father-daughter pair Rex Hohlbein and Jennifer H. LaFreniere were both architects and, over weekly coffee on Friday mornings, were puzzling over whether it’d be possible to address homelessness while also fighting climate change. Rex had already started an organization called Facing Homelessness in an effort to humanize the growing numbers of unhoused, and by 2013, had quit his architecture practice to focus on its burgeoning services. Alongside providing food and clothing and creating opportunities for the housed and unhoused to get together, Facing Homelessness began to learn that if you want to soften the crisis of solidarity, you need to reframe the scope of the problem.

“Rex started to realize that you just needed to encourage people to be themselves and use what’s already in their wheelhouse,” says Bernard Troyer, BLOCK Project Director. Yes, the homelessness crisis is vast and overwhelming in aggregate. But it is only as paralyzed as one’s conscience and capacity to step into it. “Use what you know as a way to connect to people living outside.” Rex and Jennifer, evangelizing this message to the growing army of Facing Homelessness volunteers, turned this lens on themselves and had a revelation. “Our passion is architecture; could we put tiny homes in people’s backyards?” They began sketching out napkin designs for houses that would be energy-efficient, elegant, and small enough to fit in a Seattle backyard. By July 2017, they had broken ground on the first BLOCK home.

(left) Justin Polley, Volunteer and Partner Electrician

(right) Jacqui Aiello, Volunteer and Partner AIA Coalition on Homelessness

Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

Img408 positive
Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

15 of these have since been built for 20 formerly unhoused people and they are working on a 16th. Each one costs $75,000 to build and needs to pass all the standard building codes. Though most volunteers aren't tradespersons, many skilled laborers like carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and others volunteer their time while firms make in-kind contributions of labor; the $75,000 covers all labor, materials, permits, and utility connections. They are single-occupancy, made of wood cut from juniper trees, and face south to harness the sun’s warmth and light.

“There is no cutting corners in these homes,” says Justin Polley, a BLOCK Project volunteer and partner electrician. “They are beautiful, just so well done. And I can tell as a tradesman, the products that they put in are way above and beyond standard residential spec. They are durable, and they are solid.”

It usually takes at least one year after the “yes” of a host to complete these tiny homes. In that time, an unhoused person is matched with a host on grounds of compatibility and disposition. Case managers refer qualified persons to The BLOCK Project staff, and then a process of match-making begins. There are three big requirements that residents must fulfill: They must be able to communicate their needs, they must be able to have conversations and stay in relationship with hosts, and they must be able to live alone comfortably, without the solitude causing too much stress, pain or external strain on their existing relationships.

Bernard "Berns" Troyer, BLOCK Project Director, installing a rain chain for the new home's water catchment system.

Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

“We accept residents who seem able to engage in what can sometimes feel like scary conversations,” says Phoebe Anderson-Kline, director of community programs. “Like boundary-setting, or practical, neighborly requests, like, ‘Are you okay turning your music down at 9 PM?’ or “Hey, you had a ton of people over last night. Next time, could you please give me a heads-up when that happens?”

There’s a residency agreement signed upfront. It highlights that the resident gets to be autonomous in his or her life decisions. It makes clear that there are no work requirements. “We really want to send the message up front that we want our residents to continue working towards their personal goals as established with their case manager,” says Phoebe.

“We see a lot of people focus on their mental health, on substance use, on resting and sleeping because for the first time, they’re able to lock the door behind them and pull the shades and not have to worry about their stuff being stolen. This space is a way of giving them time, so they can gradually get to a place of quiet and inner healing such that they can consider – do I want to go back to school, go to job training, reunify with my family, get back in touch with my kids, etc.?” It’s a patient space, a space that is covered with a roof and a promise.

“The beauty and elegance of these homes communicates a level of respect and commitment to the resident that you’d be hard-pressed to find many places,” says Justin Polley. “The quality inspires me to serve,” to do all things with a commitment to seeing a new day.

Shelters for Trauma, Containers for Transition

This is Alexiel Quinn, a transgender woman who has lived in a BLOCK home for just over two years. Homelessness was never the plan. But growing up in poverty, amid weak family ties and bouts with the Department of Corrections, Alexiel faced a maze of socioeconomic barriers rather than a map of the possible. Marrying young, the relationship soon hit the rocks, and Alexeil, upon divorcing, began to feel at odds with their male body. They began drinking heavily, and swirled around Indianapolis, no real safety net or family willing to take them in.

A friend named Brian managed to get Alexiel sober, and suggested the two of them try moving to Seattle, where the politics were more progressive and the money – at least by Fortune 100 headquarters – looked plentiful. They crossed the country in search of a job and social acceptance, but quickly burned through what savings they had. Rental costs were skyrocketing; they could only afford AirBnBs for a few weeks before they were shown the door.

Img397 positive 2

Alexiel Quinn is one of 20 formerly homeless folks who now live in a BLOCK house, a tiny home build in the backyard of an existing home.

Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

“It was really intense for both of us,” Alexiel says, recalling the rawness of those first days outside on Seattle’s streets, “especially both being LGBT.” They experienced physical violence and abuse. They were constantly worried about safety. What support communities seemed on offer seemed ominous; all Alexiel knew was judgment and rejection.

Eventually, Alexiel got hold of a therapist, who told them about The BLOCK Project. The option seemed almost too good to be true: a self-contained, single-occupancy house in a middle-class backyard? With privacy and no limit on years? “I consider myself to be a socialist, and that’s exactly what this sounded like,” Alexiel laughs. “It blew my mind that something like this existed, especially being from Indiana, where the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality is bedrock.”

Img394 positive 2

Backyard of BLOCK Home 011 Hosts and their dog.

Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

Living under a clean roof in the privacy of a backyard, with a garden, a dog, and a lovely tree for shade, one gets the sense this has been an oasis of reflection for Alexiel, an invitation to recovered ownership and creativity, a place to believe again that hopes and plans needn’t be pointless. “But I still deal with anxiety,” Alexiel admits. “How long am I going to have this housing? When am I going to be told I have to get out and find something on my own?” Naivete was forced out long ago. Survival skills honed in a life of near-constant transition and contingency are skittish around promises of permanence. “This whole program is based off of donations,” says Alexiel. “it can be concerning, especially in today’s political climate. The BLOCK Project tells me no matter how many times I need to hear it, that there’s not going to be some sudden closure of the program. Angie and Phoebe tell me they’ll be the last ones if the lights get turned off to help us find housing. And I honestly believe them. But there’s also the part of me that’s like, well, it can only go so far.”

The prospect of a home can be frightening for those who've been homeless for years. “I think that’s probably the hardest aspect going through all this: trying to reintegrate into society, trying to rebuild my capacity to trust,” Alexiel says. This BLOCK home, this peaceful backyard, they’re gifts. But they’re also shockingly quiet – opening a space for old demons to re-awaken, for past rejections and lost relationships to condemn and grieve the spirit. The transition from being in survival mode to becoming an agent of one’s own life is not linear.

“If you're having to exist in this survival state for a really long time,” says Phoebe, “and you are existing through trauma, then all of a sudden you get to a place where you can actually lock the door behind you and the space is yours and you have that time to just pause…it's only natural that a lot of stuff can come up. And it's not uncommon for people to need a lot of support during those first several months.”

Img357 positive

Backyard setting of the newest BLOCK home.

Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

And support Alexiel has received. “Everyone was really welcoming at The BLOCK Project,” they say. “They didn’t make me feel judged about anything. And as long as I’ve worked with them, that’s been really consistent, even when they add new team members.” Alongside this observable transmission of culture, Alexiel credits The Block Project for understanding the psychology of trauma, the long game of it, and for being an organization eager to listen and learn. “They really try,” Alexiel says. “I think The Block Project staff and volunteers truly realize how traumatized the majority of people in this program are.”

Still, for all the community that The BLOCK Project has woven for its hosts and volunteers, that’s not necessarily what a resident is looking for. “I just have really needed space,” Alexiel says. Opportunities to take advantage of the services offered by Facing Homelessness – food and clothing drives, chances to break bread with other residents and hosts – have been overwhelming, and the relationship with Alexiel’s hosts? “They’ve been really welcoming. They’ve tried to invite me to dinner, cookouts, that sort of thing, but I wasn’t really up for socializing.” Alexiel just feels too stripped and raw inside.

“I actually loved to go out before all of this happened. I was really social. I loved being around friends and people. I hated being at home. After all this, I became quite the opposite, almost agoraphobic. If I had friends to invite over, I probably would. But I find it really hard to associate with people who haven’t been through their own sort of trauma now.”

The BLOCK Project has learned this is normal. “Folks who have experienced homelessness need time to slow down,” says Phoebe. “So many of our residents have been going from insecure housing to a shelter to the street to couch surfing with a friend. There's just this nonstop turmoil, often amplified by experiences of trauma coming from their childhood, from relationships, from family relationships breaking down over time. Coming into a BLOCK home, they’re able to take a breath and recover and then focus on what they need to do to figure out what their next steps are, what their version of stability could be.”

Many BLOCK homes have shared outdoor spaces.

Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

This space has been a game-changer for Alexiel. When asked for words to describe the last two years of living here, their face relaxes: “Safety.” “Relief.” “Security.”

“That’s the most important part of this whole thing,” Alexiel says, “just knowing that you have somewhere safe to come back to and sleep.” It’s magnified in the context of her gender transition, which has taken place under cover of this tiny home. “Giving up a lot of the male privilege I used to have, and also being formerly homeless, I just have a general distrust of people now, especially watching American political headwinds, especially being transgender. I just don’t go out as much as I used to. Going out for someone who looks like me can be overwhelming, so just being able to come home and decompress … that’s the most helpful part.”

Asked what are the most damaging misconceptions of those experiencing homelessness, Alexiel says, “People think that this is a choice, that we don’t want to have a job or not want to work for things. They assume I’m an addict, and they also assume that all addicts are bad people or have done bad things.”

Seattle, for all its progressive credentials, seems hypocritical. “Seattle has become a city of despair,” Alexiel laments. “Either you can afford living here or you can’t. There’s not really a way to do it in between. And while the city’s known for being liberal, you don’t see a lot of diversity. I feel like many people look at me – a trans, formerly homeless person – like I’m subhuman. I walk my dog every day and I occasionally get looks. On Nextdoor, the local Facebook gone wrong, I wasn’t seeing anything directly about me or name, but I was seeing a lot of people bitching about people getting access to free housing. It’s not something that’s a popular concept.”

Img398 positive 2
Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

Alexiel wants more people to be aware that homelessness is more often entangled with repeated experiences of trauma – and a lack of space and time for healing – than anything more pragmatic. “Most of us are just trying to deal with tough things that have happened in our lives, and we don’t have access to the things we really need, like therapists or adequate mental health care.”

Still, the privacy, safety, and unconditional commitment from The BLOCK Project have been everything. “I’ve learned that my priorities are completely different. That a simple home is better than a crowded home. That I am totally fine being alone. I am comfortable in the fact of just having time alone. To be able to really think about the things I’ve been through and to try to grow from that. I used to spend my whole life obsessing over trying to be perfect and trying to, if you’re good enough then you’ll be accepted. And none of that worked out. I was low income to being with … I started wearing makeup when I was 13 to cover a black eye. So I had to shoplift, got on probation. It snowballed unlike anything. So I had all these little aspects of myself …but never really got a chance to explore any of them because my life was always in crisis. Gotten back into art. I hope to make an online graphic novel. I went to school in psychology for a little bit in computer science, I hope to stabilize sufficiently to be able to apply that in a job.”

Alexiel is trying now to get a German passport, hoping to travel and explore the world. 36 years old right now, Alexiel turned to me and our film crew as we were leaving, “Honestly, if I weren’t here, I’d like to be doing what y’all are doing. Some form of social activism. It’s important.”

Calling All Shepherds

Behind every completed BLOCK house is a constellation of the converted. Electricians, plumbers, carpenters, zoning regulators, hosts, companions, neighbors, case managers, architecture firms, affordable housing lobbyists, gardeners, painters. All have a hand in making the BLOCK house happen, and all wind up walking away moved by this step into more authentic neighboring.

“Initially the thing that got me was the idea that these BLOCK homes would be net zero energy and net zero water,” says Jacqui Aiello, a BLOCK Project volunteer. “They were completely sufficient within their own building. But then, when I started learning more about the project, I thought, wow, this is actually a really beautiful idea: that people can essentially donate some of their land, put a house on it, and have a neighbor in their backyard.”

Img434 positive

The front porch and entrance of the newest BLOCK project home.

Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

In a crisis where the public mood has deteriorated from overwhelm into numbness, those who’ve come into contact with The BLOCK Project feel they’ve gotten their agency back.

“I finally have something concrete to talk about,” says Caroline Sayre, a companion to one of the BLOCK Project residents. “All around me I just see a lot of people shouting into the wind. But now I get to make a contribution to the problem, and I can see the visual results in those who live there, in the buildings themselves.”

Empathy needs a bounded track in which to metabolize into meaningful connection and shared purpose. “I think by connecting with The BLOCK Project,” says Phoebe, “hosts feel a sense of, ‘oh, I am able to take a step forward and I can share my land. I'm getting involved in the solution.’ And it’s enriching their lives: They're having a new neighbor on the property, they're getting to meet a ton of new people, and they're also learning about ways that they can stay engaged and advocate for constructive policies.”

There is a structure for community at almost every level. Volunteers are valued as key to The BLOCK Project’s lifeblood, something that is communicated in both words and structure. “I just love the collaborative nature of the work,” says Justin, the electrician. “We tradespeople can be kind of difficult; we don’t have terribly good communication skills. It’s been a real pleasure to work with an organization that is so good at structuring collaboration between craftspeople. The BLOCK Project has a real genius for teamwork.” For tradespeople more accustomed to transactional contracts, the opportunity to put their expertise in service of a healthier commons is life-renewing. As they bestow dignity on those publicly stripped of it, some old memory of vocational dignity reverberates back.

(left) Phoebe Anderson-Kline, BLOCK Community Programs Manager, Facing Homelessness

(right) Bernard Troyer, BLOCK Project Director, Facing Homelessness

Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

But the most striking thing is how normal all those who volunteer conceive of what they’re doing. Each one of their reflections mentions “mutuality.” Odes to heroism are rejected out of hand.

“I see none of this as a gesture on my part,” says Caroline. “It's side by side with people who don't know each other very well, becoming friends.”

“I love that I have a very unique relationships with each individual person,” says Angie Jacobs, the BLOCK resident programs manager. “First and foremost it's just a relationship; it has to feel very mutual.”

There’s no virtue signaling, no signs saying “Here is a BLOCK Home.” “These homes are subtle,” says Jacqui. “They fade into the background.” Instead of screaming values, hosts are sensitive to communicating safety to particular people in particular roles. One home simply had a quiet stone in a basket by the door where packages get dropped off: “Black Lives Matter.”

Nowhere is this common sense character more true than with the hosts. “Care for your fellow man, the golden rule,” says JD Level, who, with his wife Anne, are preparing to welcome a resident for the first time this fall. “There’s nothing rocket science about this.” He and Anne both are bewildered by those who think they’re doing something extraordinary. “What has happened to us as a country that basic neighboring has become so precious?”

Img353 positive

Wife and husband hosts, Anne and JD Level, sitting in a bench swing around the fire pit they'll share with their future BLOCK neighbor.

Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

Greg and Louise Wong were party central on their block. Their backyard saw a steady stream of kids, costumes, barbecuing, and no shortage of passed plates. Louise had grown up in a big Midwestern family, where, even without a lot of material possessions, she absorbed the capacity to share as a basic building block of meaningful community. When, in her own marriage, a fence was installed between their house and the neighbors’, she and Greg made sure the fence would be low enough so people could walk by and say hello.

For Louise, though, when she learned about the BLOCK Project and began seriously considering its invitation, the thought of covering over so many sweet memories in their backyard initially gave her pause. “Giving is easy when it’s your time or your money,” she says. “But when you give you something that has memories attached and carries sentimental value, a space that we had used in a very particular way, it’s hard.” Their backyard had been the place of joy and laughter for many years: Would building a tiny house there and welcoming a stranger erase all that?

“The question for us became, how do we give all this up but somehow still maintain the spirit of welcome and conviviality?”

They said yes to the challenge, and have had Heather living in their backyard now for almost two years. Louise marvels at the perennial triumph of love over fear.

“The experience reminds me now of when we had kids. When you have one kid, you're like, ‘oh my, I love this kid so much. There's no way I could love anybody else this much.’ And then you learn you’re going to have another baby, and you think, ‘oh my God, I don't have any more love.’ But love always grows.”

"As they bestow dignity on those publicly stripped of it, some old memory of vocational dignity reverberates back."

Pam Orbach, the newest BLOCK Project host, agrees. “There’s such a scarcity mindset in America,” she says. “People don’t know what they’re missing by being afraid.” Born and raised in South Africa during the apartheid has given Pam a real sensitivity to selfish living, to power, and to anything smacking of control. When The BLOCK Project originally wanted to treat the prospect of a new tiny home as an awareness-raising, consensus-building activity on the block being considered, Pam spoke up: “That’s straight-up colonial,” she told Bernard and his colleagues. “We are talking about a group of middle-class people discussing the plight of a vulnerable person from a distance. I won’t participate in that.” The BLOCK Project listened and quieted that strategy, but Pam has still been shocked by some of the comments she’s received from her neighbors.

“I've gotten people who've said about Emma, ‘what if she does drugs?’ Or ‘what if you get involved in something dangerous?’” Pam shakes her head. “We have more than about 12,000 people who are homeless in Seattle. My hope is that seeing this space in my backyard will give others a space to question the way they're thinking when they meet somebody who is homeless on the street.”

Louise and Greg, whose neighbors at least voiced more enthusiasm, reflect on some of the hypocrisies. “You know, it's funny,” says Greg. “I think that socially and politically, everybody's mindset here is, yes, this is a good thing, we want this. But then when it comes to, “Oh, like next to us? We're gonna have the context of homelessness right here? What does that mean?”

Louise recalls a conversation she and Greg had with a couple on their block who had young children. “When this couple found out what we were doing, they said, “yeah, that’s really cool. You know we support that. But we have to admit we have a hesitation. Who will this person be?”

Img406 positive

A rack of clothes stored in Facing Homelessness' headquarters—available to neighbors for free through their Window of Kindness program.

Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

This is, to so many hosts, the beauty of The BLOCK Project’s work. “We reassure them that there’s a screening process, that they only accept people who demonstrate their readiness for permanent housing. They work with hands-on caseworkers. It’s never just a random person.” Nervous neighbors typically calm down upon hearing about the levels of support. “And now this home in our backyard is just part of the community, part of the neighborhood. It’s very natural.”

“I'd say to anyone who’s considering it, they should just do it,” says Greg. Louise nods her ascent. “Refuge your refuge, right?”

Housing May Not Scale, But Narrative Change Can

For all the passion that hosts, staff, volunteers and residents like Alexiel express about the ways in which, thus far, The BLOCK Project is enriching dozens if not hundreds of lives for the better, they also agree that at the current rate, The BLOCK Project is not a viable solution to the material problem of housing. It’s just not proven fast enough thus far, and it’s too expensive.

“When the BLOCK Project got started,” says Bernard, “we said we’d build 500 homes by 2022, and it generated a ton of excitement. But then a year went by, and we had only one done.” It’s been so much more relational and time-intensive than originally conceived on paper; he’s come to appreciate how long it takes to build trusting partnerships with the firms involved in construction, architecture, and engineering. And then there’s fundraising on the backs of a tiny staff. Fundraising on the backs of a tiny staff in a pandemic.

“We endured a lot of transition over Covid – staff transition and otherwise. There’s a major burnout problem afflicting the social sector these days. Status quo for social workers in our city is this: You get a master's degree and go into debt and then you get paid $60,000 a year in a city that charges rent at minimum $2,500 a month and your caseload is 40 to 100 clients.” He sweats a bit here, and then says with conviction: “But a hundred social workers can’t replace the stability of one home that’s right for one person.”

It's the age-old question: depth or breadth? The BLOCK Project is a high-touch, person-by-person, no-shortcut kind of intervention. It’s chosen to address homelessness by way of community-weaving and character formation, less the Amazon playbook of scale. But Bernard Troyer, while chastened by how hard these early years have been, believes there may be a purpose to the scrappy way in which they’ve begun.

Img392 positive 2

Pam Orbach, BLOCK Home 014 Host.

Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

“The ideal ratio is one employee per 10 homes. If we had grown too quickly, we’d had flooded ourselves. But I think now we can work confidently knowing how things work. We’ve invested in staff with a background in trauma-informed care, nonviolent communication, harm reduction. We’re trying to hone the fundamental human-centered wisdom that will, in the long run, make us more sustainable. We are seeking to save real lives. We have to deal in real life.”

Someone like Louise Wong isn’t convinced The BLOCK Project needs to feel self-conscious. “It's tempting to ask, why don't we have more than 16 homes?” she says. “But my advice to The BLOCK Project is, look at the visible data that’s not so measurable. Can you measure the joy of someone coming out of years of insecurity and trauma now able to walk into their own home every day? In safety and privacy? Can you measure the joy of watching fear in one’s neighbors melting away?”

What The BLOCK Project may actually need to advertise is its role in catalyzing a different kind of moral ecosystem in King County. With a concrete idea and the competence to coordinate the human traffic, they’ve attracted a diverse cross-section of Seattle’s residents to come together and harness their particular gifts in solving a shared problem. The staff, hosts and variety of volunteers sound like they were raised in the same tribe – such is the baseline level of civic engagement for each of them, the commitment to being a good neighbor. They likely would not have met one another at a political rally or church, but somehow, in their attraction to The BLOCK Project’s simple if countercultural idea, have found in their “yes” the makings of an army of community shepherds that speak in a similar vocabulary and behave with notable normalcy.

Img356 positive

The view from BLOCK home 015's porch, with the host's home in the distance.

Obiekwe "Obi" Okolo

And normalcy may be the key to it all. What The BLOCK Project is really doing is saying, “Hey, compassion-fatigued Seattle residents! The water is warm. You may have seen the needles and the distressed and the shabby and the unclothed, and you may have been afraid. But these are human beings. They need shelter and friendship. Come and neighbor one. And be neighbored in turn.” They’re making the radical normal, the countercultural cultural.

“The BLOCK Project is unique,” Jacqui says. “I don’t think it should be.”

Get Involved

Support The BLOCK Project


Editor's Note

Readers, this is our 100th digital story and moment for celebration! The rain has descended upon Washington, DC and I am once again thankful to have a home to protect my family and me from the elements. Despite its everpresence, I often consider the value of shelter to provide physical and emotional security.

The BLOCK Project tethers its unique homes to a necessary community which moves far beyond the basic shelter that cities may be able to provide. It's a model for the holistic approach to solving problems of human dignity and conflict. We have celebrated nearly 100 such organizations in the past decade and the BLOCK Project is emblematic of the thoughtful, communal approach to love and compassion.

Thank you to Anne for the monumental task of drafting this story. Thank you to Obi for always delivering stunning hand-developed photography. A huge thank you to Alexiel for sharing their story with us as well as the entire Facing Homelessness and BLOCK Project community of volunteers and staff.

Bittersweet Team2022 354 Crop

Robert Winship


Other Stories

View All Stories