In early December, Humberto Alvarez – Solid Ground’s Housing Planning, Development & Operations Director – moved on from Solid Ground after 33 years of working to address homelessness in Seattle King County. We sat down virtually with Humberto to reflect on his time at Fremont Public Association (FPA)/Solid Ground and as a community leader. Here is a transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity and length.
Q: How did you first get involved in homelessness?
I think it came from social justice emphasis at church – volunteering in migrant kitchens, soup kitchens, peace marches. When I moved to Seattle to go the University of Washington, I worked at Children’s Hospital. I lived on Fremont Avenue, and FPA was just down the street. (Note: Solid Ground was known as Fremont Public Association, or FPA, from our founding in 1974 until 2006.)
The only thing I really knew about the FPA was the Fremont Fair at that time. I saw a job posting for the Family Shelter program. It was the last day to apply. I threw something together, got it in the mail, got an interview, and got hired. What was a revelation is that the people I worked with in the emergency room at Children’s, they were the same populations. A lot of low-income homeless people use the emergency room as their primary doctor.
The Housing Department at that time  was Broadview, Family Shelter, and Housing Counseling. At its peak, we had 17 programs, all within Housing. Equally important to what we were doing was that Frank Chopp (then Executive Director) was always incredibly encouraging, telling us to “get out in the community, get out in the community.” So I became involved with SKCCH (Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness), and over the next few years, I served two terms as co-chair.
At that time, SKCCH allocated close to a couple million dollars a year for state and federal funding. SKCCH allocated all of the ESAP (Emergency Shelter Assistance Program) and later the EHAP (Emergency Housing Assistance Program) and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funds.
The Coalition’s Funding Resources committee, which I was a part of as well, played quite a large role in making sure we had developed the right mechanisms to ensure the allocations were correct. There was close collaboration among agencies, and it was more about equity than any one agency or group.
Q: What kept you at Solid Ground all these years?
Solid Ground has always been an innovator. We had a very good continuum of services starting with short-term emergency shelter at Broadview – and at that time, transitional was the longest term we had until we added Sand Point Housing.
Frank and then Resource Development (RD) Director Paul Haas were probably the biggest motivators. Paul was always very supportive; if you had an idea, he would find something that might work to fund it. He and I worked on the development of what is now JourneyHome and the King County Housing Stability Project.
But it’s been frustrating having been in this work so long, yet the problem seems worse – loss of thousands of units of affordable housing, lack of resources for mainstream systems. In many cases, the issues a household is dealing with are much more than a roof over their head, and staff is expected to help with whatever the issue is.
Q: In addition to SKCCH, you were a part of the Committee to End Homelessness that launched King County’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. What other community roles have you played?
Before the 10-Year plan, Paul Lambros (CEO of Plymouth Housing), Janna Wilson with the Health Department, and myself were co-chairs of the Homeless Advisory Group (HAG). The HAG was kind of a precursor to the 10-Year Plan. It was advising United Way, the City of Seattle, and King County.
Before that, I remember working with Martha Dilts, Executive Director of SEHS (Seattle Emergency Housing Services), on the Partnership to End Homelessness. There have been a lot of different initiatives that quite honestly gathered dust. Then 10-year plans started becoming popular on the east coast, and ours started here (and was rolled out in spring, 2005).
Initially, I think there was a lot of good progress made; we spent a lot time on funding allocations, braiding funds. Executive Director Bill Block was politically savvy and kept us focused on the number of units created, not as much services that might be needed. There was a real deemphasis on shelter, and in recent years it has kind of gone back to creating basic shelter and outreach. Like One Table that came after that, there was a lot of hope that this would address the problem.
Although you can never say we have too much housing, the focus of the Committee to End Homelessness at the beginning was the creation of units. I’m trying to remember whether we paid as much attention to the supports that would be needed.
Q: Why did the 10-Year Plan not make more progress?
Between us, it wasn’t taken seriously. I think that there was always a distrust from providers. I don’t think the money was there. You can have a plan, but if you don’t have the budget to accomplish it…
Q: What should we be doing to address homelessness in our region that we are not doing?
For many years now, homeless services have taken on everything someone comes to them with, whether it is mental illness, different types of addictions, employment, abuse – and we can’t deal or necessarily have the level of expertise to effectively work with all of that. So we definitely need a lot more funding to help – but in my opinion, also look at how funds are being spent.
Recent talk about defunding the police would redirect funds to the shortfalls in the system and actually strengthen ties between communities and law enforcement. When I began at FPA/Solid Ground, programs offered two-week lengths of stay at motels, a few bus tickets, and staff support to find a job or income and housing. That was workable 30 years ago, but in 2020 that same household needs several months of shelter and support services, and at the end of that time they may still not be able to find housing they can afford.
Q: For a long time FPA had a reputation as a north-end agency and a white agency. You are a person of color and have been a leader here for a long time. Can you reflect on your experience as a POC in the agency?
It is interesting, when we were operating Working Wheels (a program to get low-cost cars to people who needed them for work), the Program Manager said – and he was like in his 50s at that time – that he’d never been north of the Ship Canal until he came to work with us. I think that is very true that there is a divide between the Canal-South, which is much more diverse, and the Canal-North.
I was proud to say, “I work with Frank Chopp.” I think it was lot more about what you accomplished. We also have always had a very diverse team in Housing. So when I started here, most of our staff were people of color. Home Care, most of our staff were people of color. So I guess I always thought we were a diverse agency.
In my entire time, and I do not know if this is true for other people of color, you do an instant read when you walk into a room. If you don’t see someone that is remotely similar, it does not feel comfortable. I always used to remember in SKKCH meetings where you know everybody in this room is serving 70% people of color, but there are only three people of color here.
At Magnuson we have a very diverse staff and have really encouraged partners to do that as well, and they are becoming more diverse so that staff reflects people living in our community. But being part of MPAC (Magnuson Park Advisory Council) or being part of the owners’ group, that type of thing, I am the only person of color. I do think that has a huge impact in the decisions and priorities that group sets.
Cheryl Cobbs Murphy (former Executive Director) deserves a huge amount of credit for getting the agency involved with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond and the Undoing Institutional Racism (UIR) trainings. This was not something that was being funded, but Solid Ground felt it was important and a priority, and resources were found. That foundational work was key to the ARI (Anti-Racism Initiative) work of Solid Ground.
Q: Final thoughts?
I’ve had several opportunities throughout the years to work for the City, work for the Y, different agencies. And I work very closely with those agencies through coalition work and different committees. Solid Ground was home. You knew who you could count on. You knew that you had this freedom to innovate – to do new stuff. I think we were the envy of the provider community.
When you talk about the perception that folks thought we were taking resources, part of that is envy because we were so successful. And we were also very generous, making sure we reached out to the smaller agencies through fiscal work, that type of thing. We have an incredible staff. Over the years, the longevity, there is something about working for the agency that is really rewarding.
We can bitch about something every day, but there is something that is really rewarding here. I was honored to be part of the new CEO search, and the quality of talent of so many candidates wanting to work and lead Solid Ground was impressive. I believe there are some great years ahead for the work Solid Ground is doing.