I have easily driven by The Aloha Inn on Highway 99 hundreds of times and never thought it was anything more than a cheap motel on a busy stretch of highway. Turns out it's so much more. The Aloha Inn is home to 66 formerly homeless people who run and manage the facility in exchange for room and board.
"The kitchen is run by a kitchen head who has a staff that they manage," says The Aloha Inn program manager Katie Baum. "The grounds are maintained by residents. The front desk and security, that's run by a resident. It's really a bare-bones staffing structure where staff is used to facilitate different leadership committees of residents."
Residents are welcome to stay for up to two years and must make 30% less than the average median income, which in King County 2013 is $18,200.
Sue has been a resident for six months and was recently hired on as a paid kitchen coordinator. She says she never ever thought she'd be homeless.
"It happened in one night, overnight. When my mother passed away, I was in a seniors-only place taking care of her. I'm not a senior. I had to go with a little dog and me the next day. It was over."
In a single day, Sue lost her mother, her home and the $400 she made every month caring for her mother, plus her mother's social security. She says without The Aloha Inn, she would have been sleeping in her car.
"It helped me feel stable enough where I could be presentable enough to go apply for jobs, to get the job that I got, to not struggle with all the food, the light bill. I may have been able to pay rent but I wouldn't have been able to cook because I couldn't afford the electric bill."
The Aloha Inn provides some medical, dental and vision care, three meals a day and help navigating various benefits, employment opportunities and connecting residents with mental health and addiction care. Although no one who abuses drugs or alcohol is welcome. That was a godsend to Rachel, who lost her home when the economy took a dive.
"I found that it was the only place where I could go and bring my dog and I didn't have to be a drug addict or an alcoholic," says Rachel. "I kept trying to get help and they said they were only able to help people with addictions. I don't have that."
Rachel has been at Aloha for the past seven months.
"What I really like is we have to save money here. We put so much in every month, it depends upon what your income is. I'm on ABD which is Aged, Blind and Disabled which is $197 a month. So I put $5 a week in rent and then $10 a week in savings."
Residents also regularly meet with a committee of their peers to make sure they're putting money into savings, going to AA meetings and generally staying on track.
"It's a help up, not a hand out," says Sue. "You're not just laying here. There's services and people that can help you better your life. It's not just a place to put a roof over your head. You're actually making progress. It's the progressive thing, I think is the best."
The Aloha Inn is run through Catholic Community Services of King County and mostly funded through federal, county and city levy money, and all of the food comes from donations. Katie says 75% of the people who live and work there move on to permanent housing. And Sue, who hopes to move back into her own place in six months, says she now looks at homeless people in a new light.
"It's kind of changed my perspective on life. I was kind of like, 'Get a job.' I helped people once in a while but I was more of a, 'Get a job! I'm working!' You know? So I see that things can happen to anybody in so many different situations and homelessness has changed."