How Seattle Addressed Homelessness in an Earlier Era

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Yesler, looking east from the Smith Tower (1940s) Engineering Department Photographic Negatives (Record Series 2613-07), Seattle Municipal Archives.

We can learn from Seattle’s early and imaginative efforts to deal with the homeless. A good place to start is with the inspiring example of Jesse Epstein. 

Epstein’s own immigrant background likely contributed to a deep concern for stateless, wandering individuals.  Born in Russia and raised in Great Falls, Montana, Epstein won a scholarship to the University of Washington. With his law degree in hand he drafted bills for the Washington state Legislature to establish public-housing facilities.  

The Second World War brought many migrants to the Pacific Northwest, including large numbers of African Americans and Asians working at Boeing, the shipyards, fishing, and timber.  Those desperate newcomers needed shelter.

In the 1940s, after Epstein wrote the original Seattle ordinance to set up a housing authority, the City Council asked him to chair and serve as Executive Director of the authority’s Board of Commissioners. Roger Sale, in his book, Seattle Past to Present (just reissued), observed that Epstein “had what was in those days a great deal of money to spend, which of course gave him entrée to all the people he wanted to see, but the reception he got was mixed: people were mostly curious, some friendly, some hostile.  The whole idea of slum clearance and federal housing was not only new but likely to rub Seattle people the wrong way.”  Nevertheless, without missing a beat, Epstein plunged into what would become a model project for the nation: Yesler Terrace.  

Sale continues, “Epstein had to go out, over and over again, and sell his project to businesses and civic groups.  Small in stature, mild in manner, soft in speech, quietly and even confidently assured in purpose, Epstein presented himself as he saw himself, as a bureaucrat more than a revolutionary.”

Built with federal funds and designed by eminent local architects (J. Lister Holmes was chief architect), the Yesler development was, as Epstein insisted – to everyone’s surprise – racially integrated.  Tenants moved into comfortable central city apartments with grand views of shimmering Elliott Bay and the snowy Olympic Mountains. 

Soon  Epstein was asked to supervise the erection of other housing projects: Rainier Vista on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way; Holly Park at the south end of Beacon Hill; Highpoint in West Seattle; and Sand Point on Lake Washington.

Jesse Epstein embarked on a second career in the 1950s when he discovered the Mountaineers and became a trustee and then president of that durable organization.  Another Epstein lasting contribution was the establishment of a Mountaineer Literary Fund resulting in the production and sale of reading material about his adopted Pacific Northwest.

The Mountaineers and its library are thriving; Yesler Terrace is presently undergoing a complete renovation. Homelessness, of course, did not go away, but Jesse Epstein’s monuments remind us that problems can sometimes be solved through the experience and dedication of a single individual with a strong vision.

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Junius Rochester, whose family has shaped the city for many generations, is an award-winning Northwest historian and author of numerous books about Seattle and other places.

7 COMMENTS

  1. As a kid who walked through Yesler Terrace to get to school, i can attest to Epstein’s accomplishment. Unfortunately today there is no such thing in Seattle as a slum that can be cleared and reused. To infer that the migrants of the ’40’s that came here for the work are in anyway related to the groups that set up camp on our streets, is just not comparable.
    If not mistaken, Yesler Terrace’s rebuild left about 1/3 of the semi-low income housing and the rest went to other business interests.

    • Agreed on your last point. The fact is, Seattle (et. al.) doesn’t have a ‘homeless’ problem. It has an addiction and mental health problem that causes homelessness.

      • I could not agree more. It’s not that the city doesn’t try to clear out the endless trash, tents, gang-tagging, shopping carts, etc., that the “homeless” leave behind at places like the I-5 Mercer on ramp. Literally, within days, back it all comes.

  2. I’m not really familiar with Yesler Terrace, but if the housing at Sand Point referenced here is the former Navy barracks, they are beautiful, made of brick, have gardens, and they are again being used for low-income housing.

  3. Public housing, which got a bad reputation for the ugly architecture and for breeding crime, once was done sensitively (with gardens, modest heights), most notably at Yesler Terrace. Maybe it’s time to bring it back, lessons learned? The new style of public housing mixes incomes and races, as will happen at the renovated Yesler Terrace.

  4. YES !! Yesler Terrace worked…Most of my classmates at Cathedral lived there. Everybody was below low income ; a great neighborhood not a social experiment.

  5. I-5 dramatically reduced Yesler Terrace’s size and topography, so what was replaced by today’s redevelopment is not what was in Epstein’s day. To better understand the impact of this project, it is worthwhile to read Roger Sale’s fine account of Seattle’s remarkable public housing innovation, so unlike what happened in Portland and elsewhere in America at that time. Well-designed simple homes for the working poor replaced a true slum with trashed vacant lots, dilapidated housing without indoor plumbing, and where, as Sale reminds us, the chief business activity was prostitution. Another Yesler Terrace plus, besides gardens and room to park cars by the homes, was a mid-20th Century “settlement house” and recreation facilities. It should be remembered that shortly after Yesler Terrace opened to residents, Seattle’s largest non-white population, those of Japanese descent (who lived a few blocks downhill and were hardly affluent), had been shipped off to “internment” camps, and those among Seattle’s tiny and wary Black population who applied to live there asked to have their own segregated section – which they got.

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