With 171 years of lifetime experience between them, about 80 of them running hospitals and rocket systems, Ruth Benfield and John Pehrson have seen a thing or two.

Benfield was vice president of Seattle Children’s Hospital, overseeing the facility’s master development plan. Pehrson was the missile and spacecraft program manager at Boeing’s Kent Space Center.

So when the two retirees, now neighbors, brainstormed together about a homelessness relief project in their South Lake Union neighborhood, they thought to themselves: How impossible can this be?

“We’ve navigated a lot of bureaucracy these days,” says Pehrson, 95. “This system is something else.”

Their odyssey began more than a year ago, when some of the more than 400 residents of Seattle’s Mirabella Retreat Center suggested they all pool their resources to help deal with the homelessness crisis. from the city.

The ground they hit was unique, the opposite of “not in my backyard”. They told the city: If you set up a homeless shelter next to us, we’ll collect the money to help pay for it.

With the encouragement of several Seattle City Council members, they raised $143,000 from Mirabella residents in about four weeks, and another $100,000 was pledged by a South Lake Union developer. This was enough for about half the start-up costs of a temporary emergency site, a small 40-unit village, that was proposed about a block from the Mirabella on remnant City Light land that remained vacant. for years.

“We’re old and have a lot of free time, so we might cook meals for them, pack lunches, and do clothing drives,” Pehrson said. “It would be just down the block. So people here were very excited to finally be able to do something to help.

The rest of the money needed stayed there — in the form of $2 million in grants the state had already given Seattle, earmarked for “tiny houses and cottages.”

But maddeningly, it sat there, unspent, all of last year. It is the same money that is now the subject of dispute and intrigue, having been transferred by the city in January to a new regional agency for homelessness, where it was allocated to other projects of aid, only to be withdrawn by an edict from Rep. Frank Chopp. , D-Seattle.

It is unclear what will happen to these grants now, or when they can be spent. The city says it wants to move on and use the abandoned land near Mirabella for other City Light work. Thus, unless a new location is found, the $143,000 that these volunteers raised will be returned, donation by donation, to the residents of Mirabella.

All this in the midst of a declared homelessness emergency.

“Most of 2021 and now the first part of 2022 has been wasted,” Pehrson said. “I know what it’s like to have an emergency at work – we’d have a stand-up meeting about it every day. I mean everyone would be up. They don’t act like it’s a crisis.

Benfield, 76, said: “We could have already sheltered people all through last winter. We are not experts, so we only had two questions: “How can we do this?” How do we help? The city slowed its response until it all went nowhere.

The city says it did not award the grants last year because it was winding down its work on homelessness and handing it over to a new regional homelessness authority. Ironically, this group was created in part to take parochial politics out of the equation. He is now mired in even thicker politics with Seattle lawmaker Chopp.

As Scott Greenstone of the Seattle Times reported, Chopp handed over the $2 million in grants to the Low Income Housing Institute of Seattle — a nonprofit he co-founded — which runs the town’s small housing villages. city ​​and would also have managed the proposed one. near the Mirabella.

But the regional group, which is now in charge, clearly does not favor villages of small houses as a shelter strategy. They also said they hope to “diversify” by including other nonprofits.

The people of Mirabella are like a benevolent ladybug that flew through a spider’s web.

“I see people working really hard not to solve the problem,” Benfield says. “Government agencies, nonprofits, politicians are caught up in power struggles. We sat in meeting after meeting where they spent a lot of energy, but it was maneuvering. They lost sight of the goal.

This lens is supposed to help people get up and out of the streets. There are disagreements on how best to proceed, which hopefully will be resolved by this new regional group. But come on, we are more than six years in this emergency.

The city, regional group and nonprofits all say it’s a top priority to put a new shelter of some type in South Lake Union. However, for the moment, there is no planned. Despite this unprecedented volunteer push by residents of Mirabella.

Says Pehrson: “We decided to get an education and we got one.”

An honorary degree, in the Seattle process.