Pomona College Magazine
Volume 45, No. 3
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Pomona College Magazine is published three times a year by Pomona College
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Online Editor: Laura Tiffany

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Distinguished Alumnus / Bill Block ’71
Negotiator, Mediator and Cat Herder

Even while negotiating high-profile property deals for Amazon, Starbucks and Pike Place Market in Seattle, attorney Bill Block ’71 always had one foot in the social justice arena, serving on boards for such organizations as the Seattle Housing Authority and AIDS Housing of Washington. So it was of little surprise to his family and close friends when Block gave up his prominent legal career to head the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, an ambitious 10-year plan begun in 2005. Block is Pomona College’s inaugural Blaisdell Distinguished Alumni Award, which recognizes alumni for their high achievement in professions of community service.

For Block, social justice is in his genes. His father was an attorney who also did pro bono work. Block grew up on the south side of Chicago, and while his neighborhood was stable, extreme poverty and troubled public housing projects were nearby. “Housing has always been an interest and, in some ways, a passion of mine,” says Block. “It just always stuck with me as one of those basic human needs we weren’t doing a good job of facing.”

After receiving his history degree from Pomona and law degree from the University of Chicago, Block clerked for a few years for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and later made his name as a prominent real estate attorney in Seattle. It was his connections from his legal career and community service activity that made his Committee to End Homelessness position as “negotiator, mediator and cat herder” such an appropriate fit.

The Seattle plan for ending homelessness, which culminates in 2014, has the ambitious goal of preventing homelessness by getting institutions such as foster care, prisons and mental hospitals to stop releasing people into homelessness, and creating 9,500 units of long-term housing, with adjunct services to help people stabilize and improve their lives. The units won’t be transitory, but rather provide a home for people as long as they need it.

“It’s called ‘transition in place.’ You want to be able to say to a mom who’s had case management and job training and now has daycare, a job and an apartment, ‘OK, the services are pulling back, the rent subsidy is pulling back, but you don’t all of a sudden have to move to a different city, find a new daycare and a new job,’” says Block. Permanent housing is also essential for the severely disabled homeless, who may need long-term support.

In the program’s first four years, 3,300 units of the 9,500 planned have been built or are in the pipeline. By comparison, Portland, Ore., has a goal of 2,200 units, Denver’s 10-year plan calls for 4,000 units, and New York City’s calls for 10,000 units.

“We’re doing things that are national models. We get visitors every week from around the country,” says Block. “We’re not building units as fast as our goals, [but] we’re building them faster per capita than, I think, any other city.”

Block says that after the 10-year plan is complete, he doesn’t imagine he’ll go back to a life of law, but instead continue full-time with social justice work.
—Laura Tiffany

(A related story appeared in the Spring 2007 PCM at www.pomona.edu/Magazine/PCMsp07/FShomeless.shtml)

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