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Bill Block '71 Wins 2009 Blaisdell Distinguished Alumni Award

Bill Block '71, inaugural recipient of Pomona College's Blaisdell Distinguished Alumni Award

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 organizations like the Seattle Housing Authority, AIDS Housing of Washington, and the Downtown Emergency Services Center. 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 their professions of community service.

“The Blaisdell Award is a fantastic addition to our repertoire of alumni awards,” says Alumni Association President Tom Minar ‘85. “This honors the best that Pomona's can do for our society--the contributions that we make to the world and the particular contributions of one alum, living up to the vision of James A. Blaisdell and the vision we have as we leave the gates of the College: ‘They only are loyal to the college who departing bear their added riches in trust for mankind.’”

For Block, social justice is in his genes. His father was an attorney who also did pro bono work. He grew up surrounded by poverty, instilling him with the desire to do something about it. “Housing has always been an interest and, in some ways, a passion of mine,” says Block. “I grew up on the south side of Chicago and, although my neighborhood was economically stable, on the three sides that weren’t water there were extremely poor neighborhoods and some of the most notorious housing projects in the country. And so 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 idea for the Committee and Plan originated in 2000 when the head of Seattle’s St. Mark’s Cathedral convened a group of local governments, nonprofits, business community representatives, and faith organizations to create a 10-year plan to end homelessness. The Plan, which actually started in 2005 and 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 support for a very long time.

In the program’s first four years, 3,300 units have been built or are in the pipeline. By comparison, Portland, Oregon, 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. So it’s mixed—other people are really impressed, but every time I have to report on our plan, it’s not going as fast as we wanted.”

While funding for the program, which as been provided by King County, Seattle, United Way of King County and various local private and nonprofit organizations, has been steady, the bigger economic picture is leading to more people on the streets. “What’s happening is the state and county, because of their funding crises, are cutting back on the social safety nets that keep people out of homelessness,” says Block.” I think what you’re likely to see is a wave of people who used to be just hanging by their fingertips who are now slipping into homelessness.”

Block says that after the 10 years are up in 2015, he doesn’t imagine he’ll go back to a life of law, but instead continue with full-time social justice work, whether it’s continuing to eradicate homelessness or another issue. Two of his sons have also followed in his footsteps with community service and environmental work. “There’s a certain flavor of social justice in the family.”