Seattle First Presbyterian Pastor Heidi Husted Armstrong said the church’s basement had once been dark and dingy, but some fine renovation work now has it looking bright, open and inviting.

That’s what Compass Housing Alliance is hoping the first participants in a new 24/7 low-barrier homeless shelter will see when they enter the space on Friday.

The church started with eight congregation members in the early 1900s, and in the 1940s it peaked as the country’s largest church, Armstrong said, with 8,000 members.

“Today we are closer to the former number — way closer,” the pastor said.

The small congregation had been assessing its viability, Armstrong said, when she entered a conversation with Compass Housing members eight months ago.

“Within less than an hour — it was less than an hour — we were just like kids at Christmas, and just looking at each other and wondering, ‘Can something really happen here?’” she said.

Seattle First Presbyterian and Compass announced their partnership to create a low-barrier shelter with 100 beds in the church’s basement back in April.

Using a $1.3 million grant from the City of Seattle, Compass renovated the basement to serve as a low-barrier shelter, which will also provide mental health services and case management to clients as they seek permanent housing.

That included adding in showers and upgrading bathroom facilities, knocking out old rooms to open up space and installing a sprinkler system — the most expensive part of the project, Armstrong said.

The largest space, just beyond the intake area, will provide bunk beds for the men’s side of the shelter, with building columns naturally dividing up a cafeteria and common area. The women’s living space is on the opposite side of a wall, near a storage room. Both men and women’s shelter areas have bathroom and shower facilities.

There are 20 beds for women and 80 for men, said Compass executive director Janet Pope, adding, “we’ll be flexible on that based on space.”

While couples are allowed to use the shelter, she said the men and women do have to sleep separately.

Pope said much of the $1.3 million grant for the shelter went into capital improvements, but the full funding for next year can go directly to operations. That is expected to be around $1.3-$1.8 million.

“It was a rush to get it open,” Pope said, “because we wanted to have an impact this year.”

The first 50 beds will be provided to men who were receiving shelter services from Operation Nightwatch, which lost space it had been using in the Pearl S. Warren building to the city’s Navigation Center earlier this year. The first 10 guests will enter Compass at First Presbyterian on Friday, followed by 10 each following day. On Wednesday, the city’s navigation team will begin making referrals.

Compass emergency services manager Walter Washington said the shelter’s community room will be used as a training space for guests, who will learn life skills as they prepare to enter permanent housing.

“The case management is integral for this program,” he said.

Compass has a one-year lease to use the church, and could be at the site for up to 31 months through a number of extensions in the agreement.

Pope said 24/7 low-barrier homeless shelters are more expensive, but more cost effective because Compass will be moving people into long-term housing.

Compass also builds affordable housing, and will be breaking ground on its 58-unit Compass Broadview project this fall. The Ronald Commons in Shoreline opened in February.

Pope said Compass is also pushing for innovative designs to combat homelessness, such as the steel modular pod units it will create using $1 million in funding from Paul G. Allen.

Mayor Ed Murray praised the shelter model implemented by Compass and First Presbyterian, saying the city’s old “piecemeal approach” has not been working.

Through the mayor’s Pathways Home plan, the city began taking request for proposals in late June for $30 million in funds for homeless services, which will be provided based on outcomes.

“And the most important outcome is permanent housing,” Murray said.

The mayor said 24/7 low-barrier shelters, such as Compass at Presbyterian and the recently opened Navigation Center, are the next step toward permanent housing.

“We had a system that wasn’t working, and we challenged ourselves as a city,” he said.

“This is what we want to move to,” said city homelessness director George Scarola to the Capitol Hill Times about Compass at First Presbyterian. “This is the model.”

Human Services Department director Catherine Lester told CHT request for proposals for the $30 million Pathways Home funding are due by Tuesday, Sept. 5.

The performance standards the city has set include getting people into affordable housing, stopping people from becoming homeless, reducing the time people spend experiencing homelessness, keeping people who have exited homelessness from losing housing again and making sure every shelter bed available is filled.

Taking her role as pastor to heart, Armstrong told a crowd of people who came to an opening celebration for the shelter on Wednesday, Aug. 30, what she thought of Matthew 14:13-21 (Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand). This is a story from the Bible where Jesus was approached by his disciples after a day of healing the sick and told to turn away the hungry. Jesus told his disciples to give him what little loaves of bread and fish they had, and he blessed them, after which they fed 5,000 men — Armstrong estimates adding women and children would bring that figure to 15,000-20,000.

“The miracle to me is that Jesus uses what the disciples bring,” she said.

For them it was five loaves of bread and two fish. For First Presbyterian Church, it was unused space that will now shelter Seattle’s most vulnerable population.