In the first stage of what will likely be a 15-year project, the Wenatchee Rescue Mission (WRM) is beginning two years of landscape renovation funded by an $8,089 grant from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources Urban and Community Forestry Program.

Main priorities for the first phase include removal of invasive species like tree-of-heaven and Siberian elm, planting of native species and slope stabilization above the bunkhouse.

In the long run, leadership and volunteers in the project plan for the site to become home to tiny homes, trails, native plants, bird-friendly landscaping and spaces for people to relax and reflect.

“I envision this being a more restful place of trees, shrubs, benches for guys to sit on,” said Mike Shull, WRM board treasurer. “Teach them they can sit and contemplate and set goals and move on and have tremendously productive lives.”

Currently, the mission houses about 40 men, half of its capacity. Roughly 80% of them are over 50 years old, said Scott Johnson, executive director of WRM. The pandemic made operations slow down, but the mission is now opening services back up and ramping up outreach to people experiencing homelessness.

The mission, formerly known as Hospitality House, is located between South Wenatchee Avenue and South Mission Street near Lincoln Park, and has been a shelter for men since the early 1990s.

“We’re it for these guys, and most of them will tell you that their lives would not be existing if it wasn’t for this place,” Johnson said. “It’s a community thing for me, we can’t do this without the donations, we can’t do this without the volunteers, we can’t do this at all without the community. It really does take a village.”

The main focus of the first phase is removing invasive species and replacing them with native ones. Siberian elms and the tree-of-heaven pose extensive problems. Their vast root systems require the trees be treated with herbicide in order to remove them, and are home to pests like spotted lanternflies, which can attack fruit trees.

The DNR grant is just the beginning of the project’s funding. For the rest, WRM will rely on donations and volunteer efforts.

The grant will support removal of two to four large Siberian elms or tree-of-heaven, planting of 20 to 24 large trees and 10 to 20 small trees. The rest of the first phase, including removal of many more invasive trees and planting of native shrubs, will be covered by volunteer time and grant-matching money from WRM.

According to Betsy Dudash, a volunteer landscape consultant, many people in the area are unfamiliar with native species, and she wants to change that.

“You drive around Wenatchee, there’s almost no native plants on anybody’s landscape. It’s heartbreaking,” Dudash said. “My whole focus in design is on native plants, and this is an untapped market, because people, they do want to know. And once they understand the ecology of the relationship between the native plant species and the insects and birds and other animals that have co-evolved with them, they’re like, ‘OK, wait a minute.’”

The process for the project began in early 2020, when Dudash and volunteer project coordinator Rick Edwards visited the site to evaluate how it could be renovated.

Edwards invited specialists he knew to give feedback on the project — arborists, geologists, botanists, master gardeners, fire district staff and Audubon members. Dudash and Edwards are using the information they gathered to create a long-term master plan for the whole property — based on the wants and needs of the WRM board — which they’ll submit to the city for approval.

Johnson said eventually, he wants to see the mission create permanent supportive housing with about 30 homes on a large lot, and implement something like a skills village, where people use their existing skills to support each other.

“It’s like trying to rein in a runaway horse,” Shull said of Johnson and his plans for the mission. “He’s going 90 miles an hour, and I said well most of the people in the valley here go 40.”

Giving back to the community is a large driver in Johnson’s plans for the mission. He said he’d like to see the mission start a glass recycling program where residents would grind the glass into sand and resell it to people for their gardens. It would employ people experiencing homelessness and help the environment, he said.

“One thing about nonprofits, to face the facts, is that we’re takers, and I don’t like that, I want to be a giver,” Johnson said. “So we’re taking homeless off the street, that’s my job, that’s not us giving to the community. So how do we give back? Part of that, too, is I’ve asked our guys even now, what do you do to give back? You sit in here daily, what is it you’re giving back to your community?”

While there is still much to be done before the mission can bring in the tiny homes — 12 to 16 of them, built out of shipping containers — Johnson said he hopes to see it happen within two years. More is in the works, set to be part of a master plan soon.

“When I said we’re the best hidden secret, I don’t want to be a hidden secret of this area, I want to be to be known place to go, to come if you want to just relax I want to get people off the street, and I want to get people to want to come in,” Johnson said. “All we ask is you don’t drink, don’t do drugs, just sit out and relax, you’re good.”

Greta Forslund: (509) 665-1187