The Seattle Times: Time running out on Seattle family’s ‘golden ticket’ to landing a home

Dana Disharoon and her daughters in their temporary home at Sand Point Family Housing. (Photo by Bettina Hansen, reprinted from The Seattle Times.)

For those struggling with homelessness and housing stability, there is never an easy solution. In her 9/29/15 piece, Time running out on Seattle family’s ‘golden ticket’ to landing a home, Seattle Times reporter Nina Shapiro follows Dana Disharoon, a single mother of three daughters and survivor of domestic violence, in her recent search for permanent housing.

Following months of moving between shelters and her car, Disharoon was able to live for a year in transitional housing at Solid Ground’s Sand Point Family Housing. As her time there ran out, Disharoon attempted to secure a permanent residence, aided by a Section 8 housing voucher and Solid Ground case managers, but was hindered by a low credit score and the aggressive competition in the housing market.

Since the article was written, Solid Ground’s Sand Point Residential Services Manager Tamara Brown reports that Disharoon and her daughters have successfully located housing, and are now waiting for a final inspection before they can move in. Sand Point Family Housing will be assisting with move-in costs.

Family Homelessness 2.0

Editor’s note: This is reposted with permission from Impatient Optimists, the blog of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the authors.

By  , , Everyone deserves a home

Those of us who have been engaged in efforts to end family homelessness over the past decade need to acknowledge one of two things: Either the work is extremely complex and difficult, or we’re not very good at our jobs. While both of these statements could be true, given the time, talent, and passion that so many have been focusing on this issue for so long, we conclude (and hope) that the first statement is more accurate.There are many different crises that can catapult a family into homelessness: Loss of a job, domestic violence, accidents or serious illness, and inter-generational poverty – to name just a few. In addition, despite efforts to coordinate, past experiences in responding to homelessness have shown us that, although admirable, fragmented, non-integrated efforts to solve this problem by organizations and systems working independently and on their own have not stemmed the tide of this crisis.

The good news is that we now know what works: Coordinated Entry is an emerging practice that, when it is working effectively, helps to target equitably the right type and intensity of intervention to each family. Decades of practice (and tradition) have resulted in high levels of fragmentation across the many service systems families may touch in their efforts to seek stability. Coordinated entry offers a systemic intervention predicated on a very simple belief: Families in crisis should not have to “work the system” to find the supports that they need. Rather, the system should work for them.

In addition, rapidly returning families to permanent housing and connecting them to the specific supports and services they need to promote stability are proving in communities across the nation to be among the most efficient and effective ways to end family homelessness. Simply stated; families experiencing homelessness need housing first. This can be an uphill climb; in the current environment in the Puget Sound region affordable housing is a precious and scarce commodity. Providers working to quickly identify permanent housing for homeless families face daily challenges with rents increasing at record rates, inequities in access to housing, and extremely high competition for existing housing units.

Coordinated entry and promoting access to permanent housing and the right mix of services tailored to each family’s needs are critical first steps in moving toward solutions to family homelessness. Creating a systemic response that effectively responds to the complex, individual needs of each homeless family requires levels of collaboration and integration that have, historically, been unfamiliar and sometimes considered suspect by even the most dedicated system leaders and providers of care.

In this challenging context, introducing new, collaborative responses have proven difficult to organize and even harder to implement. Nevertheless, data from communities across the nation tells us we can be highly successful when our efforts are focused first and foremost on rapidly returning families to housing.

We haven’t always gotten these collective solutions right the first time around, despite the very best of intentions. Here in King County, for example, the first version of a coordinated entry system for homeless families – called Family Housing Connections – proved to be cumbersome and complex, and resulted in long waits for help that appeared on the surface to be worse than the chaotic absence of a collective response that had existed previously.

It’s a tribute to organizational leadership and line staff providers that we all didn’t throw up our hands in frustration and decide simply to return to the absence of a system we had before we started. Instead, leaders and providers worked together to carefully examine what was going wrong with the efforts – why families were waiting too long for assistance and housing – and revised the approach to address the specific problems that had been identified.

As a result, an overhaul of the King County family homelessness coordinated entry system is now underway, and as both NPR and the homeless newspaper Real Change have noted, we’re beginning to see improvements in both the length of time families wait for help and the speed with which they are being re-housed. With continued collaboration to implement more significant changes, even more dramatic improvements are imminent.

Mark Twain said that “Nobody likes change except a wet baby.” There’s a real truth there. Change is hard, especially when the changes being made are attempting to undo a crisis like family homelessness that has been decades in the making and is rooted in a constellation of economic, political, and social issues.

Looking at a problem from a systems perspective and making changes that promote collaborative solutions that were not in place before, can provide clear pathways to improved responses to the needs of those families experiencing the most extreme crises. It’s not easy. It’s not simple. It requires patience, and the willingness to look at what’s going badly in order to determine what needs to be done to do better.

That’s exactly what is happening right now in King County and in communities across the nation. All of us learn the hard way on a daily basis that new responses to extreme challenges like homelessness rarely get the solution right the first time around. Rather than abandoning all hope and returning to even more dysfunction, coming up with Version 2.0 of a solution can offer the promise of moving in the direction where we’re finally getting it right.

The One Night Count: a lesson in gratitude

SKCCH logoAs we gathered in the wee hours of Friday, January 24 at the Compass Housing Alliance for our initial One Night Count volunteer briefing, I thanked the twinkling stars above it wasn’t raining. Over 800 of us would spread out across King County to search for and count people sleeping outside without shelter. The One Night Count (organized by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness) would be a snapshot of homelessness between the hours of 2 and 5am.

As the count began, my team and I quietly weaved our way around the streetlamp-lit areas first, peeking into parked cars and doorways. There was no one in sight. It seemed as if everyone else in the world had vanished. That feeling was probably what allowed me to peer into the dark gaps between dumpsters, or make my way into the spaces between buildings I would never, under normal circumstances, walk into at night. The mood was warm – light, like the glow from the lamps overhead. But that would change.

The cold reality
As the condensation slowly turned to frost, the warmth I had felt was replaced with a shiver. A large park was last on our map to check. We had been told before setting out that we would likely find people here; people really do come to this park to sleep. I was fearful; beyond the reach of the sentinel streetlights, the shadowed expanse behind the vine-choked fence was eerie and unnerving.

It’s one thing to think about the experience of homelessness while warm and safe in bed, but actually going to places where people without homes might sleep was entirely different. I couldn’t imagine having to decide where to sleep each night, let alone the circumstances that would lead me to believe that entering a dark park – without a flashlight – was the best option. What I felt was probably only a glimpse of the fear people experiencing homelessness deal with every day.

We found no one sleeping in the park, however – perhaps we just couldn’t see them. As we ended our search and began our walk back to our group’s meeting spot, we admitted how relieved we were to have a zero tally. That’s when we met John (name changed for privacy).

A face of homelessness
I knew immediately when I saw him that he was homeless. No one, if they could help it, would be out wearing only a thin hoodie and track pants. He threw a smile our way then politely asked us who we were with – noting the bright yellow “volunteer” stickers plastered all over our clothes. A member of our group explained what we were doing out so late at night. John paused and looked down, and then said that he, too, was without a home.

He told us his story and of the complications preventing him from getting the help he needed. All the problems he recounted wove perfectly into the pattern of homelessness – all the issues that agencies like ours are fighting to dismantle. As we talked, he shivered uncontrollably, so strongly at one point he almost lost his balance. And then, diplomatically, he asked us if there was anything we could do to help.

My coworker and I locked eyes; no words were needed to express how we felt. We had nothing to offer at that moment. If we felt helpless, John’s feelings of utter hopelessness must have been overwhelming. Indeed, he started to sob for a moment in the crook of his arm, hiding his face so we couldn’t see. With tears still caught in the lines under his eyes, he explained his medical condition and the barriers he’s faced seeking treatment.

Clearly suffering from the cold, he said he needed to go to the hospital and asked if we could call 9-1-1, so we did. Fearful of what might have happened to him if we hadn’t been there to call for help, I was suddenly grateful for the icy phone I squeezed in my pocket. He asked us to stay with him until the ambulance arrived. He was still shaking and having trouble standing, so we walked over to the stairs behind us so he could sit. We continued to talk – about his childhood and how he got his name – named after his father’s wartime buddy. He made jokes about what it was like fighting for bathroom time in a house with four sisters.

A human connection
When the fire truck pulled up, he held out his hand to me to shake as he thanked us. He did not let go, but held my hand as he continued to talk on, not wanting us to leave. I didn’t try to pull away. How long had it been since he was able to just talk to someone – for someone to listen? How long since he was comforted by another person’s touch? No, I wouldn’t let go until he did – or until the paramedics made me, which is what happened.

We didn’t wait to see if they would take John somewhere or leave him; after touching base with our whole group, we went our separate ways. And as I drove by on my way home, John was gone. I hoped he was on his way to a warm bed.

The impact of that night lasted far longer than the cold that soaked into my bones after only three hours outside. I shivered the rest of the morning thinking about John and my experience participating in the One Night Count – my electric blanket turned all the way up. Two pairs of socks, two sweaters, a hoodie, and two pairs of pants weren’t enough to warm me – inside or out. While the experience of homelessness is impossible to understand in just a few hours’ time, I came away with a very important lesson that I keep reminding myself of: Be grateful for all that I have – not just a warm bed or a cell phone, but a loved one’s open ears and caring embrace.

If you are interested in getting involved or would like more information on the One Night Count, please visit: www.homelessinfo.org.

Leveraging 40 years of innovation, partnership & action to end poverty & income inequality

Mayor Mike Murray holds a press conference with co-chairs of the Income Inequality Advisory Committee, David Rolf of SEIU 775NW, and Howard Wright of Seattle Hospitality Group

Mayor Mike Murray holds a press conference with co-chairs of the Income Inequality Advisory Committee (photo from the Seattle.gov website)

2014 is Solid Ground’s 40th year of Innovation, Partnership and Action! It appears that this will also be the year our society recognizes that income inequality is a fundamental and worsening issue for the United States and the world. Income inequality is not a new issue to us. Solid Ground and other Community Action Agencies recognized long ago that poverty is a result of societal barriers and structures which favor people with privilege and oppress those without. Since the origins of community action, the poverty rate has not increased, but income inequality – including lack of income mobility – has grown greatly, especially in the last 25 years.

The severity of income inequality and its impact on all of us is why I readily accepted Seattle Mayor Murray’s request that I join his Income Inequality Advisory Committee. The 25 members of the Committee are charged with delivering an actionable set of recommendations for increasing the minimum wage within the City of Seattle. Income is, of course, important – and as we know well, just one of many factors that affect a person’s ability to thrive. I view these minimum wage negotiations as an opportunity to raise awareness and, hopefully, action on the larger issue of addressing opportunity gaps that prevent income and social mobility for all residents of King County and our state.

I appreciate that our new mayor has wisely identified that multiple strategies are needed to make Seattle an affordable and equitable city, including:

  • Increasing minimum compensation levels for low-income Seattle workers.
  • Ensuring universal health insurance regardless of employment.
  • Making affordable housing more available and closer to where people work.
  • Preserving and strengthening our public transit systems to connect people to jobs.
  • Creating a fertile environment for the creation and growth of new jobs and industries.
  • Offering education and training options structured to help working adults succeed and linked to better paying jobs in demand by industry.

Appropriately, these strategies specifically address the root causes of poverty and would positively impact many of the people who access our services. Innovation, partnership and action are what have enabled Solid Ground to be an agency with impact for 40 years. I’m confident that by working together with our public and private partners, advocating with the people living on low incomes across Washington State and in collaboration with our nonprofit peers, Solid Ground’s fourth decade will bring success in making an impact as an agency working to end poverty and income inequality.

Rapid Re-Housing: The transition to permanent housing got a lot faster!

Image of keys to houseSolid Ground is participating in King County’s new Rapid Re-Housing for Families pilot created to help homeless families achieve stability.

Rapid re-housing works to shorten the time families and individuals spend in homelessness, and provides the tools they need to stabilize their lives in permanent housing.

Instead of weeks spent in shelters, and months or years spent in already-packed transitional housing programs, rapid re-housing addresses the causes of homelessness with tailored case management, housing services and employment assistance.

Rapid re-housing pilots and programs conducted across the nation show promising results. A study of 14 communities in seven states, produced by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, revealed that 85% of families participating in rapid re-housing programs exited into permanent housing. Of these families, only 4% returned to homelessness within the year. In comparison, only a little more than half the families in transitional housing made the move to permanent housing; 11% of those who transitioned were homeless by the end of the year.

Chart depicting the differences in outcomes between shelter and transitional housing stays, and rapid re-housing

Building Changes, King County DCHS, United WayCity of Seattle Human Services Department, and Seattle and King County Housing Authorities are funding the Rapid Re-Housing for Families pilot that launched in November 2013.

Career Connections, Neighborhood House and YWCA will provide Employment Navigators for the pilot. These Navigators will work with other resources already in place, such as WorkSource, to help families find employment and build skills with job training and education.

In 2012, the Washington State Department of Commerce released a study on Employment Outcomes Associated with Rapid Re-Housing Assistance for Homeless DSHS Clients in Washington State. According to the research, rapid re-housing halted the upward trend in unemployment, and clients earned more than other homeless families not in the program and were more likely to be employed a year after intervention.

Whether through a sudden crisis such as job loss or a medical emergency, for many, homelessness is an isolated incident.

Since there are a myriad of causes of homelessness and barriers that prevent the transition to permanent housing, there cannot be just one way to prevent or remedy it. Rapid re-housing, for some, may be all they need to get back on their feet. For others, it could take long years of intensive support and assistance to get to that point. The more options available to those experiencing homelessness, the higher the likelihood they will overcome it.

It’s okay to ask for help

Lisa and Rusty

Editor’s note: We are honored to present Lisa Pierce’s account of her journey through homelessness, especially the moving story of her time spent living at a roadside rest area.)

In December, 2007, my son Brycen and I moved into a beautiful 4-bedroom home with a fenced yard in the Renton Highlands. We lived in a quiet neighborhood next door to our church. We had two roommates to offset the rent and utilities.

I was working and going about my life, just maintaining. Then, in 2009, I lost my job as a manager due to my Multiple Sclerosis.

To this day, I still don’t know how I was blessed to be introduced to Solid Ground. The first person I encountered was Tunde Akunyun. (Tunde’s work in Solid Ground’s Stable Families program focuses on helping at-risk families maintain their housing stability.)

Tunde came into my world and made a difference. She didn’t just help keep the roof over our heads and the lights on. She helped me get my social security disability benefits. She taught me how to budget my money. And when I was diagnosed with diabetes, she was responsible for me being able to give myself an insulin injection.

The biggest thing she did for me was let me know it’s okay to ask for help.

In May of last year, I lost the home. The owner passed away and it was sold out from under us. I didn’t have savings or a plan.

My son and I had packed our four Chihuahuas and what we could fit in the car and moved to a motel.

My income was $765 disability and $91 food stamps per month. So, I was able to keep us in a room for two weeks at a time. The other two were spent at the SeaTac rest area on I-5 and at a truck stop where we could pay for a shower.

Living at the rest area
When you are at the rest area, the only really good thing is that you are right there next to Enchanted Village and Wild Waves. During the summer it would make you feel like you are not out in the woods. Sometimes you could just dream about it, like, “I wish I could take Brycen over there.” It did help.

When I first came to the rest area, I really didn’t pay much attention to anybody else. I didn’t want to be seen, didn’t want people to notice me sitting in my car, making my phone calls looking for shelter and doing my paperwork. I started to be more attentive to my surroundings, and who was coming and who was going.

I noticed this man. He walked by my car continuously, all day long. So, I started to watch him. He would go to the garbage can and he would rummage through it. He would go to the ashtray where people put out their cigarettes and he would go through that.

One day, it was pouring down rain and I noticed he went into the men’s room and he got a bunch of paper towels, came out and sopped up all the water out of the cigarette thing. He was hoping he could get a cigarette butt out of there that wasn’t sopping wet. And that is when I really started paying attention, like “Wow, he is really staying here.” Someone that is just passing through is not going to take the time to do that, you know.

As the days went by, I kept noticing the same vehicles there. Then, when I would go into the restroom, I would see everybody that would go in there – I would see their clothes – basically like a dressing room.

One day, I counted and I noticed there were about 12 vehicles with people that were living there. You’ll see them, just to kill time, take things out of their vehicles, put it back in. Like you would do in housework, doing housework in your car. Just something to do.

Well this man, one day I watched him and he went up to a gentleman who had a really nice car, and dressed really nice. You really can’t judge a book by its cover, but you had to assume that he probably had money. The guy was smoking right next to his car.

I had my window down just a little bit and I heard him say, “Do you have a cigarette?” And this man talked to him like he was just the lowest piece of garbage. You know: “Get away from me old man, I don’t know who you” – just awful words I can’t even say. So that just hurt me and I started to cry.

So, I went up to him after that gentleman left and I gave him a bunch of cigarettes. I asked him if he was hungry and he said he was. I had a few dollars in my pocket, so I drove to McDonald’s and got him some food and brought it back to him. He was just so shocked, I don’t think anyone had ever done that for him before.

When I could, I always made it a point to help him. When I got my apartment here, I’ve never forgotten him. I can’t forget him. Continue reading

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