Chances are you know someone – a family member, friend, co-worker or possibly yourself – who will become homeless. Expensive housing, low wages, unemployment, sudden illness, domestic violence, mental illness, chemical dependency or any other unexpected crisis can change the course of a life drastically and suddenly. The entire community feels the stresses of people in crisis because of their lost contributions to society and the need to provide expensive emergency services, like hospitals, law enforcement and shelters. It doesn’t have to be this way.
There is an East King County Plan to End Homelessness, a regional effort connected to the King County Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness that kicked off in 2005. The good news: it seems to be helping. However there is much more that needs to be done.
“To coordinate with the big plan, and by knowing what works in our own community and working together to do it, that’s what makes it powerful,” said Meghan Altimore, director of housing and asset building at Hopelink. “There’s a lot of meetings, but it’s important that we are engaged and at the table. Things are changing and in full swing.”
Major accomplishments in King County in the first five years include preventing homelessness for more than 18,500 people (more than 5,500 households) through emergency assistance programs throughout the county. And more than 30,000 individuals in more than 18,000 households were assisted out of homelessness.
New Ground Avondale Park in Redmond is an example of transitional housing
About 3,720 new housing units or dedicated subsidies to the housing inventory (and another 793 in the pipeline) were added. The housing is linked to special services to help the residents stay housed and also maximize their self-sufficiency. From 2005 to 2011, more than $105 million in new public, private, state and local funding was secured. In addition, a Finder’s Group was created. It issues a consolidated Notice of Funding Availability, which in 2010 included 22 different resources totaling $56 million.
Even in these hard times, the annual One Night Count of those on the street and in emergency shelters in King County dropped 11 percent last year and 4 percent the previous year, at a time when other major metropolitan areas saw their homeless censuses rise 10 to 30 percent. On the Eastside, covering Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond, 145 people were located. That’s four more than were found in 2010. Of those, 54 stayed overnight in the three-year-old extreme winter weather shelter, which opened under the plan. Eastside residents who are homeless are difficult to find, often living in cars, the woods or overcrowded apartments. Filled to capacity, the Hopelink Housing Program turned away 1,008 households in 2010.
Bill Block, project director of the Committee to End Homelessness, said the public, private and nonprofit partners recognize they need to do a better job of serving veterans, families, youth, young adults, immigrants and refugees. Ending homelessness does not mean no one will ever become homeless again, said Block.
“It means you prevent homelessness as much as possible. When people become homeless, you help them to rapidly return to housing rather than being warehoused in emergency shelters,” he said.
“We have really changed the landscape for the people who are really disabled and have been on the streets for years and years, basically the people who were promised community-based services when the hospitals closed,” Block said. “What we haven’t changed is the fact the difference between the minimum wage and the housing wage — what you need to make to afford housing — is still unattainable for many households. It results in many households’ being on the verge of becoming homeless when one crisis tips them over the edge. … We are proud of what we’ve done, but we’re very conscious of what we have to do.”
A shortage of affordable housing is the most common cause of homelessness on the Eastside (52 percent), according to data from the Gates Foundation Sound Families programs. This is higher than average for King County, as is the percentage caused by a medical or health issue (11 percent). The lack of a living wage is the second most common cause of homelessness for Eastside families (34 percent). The rental wage (the wage a person needs to earn to afford a median-rate rental while not paying more than 30 percent of total income for rent) remains more than double the minimum wage. None of the cities in East King County have sufficient affordable housing for families at 30 percent to 80 percent of the area’s median income.
“Until you address the general affordable housing issues and wage structure of this nation, this will always be a nation with homelessness,” said Arthur Sullivan, facilitator of the Eastside Homelessness Advisory Committee.
Focusing on what they can change, the partners have embraced the successful “Housing First” strategy. That means placing people in housing first and stabilizing their lives as soon as possible, and then resolve the issues that created the homelessness and work toward permanent solutions. Wrap the individual or family in supportive services within easy reach. Be quick, nimble, effective, holistic and stable.
“If you can get them early, right when it starts to happen to them, you can stabilize them easier. It is more cost-effective, and you can get them stabilized that much faster,” said Sullivan.
The community needs two things to truly end homelessness: political will and widespread belief that housing is a right, said Altimore. There is a “tremendous amount” of political will to make this happen in King County, she said.
“Will we do it within the 10-year mark? No. The factors are always going to exist, unfortunately,” said Altimore. “I believe that we are doing so much better than we were. You can see the positive changes in the five years we’ve been under these plans. I have been working with homeless families for 20 years, so when these plans came out, I was one of the biggest skeptics.
“We have to believe that it is possible, and I do.”
Who Are the Homeless Families?
- 86% are single parents
- Age of the average caregiver is 29
- The average child is 6
Who is the Caregiver?
- 45% are White
- 24% are African American
- 8% are Latino
- 34% have a high school diploma
- 24% attended college
ALL TOGETHER NOW
Here are the organizations that participated in creating the East King County Plan to End Homelessness. There are opportunities for people to get involved and make a stronger community. Contact one of these organizations and ask how you can donate, advocate or volunteer.
Family Resource Center