New Allies Emerge to Tackle Homelessness
This feature story is part of Heart & Science, a new magazine published by Seattle Foundation. Heart & Science will share how philanthropists, community organizations and Seattle Foundation build partnerships to create lasting change. Look for the premiere issue of Heart & Science in the coming weeks.
June 29, 2016
Story by Stuart Eskinazi
His two feet pulsating in pain from serious infections that had set in, Jim, a Vietnam veteran, resorted to living in the trees of a Kirkland area greenbelt. It hurt less to stay in the air than to be on the ground.
But he had to eat. So each day, Jim would climb down to rummage through garbage bins of the homes lining the greenbelt, looking for food. For more than 30 years – almost as long as he had been home from Vietnam – Jim had been homeless.
Basic survival had become most of his life – that is, until a homeowner opened his heart, a nonprofit steered him toward services, and a landlord took a chance. For the past two years, after living in trees, Jim has lived comfortably in a one-bedroom apartment on the Eastside.
Gwen Hosea-Mimms, a program coordinator with the YWCA of Seattle-King-Snohomish, helped secure housing for Jim by negotiating a lease with a landlord. She recalls visiting him for the first time after he had moved into his new place.
“I have a door of my own that I can close,” Jim told Hosea-Mimms, who began calling him “Smiley” because his smile couldn’t have been any bigger at that moment.
Multiple Factors Driving Homelessness Higher
Unfortunately, Jim’s story is not uncommon. On a typical night in King County, nearly 11,000 men, women and children stay in homeless shelters or sleep outside because they have no other options.
Our region's skyrocketing rents, combined with a scarcity of available housing, make it nearly impossible for low-income individuals and families to obtain a permanent and affordable place to live.
The average median rent in King County is a staggering $1,450, while in Seattle it’s closer to $1,660. For about half of the renters in King County, rents are unaffordable – meaning they pay more than 30% of their total income towards housing and for low-income households earning for example half of renter median income in King County ($22,500) in 2014, the demand for affordable units exceeded supply by more than 47,000 units.
The shortage of affordable housing inventory is not the only challenge in moving people off the streets or out of temporary shelters. Several complex social issues are linked to homelessness.
Many people who are homeless have jobs - but their wages either are too low or their work is too seasonal to secure stable housing. Domestic violence can also be a contributing factor. One study found that 92 percent of homeless women had experienced severe physical or sexual assault at some point in their lives.
Nearly 36 percent of homeless persons are living with a mental illness issue. Individuals returning to the community after discharge from mental health facilities, the foster care system or state prisons also struggle to find the stable housing they need to anchor them as they search for jobs and services to help them succeed. Drug and alcohol addiction are often factors, as well.
Youth homelessness shares many of the same drivers, but LGBTQ youth are notably overrepresented. In many cases, LGBTQ youth face homelessness after being rejected by family or their communities because of their identity.
Framework for a Healthy Community
Without stable housing, individuals and families are thrown into a tailspin of uncertainty and the pool of greater Seattle residents facing homelessness grows every day. Research demonstrates that swiftly meeting the basic needs of housing and food allows children and adults to stay on their feet and plan beyond tomorrow.
As one of eight elements within Seattle Foundation’s Healthy Community Framework, Basic Needs is comprised of three strategies: to address and positively impact homelessness, build more affordable housing and alleviate hunger.
A New Ally: Landlords
With spotty rental backgrounds and few financial resources, people who are homeless routinely find their searches for rental housing end unsuccessfully at the application process. The Landlord Liaison Project, however, provides landlords safeguards and incentives to relax their screening criteria for the homeless, thus increasing the availability of private-market rental housing for persons trying to move from homelessness to permanent housing.
Since launching in 2009, the Landlord Liaison Project has helped find stable, permanent housing for some 2,400 families and individuals in Greater Seattle. The program partners with more than 200 landlords – some whom own multiple properties and others who have just one. The program, which YWCA designed, is a best-practice model now being emulated across the country.
“In this market, landlords can fill their units easily,” said Mona Tschurwald, who directs the project for the YWCA. “They really are going a step above and beyond in renting to people who previously have been homeless.”
Back in Kirkland, Jim might never have found housing had it not been for an area homeowner who knew nothing about the nuances of the social service system – but was ready to help. After spotting Jim digging through his garbage, he began placing a fresh sandwich atop the bin each day.
It took persistence and patience, but eventually the homeowner won Jim’s trust and drove him to visit Congregations for the Homeless, an Eastside nonprofit that the homeowner found online.
The nonprofit linked Jim to the medical help he needed to save his ailing feet from amputation. It also directed him to a shelter where he spent his nights with a hot meal and a warm bed. A partner agency of the YWCA, Congregations for the Homeless also enrolled him in the Landlord Liaison Project to help him find a permanent home.
“If we truly are going to end homelessness in our region, it’s going to take all of us,” Tschurwald said. “It’s not just nonprofits, government, or religious groups. It’s everyone – from a homeowner who is committed to help to a landlord who is willing to give a guy a break. If everyone does just a little bit, we can make it happen.”
Organizations across Greater Seattle are working to prevent homelessness, increase affordable housing options and provide people in need access to food and basic supports. To learn more about our work with these committed organizations visit our Community Impact page.
To learn more about YWCA’s Landlord Liaison Project, call 206.336.4601
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