Category Archives: Advocacy

The Price is Right

By Jacqueline Koch, Partner, Boost! Collective

Keeping veterans and the elderly from homelessness for $32.50 is a deal

It’s that time of year. We’re all getting ready to vote! And among the items on the ballot is the opportunity to renew and expand the King County Veterans and Human Services Levy. The levy connects military Veterans and vulnerable people—such as the elderly—to vital programs and services. It helps them transition to affordable housing, get job training, find employment, receive behavioral health treatment and more. Is it just me or does it seem ironic that Veterans Day approaches in tandem with the upcoming vote to help veterans?

The coincidence got me thinking. I’m the daughter and granddaughter of Veterans. My dad fought in Korea, my grandfather was a prisoner of war in WWII. My uncle fought in Vietnam. War, and its terrible toll, has left a deep imprint on the Veterans in my family—PTSD and depression, well medicated with alcohol. It also came at a great cost to their loved ones.

Today as we witness a homelessness crisis unlike anything we’ve ever seen, fueled by endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I think about what might have been for my father, grandfather and my uncle. They struggled with the many demons that often lead veterans to the brink and to the streets. What stood between my own father and homelessness is tenuous, especially today. Perhaps it was family, friends and a robust VA system? Or was it that he had government health insurance and access to all the medical care he needed?

Veterans Experiencing Homelessness

Here in our Emerald City, there are 1,329 homeless people who identify as veterans, more than half are unsheltered. An increasing number of them are women. Seattle’s numbers mirror the tragedies that are unfolding in cities across our country. As an American, it is a profound source of shame for me. And it’s an issue that should prompt all of us to take a good hard look at ourselves and our community and to commit to taking meaningful, tangible measures to make it right, right now.

The Seattle Times agrees. To my great relief, the editorial board clearly articulated why we must vote for the King County Veterans, Seniors and Human Services Levy. With a focus on veterans and the elderly—the levy adds senior citizens for the first time this election—it’s about a good return on investment, in addition to creating the community we can want to live in. In 2016, the levy paid for more than 8,000 emergency-shelter bed nights for homeless veterans. And we can’t forget that the homeless population, vets among them, is aging—quickly. As they age, their needs are vastly different and it’s critical that we truly understand what they are and that we mobilize to meet them.

Programs for Veterans and Seniors

Providing support to Veterans is a pillar of Compass Housing Alliance’s service. It’s also been successful. At the Compass Veterans’ Center in Renton, 89 percent of vets have maintained housing one year after exiting the program. This far exceeds a target of 50 percent.

The aging homeless population also finds a safe haven within Compass Housing Alliance. This is through their focused work to find permanent and supportive housing solutions for elderly individuals through the Health Care for the Homeless Network, as well as through residential facilities with services, such as at Nyer Urness House in Ballard. Here the average age is approximately 55 years. While in my social circle this is considered mid-life, among the homeless population, the average life expectancy for someone who has been chronically homeless is 62.

The Emerald City will shine bright only if we take steps to uphold human dignity for everyone who calls it home. And I want to believe we do. For a median-priced home, it comes at a cost of just $32.50 a year. That’s brunch for two on Sunday. So for my dad, my grandfather, my uncle—and the many people I know who served this country with honor—there is only one vote for me. Yes.

 

 

Why sky-rocketing rents are pushing those living at the margins into homelessness

By Janinne Brunyee

Increasing homelessness is an unintended consequence of Seattle’s economic boom. More and more people find themselves priced out of the rental market. This topic has been particularly on my mind recently as my step-daughter, who moved in with us a year ago when she relocated from Bellingham to start her first job in Seattle, has been looking for an affordable apartment. While she is fortunate enough to have a secure safety net, we have found her struggle to find an apartment she and a roommate could afford in a highly competitive rental market illuminating. Thankfully, due to luck and ingenuity, they have managed for find a place in West Seattle. But they are now at the mercy of their landlord. What if the landlord raises rent beyond their reach or sells the building in the next few years?

According to the Washington State Department of Commerce, growing rents are the overwhelming cause for the increase in homelessness since 2013. The 2017 “Count Us In” report revealed that of Seattle’s homeless population, 41 percent said they became homeless after being evicted or losing a job.

Photo: The Seattle Times

In July, The Seattle Times reported that from June 2015 to June 2016, rents in Seattle grew four times faster than the national average. And according to a recent Zillow report, the typical monthly rent in the Seattle metro area exceeded $2,000 for the first time this spring and is up 9.7 percent in the past year. Seattle’s rent was $300 more than the U.S. average in 2011; now, it’s $620 more.

Two years ago, city officials noted that it would take two wage earners, both working full-time at $15/hour, to rent the average one-bedroom apartment and be able to afford other basic living expenses. Today, those same workers need to each earn $19.84/hour to afford the same apartment.

Source: 2017 Count Us In Report

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s revised income limits for 2017 provides sobering news. A family of four making $72,000 or less in King and Snohomish County is now considered low income. Moreover, to qualify for Section 8 housing, residents must make 50 percent of the median income. In Snohomish and King counties, that means you would have to earn no more than $48,000 to get help with housing. In Pierce County, that number is $37,250.

FoxNews reports, however, that so many people earn less than $48,000 that the Snohomish and King County Housing Authorities take that number even lower. They target families with an income of 30 percent of the median income. That means the majority of Section 8 housing then goes to families bringing in $28,800 or less. And even then, they have a long wait list.

Rising Costs Across the Region

Many who cannot find affordable housing look to moving out of King County as a viable option. While some have made the move to Tacoma, this may not be the best solution either. Pierce County has the least number of affordable rental units in the state for really low-income people. For every 100 households earning up to 30 percent Area Median Income [AMI] there are only 50 housing units that they can afford.

According to the Tacoma/Pierce County Affordable Housing Consortium’s Affordable Housing Guidebook, a household, regardless of size, must earn $21.65 an hour, 40 hours every week of the year to afford a two-bedroom rental apartment in Pierce County without paying more than 30 percent of income on housing.

My step-daughter has the option of returning to our home if she loses her job or can no longer afford to pay the rent. More than 4,500 people in Seattle did not have this option. When faced with this situation, they had to pack their bags and move into their car or a tent.

Ending homelessness starts by deleting the term “service resistant”

By Robert Bowery, Director of Clinical Services, Compass Housing Alliance

There is a phrase that often comes up in conversations about homelessness: individuals who are “service resistant.” When I hear this, I shudder. Not only is this completely unfair, it reveals a lack of understanding of the real needs of homeless individuals. So as we aim to tackle this crisis, which has an ever expanding footprint in our region, we need to rethink how we do it.

We need to ask the question: Are we ending homelessness, or are we perpetuating it?

This is a tough question. So let’s start with some simple truths, like acknowledging that someone who is homeless is someone like us. This is someone who has relationships—a girlfriend, boyfriend, partner, wife, or husband. They may have a pet, or two, their four-legged friend and companion that they love. And they too have “stuff,” the dear possessions they are attached to and want to hold on to. And these are all barriers, effectively shutting the door to a homeless person who is seeking shelter.

Now, let’s take the next step, where our paths diverge, and in ways few of us can genuinely appreciate. For a homeless person, each morning brings a daunting struggle to survive. It’s a daily pursuit to simply meeting basic needs: a warm meal, a safe place to stay the night, health care, a shower and toilet. It’s also important to remember that one in three homeless individuals is dealing with mental illness in King County. More still are grappling with substance abuse and chronic health issues or PTSD. And sadly, more than one in 10 is a veteran. They experience harassment, violence, discrimination and alienation. This endless cycle of insecurity, abuse, and being re-traumatized make stability, housing, and employment increasingly challenging goals.

This is the context we need to remember when we hear the term “service resistant.” In no way does it reflect the reality of a homeless person. In many cases, the services we currently offer don’t come close to meeting existing needs. So, collectively, as a network of service providers to the homeless population, we need to rethink our approach and current partnerships if we want to truly address homelessness.

Removing Barriers to Shelter

Here’s the good news. A workable, successful model exists: the 24/7, enhanced shelter model. It gives individuals the opportunity to stay in one place while searching for a permanent solution, rather than returning to the streets each day and hoping for a bed somewhere that night.  Compass Housing Alliance will be adding 100 beds this summer at Seattle First Presbyterian Church. We will accept partners, pets and possessions. Our innovative, person-centric approach to Seattle’s homeless population combines safe shelter, complete wrap-around services and intensive case management. By removing barriers, connecting people to services and helping them navigate the gaps, providing trauma-inform care and moving toward a harm-reduction approach, we can revolutionize the shelter model, which clearly isn’t working. We can truly serve needs of the homeless population and we can—finally—eliminate “service resistant” from the homelessness conversation.

Neighbors helping neighbors home

By Christopher Ross, Compass Housing Alliance Board Member

About six months ago I agreed to sit on a neighborhood committee. This group of neighbors had come together to explore how we could welcome a new housing development project to the Columbia City neighborhood. This is not just any housing project, and this is not any normal committee. For what we are really doing is creating community around Compass Crossing, a low-income, steel-frame modular housing solution designed to bring together dignified housing and people-centered services to create thirteen new housing units at the corner of Angeline and 39th Streets in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood.

Homelessness is a growing challenge in our region and it continues to escalate. I’m honored that our neighborhood is going to play a small but important role in finding a workable solution. While construction for Compass Crossing will only be finalized in Fall of 2017, this group is engaged in an important conversation now. What does it mean to be a good neighbor?

Our all-volunteer council formed to help create a welcoming and supportive network for our new neighbors. So we found ourselves, on a warm May evening, sitting in the basement of the Columbia City Church of Hope, the location where the Compass Crossing community will be built. I know we are all thinking we would rather be outdoors enjoying the sunset, but instead we’re all sitting here discussing how to be authentic and welcoming to our new neighbors.

Neighbors Supporting Neighbors

It was a humble exercise as we revisited our initial list of actions and activities that we drew up months ago: neighborhood walking tours, gardening events, etc. It was a long list, and at the time, we thought it would all be appropriate. Now, it becomes clear to us that there is a fine line between welcoming neighbors and neighbors who want to do too much. It’s been an interesting learning process. Yet every time this volunteer team meets, we gain greater understanding of the nuances of being supportive and helpful and how to balance that with the need to be respectful and just let people normalize into their new living situation. It sometimes feels counter-intuitive, but sometimes the best thing to do is to support people to make their own decisions. As neighbors, the most important task ahead is somewhat simple: to be gracious and welcoming.

We are neighbors who are committed to helping our new neighbors find home.

Counting the Cost: A personal experience of Count Us In

By Janinne Brunyee, Partner, Boost! Collective

Every time I take the 1st Avenue South exit from the West Seattle bridge, I come face-to-face with an ever-growing cluster of tents and assorted bits and pieces of broken bicycles, chairs, makeshift fire pits and cars. Each time I see people who are living there, trying to create some normalcy and community in an otherwise hopeless situation, I have the same reaction. I want to do something to help.

But it’s not that easy. It’s only in working with Compass Housing Alliance for a few months that I came to understand that you can’t solve a problem if you can’t get your arms around how big it is. So I decided to volunteer for this year’s Count Us In event to  help count how many people were experiencing homelessness in King County at a single point of time.

It was a cold January morning. I recruited my partner and a friend to join me. When our alarms went off at 1 a.m., we were half asleep as we bundled into our coats, hats and gloves and headed to the Compass Center on Alaskan Way. We arrived before the appointed time of 2 a.m. yet we encountered crowds who had also joined the effort, assignment in hand and ready to start the count.

Many people had responded to the call for volunteers and I worried we might not be needed. But then someone called out “Three volunteers for South Lake Union” and I raised my hand. We were in business. We’d been teamed up with Ryan, an experienced volunteer who is also a project manager at Downtown Emergency Service Center. Ryan walked us through the form we’d fill out as we counted people and we divvied our coverage area, two groups, two people each.

Once in South Lake Union, we were immediately struck by the quiet in the streets. We wondered if we would find any people at all. Then Ryan and noticed a group of tents on a small fenced off piece of land right up against I-5. There, at 2:20 in the morning, a man was sweeping the area outside his tent with a small broom. The traffic sped past behind them, but the people living in this small community of five tents were trying to create a clean space, a dignified place to live. It was a scene that touched me deeply and a sharp reminder of our shared humanity.

Among the largely empty streets of South Lake Union we did find 21 people without shelter. But, all four of us agreed that was 21 too many.

Big Picture Numbers, Real Lives

All told, the count gives us a clear eyed view into a bigger, and very saddening story. We saw just 21 of the 5,485 unsheltered people in King County on January 27, 2017. Still there were 3,491 more in emergency shelters and 2,667 in transitional housing. The numbers provide an urgent reminder that we need to dramatically scale housing production if there is any chance of addressing this crisis in a meaningful way.

It’s also important to remember that the numbers represent real people. Each person counted is someone’s son or daughter, someone’s mother or father, someone’s friend.

Boost! Collective is a story-driven marketing and communications firm working to discover, create and tell the powerful stories that drive deep connections between organizations and their audiences. We are proud to be working with Compass Housing Alliance to tell their stories.