News

Drive for housing gaining traction

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

The effort to address widespread homelessness and to find solutions for thousands of families and individuals who don’t have homes has taken root in Washington, starting in local communities and reaching all the way up to the Legislature.

Lawmakers in Olympia made combatting homelessness a top priority this year, creating a new Housing Committee in the House of Representatives, allocating an extra $20 million to the state’s Housing Trust Fund and passing legislation requiring counties to draft strategic plans to cut homelessness by 50 percent in 10 years.

At the county level, King County Executive Ron Sims last March lauded the finalization of a broad, countywide plan to end homelessness. The plan, called A Roof Over Every Bed, addresses the need for the county to have an adequate number of housing units available while providing case management and other services.

And in Federal Way, Multi-Service Center of South King County is poised to buy part of a local apartment complex to add to the existing 179 units of affordable and emergency housing in Kent, Auburn, Des Moines and Federal Way.

The center, a non-profit social services agency, plans to purchase four of the Garden Park buildings, a total of 86 apartments located in Federal Way, for low-income families. Executive director Dini Duclos said most of the funding to purchase the buildings is in place. The last piece is the state Housing Trust Fund allocation, currently in House and Senate versions of the state capital budget.

Nine of the Garden Park apartments will be for people making below 30 percent of the median income. Of those, five will be reserved for people leaving domestic violence abuse. All nine apartments will be transitional-to-permanent housing, meaning people who move in for emergency shelter can stay once they’re stabilized. The remainder of the 86 apartments will be converted to affordable housing for those making 30 to 60 percent of the median income.

Much of the 2005 Legislature’s housing assistance work was based on research conducted over the past several years in King County, where an average of 8,300 children and adults are homeless on any given night.

King County’s plan, developed by the Committee to End Homelessness, became the blueprint for the state’s strategic plan.

Duclos served on the multi-jurisdictional committee, helping to provide data and information to find solutions to homelessness in the county. That work fed into the Homelessness Housing and Assistance Act passed by the Legislature last month. The act adds $10 to the surcharge for some real estate recording fees and directs the money to a homelessness housing account, where it will be distributed to counties.

The bill requires counties to develop strategic plans to cut homelessness by 50 percent in 10 years. Those counties that choose not to participate don’t get a shot at the grants or allocations from the homelessness account.

Human-services officials and legislators don’t expect there ever will be a time when there isn’t a single homeless person in King County. According to last year’s one-night count, there are about 2,500 people who meet the definition otion of chronically homeless. Many suffer from mental illnesses; many also have alcohol or drug addictions and medical conditions. “You’re going to have new people coming in all the time,” Duclos said, but added, “It’s still good to have a goal.”

But the work of the Committee to End Homelessness has helped create a framework so those who want stable housing can find a place to live and won’t fall through the cracks, whether because services they need are unavailable or because housing is unavailable.

A disconnect

Part of the problem with efforts to end homelessness, Duclos said, has been a disconnect between agencies providing the services and governments or private organizations providing the funding.

There is a number of non-profit and government organizations providing services to homeless and low-income families, several in the Federal Way area alone, including Multi-Service Center, YWCA, the Norman Center YMCA, Friends United to Shelter the Indigent, Oppressed and Needy (FUSION), the Community Caregiving Network, Federal Way Youth and Family Services, and local churches.

Each grantor and social service agency approaches homelessness from the perspective of the services they want to fund or want to provide. Some deal with energy or rent assistance; others deal with adult education and providing job skills. Some provide food or clothing banks, some serve the victims of domestic violence, still others deal with healthcare needs or addiction treatment.

But experts say the real people struggling through homelessness need several services at once, and they need those services to be integrated, even if they’re provided by different agencies with different funding mechanisms, revenue sources and budgets.

“Funding, especially government funding, sets up strings around things and you can’t go outside them,” Duclos said. “We need to have everybody work together.”

Until all the issues contributing to homelessness are addressed at once, families or individuals will continue to receive some valuable services but miss other crucial ones, she said.

Key to addressing the issue is transitional-to-permanent housing — emergency housing that later becomes permanent housing for people where they can stay as caseworkers gradually remove themselves from the families’ lives.

Putting people in housing where they can stay after they don’t need the intensive case management any more could help alleviate the strain for fledgling breadwinners just getting good at their recently acquired skills — or people making progress on their medical conditions, addicts sticking to their programs or children enrolled in new schools — because they don’t have to move out in 24 months.

As the family gets its wits together in their new home, case workers can step in to teach the breadwinners how to manage money and a household and offer referrals to services they need to overcome whatever it was that contributed to their homelessness in the first place –– healthcare, mental healthcare, addiction treatment and rehabilitation, English classes, adult education or job training.

Case management generally lasts 18 to 24 months, Duclos said, after which Multi-Service Center caseworkers begin weaning the family of the services. Eventually, families are able to stand on their own again, she said.

Time to move on

In affordable housing units, like White River Estates in Auburn or what the Garden Park Apartments will be in Federal Way, tenants can stay until they decide they want to live somewhere else — a bigger apartment or single-family home, for example, or closer to work or school. When they move, their apartment becomes available for another family.

The first step in providing stable housing is having enough units of housing available. According to Multi-Service Center, for every family admitted to transitional housing, the center had to turn 14 away.

While low-income housing, particularly Section 8 subsidized housing, has been associated with run-down properties and crime, Duclos said it doesn’t have to be. It helps to give new tenants the tools they’re missing — money management, care for personal belongings and property, and job training — rather than simply dropping them into a new environment and expecting them to thrive, she said.

But crime and and dilapidation also has been attributed to absentee landlords who don’t care about the properties or the tenants. That’s less likely to happen when a non-profit agency runs a program, Duclos said.

Because non-profits receive government money, they’re required to provide reports on how they’re spending the dollars and how they’re caring for the investment. Boards of directors check in on how the housing communities are doing.

“The last thing we want is our board members hearing our properties are slums,” Duclos said.

Once funding for Garden Parks is finalized — possibly in mid-June — Multi-Service Center will execute the purchase and sale agreement. The goal is to have the apartments fully rehabilitated and rented out by April 2006.

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymiriror.com

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