Carol Smith's picture

InvestigateWest launches first collaboration with regional Patch sites

InvestigateWest is happy to announce the launch of its first collaboration with Patch, a network of online local news sites. A team of InvestigateWest reporters and photographers spent more than six months examining issues of family homelessness in Washington State. The resulting award-winning Generation Homeless project looked at family homelessness through the lens of young adults – one of the most under-recognized segments driving the surge in homeless families in Washington, as well as the impact of this trend on children and school systems around the state.

Joining us in localizing this effort even further is Patch, a network of online local news sites. Patch reporters and editors dug even deeper at the local level to see how this disturbing trend is playing out in school communities throughout King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties.

Edmonds Patch, for example, drilled down to see how an underfunded federal mandate to provide transportation for homeless students is affecting the school district's budget.

Enumclaw Patch looked at the difficulties schools face in tracking and identfying homeless familes in order to provide services.

Kirkland Patch looked at what it's like for kids to be homeless on the East Side.

These and other stories to come this week demonstrate the power of linking investigative and community journalism. They take a big, nationwide issue, and show how it is hittng each of us, where we live.


A Streamlined Resource for the Homeless

When a single mom with two children flees a domestic violence situation and has no money, no relatives, and no place to go, what does she do? She can contact 211.

I am not sure many people know about this service, but the state manages a resource line that provides the names and contact information of organizations that assist the public. The resource directory is also online at http://www.resourcehouse.info/win211/.

The 211 website search function for transitional housing in King County came up with 71 listings. A statewide search came up with 143 listings. The listings typically provide the phone number, hours, a link to the website, and the address. (Note: the addresses for domestic violence shelters are not listed.)

When searching “domestic violence,” a page that narrows the search by topics appears. Topics include a multilingual shelter hotline, domestic violence support groups, counseling services for children affected by domestic violence, and much more.

Overall, the website was fairly easy to use and you can search by county or area code, which is nice. You can even create an account to save searches. The second option is to call 211. The phone operator first prompts you to press one for English and two for Spanish. These two options make me wonder what non-English or Spanish-speaking refugees and immigrant populations do when first faced with a crisis situation.

The voice-recorded operator then directs the caller to dial a number for H1N1 or census information. After wasting my valuable minutes, I am finally transferred to a real-life person. His name is Cory. I soon learn from Cory that the area code of the phone number a person used to dial 211 directs them to that specific county’s information line. For example, I live in Seattle, but I have a 360 area code, so I was automatically routed to the call center for Clallam, Jefferson, and Kitsap Counties.

Rita Hibbard's picture

Meters for homeless people? Not those kind of meters

Springfield, OR, just became the latest city to add "parking meters" to its streets as a way to reduce panhandling and pay for services for people who are without homes.

They've installed  "meters." So instead of paying a quarter or two for a half hour of parking, passersby  plug 50-cents in the red parking meters to provide a shower for a homeless person. You can do more -- $1 is a hot meal, $3 is a bus pass and $5 supplies a sleeping bag. The Eugene Register Guard reports the program is administered by St. Vincent De Paul, which collects the money and makes sure it goes directly into services for homeless people.

The Springfield effort is modeled on a program in Denver, which helped get folks off the street and into shelter. A report there found that after 18 months the project resulted in a 92 percent reduction in the number of panhandlers in the downtown improvement district. They've also caught on around the country and in Canada, including Montreal and Ottawa. Portland, just up I-5, also has a "meters for the homeless" effort underway.

Some homeless advocates, however, don't like the concept, as Matt Palmquist reported in Miller-McCune Online.

The Youngest Faces of Homelessness

The preschool children and toddlers playing at 1900 Rainier Avenue S need to nap, play, and learn just like every other kid. The only thing different about these children is that they might not know where they are going to sleep that night.

But at the Early Learning program at the non-profit Wellspring Family Services, children at risk of homelessness or experiencing homelessness can receive specialized curriculum and emotional and social assessment.

Because the experts of Wellspring Family Services know that children’s brains and future emotional behavior develops the most between the ages of one and five, they step in early to prevent future family homelessness and ensure stable lifestyles for children in crisis or transitional situations.

But Wellspring does not stop with the children—in addition to housing assistance and eviction prevention programs, it offers men’s domestic violence groups, chemical dependency support, and at-home therapist visits to ensure that leaned behavioral patterns go home where they are most needed.

Unlike other social services agencies and non-profits, Wellspring’s Baby Boutique, opened in 1995, offers one-stop shopping for entire familie. Parents can come in and outfit an entire family with clothes, toys for kids of all ages. It offers everything from toilets for potting training to prom dresses.

The Baby Boutique, like other organizations such as ReWA and Consejo, often offers internships and work experience for clients who have succeeded in their programs and are more than ready and willing to give back to the community. The boutique is supported by mothers who have previously used the services and young adults directed from the YWCA’s workforce placement program.

Defining “Family” Homelessness

When I am researching family homelessness, the question that continues to recur is, what defines a family? In 2009, a two-parent homeless family made up 13.5 percent of the homeless population in Washington State, while a single woman with children made up nearly 27 percent of the population.

Not identified in this state report were children living in homeless situations with extended family members, such as a grandma or an aunt. According to a study by the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly three million children lived with a grandparent without either parent present. That number increased to nearly seven million when parents had their parents living with them.

The problem with identifying families as only parents and children is that it may leave out the true head of the household. For instance, a grandfather may be the sole income generator for a single mother, but if they lose their apartment or house, the grandfather and granddaughter will more than likely have to be split up into different transitional housing units because units in the state only take what they classify as homeless women with children.

A broader definition of what creates a family needs to be determined to allow comprehensive services to be available to all types of families. There are families that are inter-generational and families with same-sex couples, families that take on the care for a friend’s child and families that consist of a brother and sister. Splitting these families up not only causes emotional stress, it also causes deep- rooted negative feelings towards agencies that may be trying to help them.

The Communal Impact of Homelessness

Last week, I sat down with LaKesha Knatt, program development manager at First Place, an elementary and middle school designed especially for homeless children. First Place has been recognized for excellence in curriculum development, and relief services. It  can boast of successful graduates who have made names for themselves in local business and community activism. With a team of dedicated and highly qualified staff, First Place is more than equipped to care for the needs, educationally, emotionally, and psychologically, of its students. 

But as the daughter of a woman who works in education, and a peer of many local community volunteers and activists, I wondered if programs such as First Place offer anything in the way of psychological support for the very people who are assisting those in need—teachers, administrators, case managers, counselors, volunteers. I asked Knatt if her peers were offered, or required to take, on-site emotional-social counseling to ensure they can cope with hearing and witnessing daily tales of violence, neglect and abuse, given that such fields often see a high turnover rate.

Knatt smiled and replied, “You know, we don’t. That’s something I should really talk to the team about.” First Place requires intensive and innovative training for their teachers, both at the beginning of the school year and at mid-year to help teachers and staff respond best to crisis situations, and has an on-site physchologist for emotional support.

After being in First Place for only an hour, the training’s impact is clear—all staff speak with students with the utmost of care and sensitivity, ensuring them they are in a safe place where they are expected to succeed. Because First Place is entirely privately funded, their limited resources naturally and rightly go to places of highest need—providing education, food, clothing, and housing assistance for homeless families.

Barriers of adulthood: Foster youth face homelessness

Where were you when you turned 18?

I was a senior in high school, celebrating the chance to finally call myself an adult. My family threw me a big birthday party complete with grilled chicken on the barbeque, grandma’s homemade pie, and plenty of presents. I had worries about which university I would choose or how prepared I was for fastpitch try-outs. What was definitely NOT on my mind was homelessness.

When a foster child turns 18, they are welcomed into adulthood with a notification that they are utterly on their own. Their foster family no longer receives benefits to house them. If the foster family is kind and able, the family will voluntarily agree to care for the foster child until he or she graduates high school, but not even half are so lucky.

According to a 2004 study by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), only 50 percent of foster youth graduate high school or earn a GED. The study goes on to say that within the first year of turning 18 years old, 57 percent of foster youth were unemployed. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that on average, only 23 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 19 years old are unemployed. Therefore, a foster child is more than twice as likely to be unemployed than a child not in foster care within the first year of adulthood.

Without an education, employment, and traditional family support, many foster youth end up on the streets. Not only is it unfair to the foster child to be forced out of their home when they turn 18, it also creates a major roadblock to their economic survival. I can’t say it any better than the DSHS study, which concludes by saying, “Foster youth need more concrete services in the areas of daily living skills, skills in obtaining housing, employment and education to help them transition successfully to independence.”

Art helps at-risk youth survive and thrive

The greatest risk for the development of a writer is self-censorship. Last night, I attended another session of a poetry group with Friends of the Children, where volunteers, mentors, and a therapist all gather to help foster youth express in poetry the anxiety of growing up in unstable situations. And weekly, we remind our teens that they can say anything they wish—they can swear, they don’t have to spell anything correctly, and they can talk about topics that their teachers forbid them to mention—gangs, abuse, rape, fights.

And yet each week, I see these youth decide that something they want to say is not worth saying. They decide these things because they have been previously led to believe that their experience should not be encouraged and validated.

During Seattle University’s first seminar on family homelessness for journalists and scholars, Vince Matulionis of United Way mentioned that one of the most difficult parts of being homeless can be the fact that people do not make eye contact with someone on the street or with someone asking for assistance. Each avoidance, he said, can take a little piece of dignity from someone who is homeless, just like each act of self-censorship robs a piece of confidence from these teens.

Though it is commonly thought that the term “homeless” only refers to someone without a house over their head, the term, as Carol, Cassandra and I are learning, has come to represent a much wider variety of people for whom stable living is an issue—foster youth, detained youth, women who couch-surf to escape domestic violence, or someone who is just about to lose their home. So how does one learn to express oneself, to tell one’s story, when food, housing, and safety are the most immediate concerns?