Opening doors to the Conference on Ending Homelessness: the Coalition’s Scholarships for people who are homeless!

The air was warm and the sun was already out the morning we rolled into the Yakima Convention Center parking lot for the first day of the 2014 Conference on Ending Homelessness. Tracey with his sweet service pup, Jennifer, and I got out of my car and gave a big stretch after the two and a half hour drive from Seattle to Yakima, Washington, a beautiful drive indeed. On our drive over the mountains, we bonded over this being each of our first attending the statewide conference, and also found common ground over interest in workshops. Maybe it was the blood flowing back freely to our limbs, but we each felt a buzz and energy as we walked across the warm cement parking lot into a sea of fellow advocates and champions of housing and homelessness from around the state of Washington. We’d exchanged contact information, made check-in plans, and off we went into this new, exciting experience!

2014 Scholarship Recipient Susan speaking at 2015 Gong Ringing in Olympia

2014 Scholarship Recipient Susan speaking at 2015 Gong Ringing in Olympia

Staff from organizations who are plugged into the Coalition told Tracey, Jennifer, and Susan – our 2014 scholarship Recipients – about the conference and the Coalition’s full scholarships for people who are currently homeless. Last year, ten people applied for our two scholarships. Luckily, we were able to stretch the Coalition’s Scholarship Fund to provide two full and one partial scholarships.

 

Neatly packed into those three sentences are some important messages that I’d like to tease out:

  • People who are homeless must be involved in the conversations and work to end homelessness — that includes conferences such as this one!
  • It’s important to ensure access to opportunities like the Conference on Ending Homelessness, and in doing so, address the many barriers that prevent people from being able to participate. That’s exactly why we provide a FULL scholarship: travel, accommodations, meals, registration, supplies, and person-to-person support (as much or as little is desired).
  • Our member organizations do incredible work day in and day out to support not just their organization’s mission and the mission of the Coalition, but also the people they serve. They spread the word about the Coalition’s Scholarships and support their clients, residents, and guests by helping them apply and prepare for the conference!
  • The interest and need for these scholarships is obvious, and greater than the Coalition can currently meet.
  • Membership dues and YOUR financial support allow us to continue and grow to meet the need. Donate today to create opportunities for people who are homeless to participate in the Conference on Ending Homelessness! (Want streeeeettttcchhh your gift even farther? Maker your donation on Tuesday, May 6 during #GiveBig!)

rally on capitol building steps

After the conference, as I drove to the local Greyhound bus stop, we spoke about our experiences at the conference: our favorite presenters, the best workshop, the people we met, and how nice it was to have a big, soft bed with  ultra clean sheets.  Will you remember to send me those membership papers? I want to join the Coalition! I loved this – I learned so much, and got some business cards. That guy said he wants to help me. I hope I remember to get off the bus in Seattle — I’m so  tired!  Yes, sleepy we all were after two days of constant interaction and learning, but Tracey, Susan, and Jennifer had an energized spirit about them — they were inspired and felt a connection to the people in the room, all aiming to achieve the same mission: to see an end to homelessness in our communities.

Everything about this conference and those who attend inspires and energizes me. That is why I am excited to report that we recently put out our initial call for applicants for the 2015 Conference on Ending Homelessness, this year in Tacoma, WA! (And we already received our first applicant – hooray!) Those who apply know that this particular opportunity is important and all too rare. Whether by conference or one of the Coalition’s many other advocacy actions, together we will work collaboratively to ensure safety and survival for people who are homeless, and to end the crisis of homelessness in our region.

Join us.

 

Reflections on a rousing 2015 Housing & Homelessness Advocacy Day!

2015 advocacy express advertizing photo On February 17, 2015, 650 of our closest friends and allies from all across the state of Washington gathered in Olympia at Housing and Homelessness Advocacy Day to speak up for affordable housing and an end to homelessness.

Driven by an enthusiastic and cheerful bus driver, we headed to Olympia at 7:15 a.m. with 30 Coalition members and friends –  service providers, clients, residents, guests, and others. For some, it was their first time to Olympia and an introduction to advocacy in action. Others were veterans of HHAD. Everyone on the Advocacy Express bus was rearin’ and ready to make a difference, and that they did!

The Coalition’s Advocacy Express bus rolled up right on time to the morning activities, and found inspiration from the first of many speakers that day. Housing Alliance staff, State legislators, and superstar Real Change vendor Pam Russell all spoke how POWERFUL we housing advocates are when we speak up and act together. It’s because of our collective action and advocacy that the Document Recording Fee bill came back from the dead last session, remember!

Our rally at the Capitol steps was a sight to be seen (and heard!). We were inspired by the voices around us. People who have experienced homelessness personally, service providers, representatives from advocacy organizations, students, community members, and people from all walks of life from all over the state were represented as we chanted from the steps through the buildings of the Capitol:

“When they say ‘cutback’ we say fightback!”
“Get up, get down, there’s a housing crisis in this town.”

We were a sea of 650 people wearing red scarves, red shirts, red hats, and many people wore our One Night Count ‘3772’ and Student Homelessness ‘32,494’ buttons. Even as folks dispersed into their legislative district groups, we were unified and unmistakable throughout the halls of the Capitol. Each button and scarf quietly communicated a strong message of solidarity and the importance of these issues.

In addition to the work we do to recruit and transport folks to HHAD, we at the Coalition have the distinct pleasure of also delivering over 1,100 One Night Count advocacy postcards to legislators who represent parts of King County. Hillary and I had great conversations with many Legislative Assistants, some Legislators, and plenty of the helpful staff at the Capitol.

There’s enough energy, passion,and community at HHAD to recharge and reignite our commitment and resolve to take action and make change. Thank you to each and every person who participated! HHAD is but one day a year – and a great day at that – and the other 364 days are just as important. Whatever the method, make sure your legislators hear from you, and hear from you often. Every call, email, letter, and in-person visit throughout the year is what builds and sustains the momentum we need to make positive change in our communities and across our state for people who are homeless and unstably housed.

HHAD 2015 Bus ride home

Thanks for all you do to speak up!

– Hillary and Rebecca

No Shelter: Counting the Homeless in Seattle by Mary Anne Mercer

We are all in the Huffington Post, thanks to a superb essay by Mary Anne Mercer. She writes about homelessness and inequality, and how tragedy becomes normalized. To every One Night Count Team Captain and volunteer who makes guests welcome, and keeps our community’s count safe, respectful, and accurate ~ thank you. 

No Shelter: Counting the Homeless in Seattle (originally published 02/04/2015)

It was three AM. I was walking down a street in one of Seattle’s toniest neighborhoods with my 25-year-old daughter and another young woman. We were part of Seattle/King County’s One Night Count of the homeless, a massive effort to document the number of “unsheltered” persons on a random winter night, after the shelters had closed their doors.

2015-01-30-volunteersONC.jpg

Photo by C.B. Bell

It was my first time, but fortunately my companions were veterans of working with homeless populations. We spent the next two hours covering specified streets and alleys, peering behind trash cans and into parked cars, doorways and little park-like spaces. The effort, a project of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, was carried out by nearly 1100 volunteers who spent a few early morning hours documenting the men, women and children who had no indoor shelter.

It was a clear, cool January night. We strolled past glittering display windows for the many new condominiums and apartment buildings in the area — brightly lit, elegant showrooms with upscale décor and expensive furniture, plush sofas and carpets. As we moved past a low wall lined with manicured shrubbery, I glanced at a long mound covered by black plastic, nestled under the greenery. The three of us stopped, and suddenly I heard the faint sounds of a popular song. I jumped, and looked over at my daughter, who nodded knowingly. Yes, there was someone under that makeshift shelter, and they were doing what many young people do to lull themselves to sleep after a stressful day — playing music.

We walked a few steps farther, and she said in a low voice, “That counts as a structure, and there are usually two in that kind of space.”

I reached for my clipboard and made two tally marks under “structure, gender unknown.”

We were assigned to a neighborhood with modest numbers of homeless, and by the end of the night we had tallied just a dozen sleeping outside. The entire count, however, revealed 3,772 King County residents without shelter that night — in cars, tents, doorways, parks and under bridges. Additional people were in shelters or in transitional housing. In all, there were nearly 10,000 souls who were without homes on a chilly January night in and around Seattle, a city of 650,000 people.

2015-01-30-ONCtentunderfreewayramp.jpg

Photo by Nathan Tain

 

That tally exceeded last year’s by 21 percent, and yet is an underestimate. Many homeless take great pains to be invisible to passersby, and it is impossible to cover every space where people might sleep in the county.

Most people can’t remember a time when the homeless weren’t an ever-present part of living in a city. But homelessness is, after all, about extreme poverty. It’s also about ever-rising inequality, the dramatic reduction over the past few decades of American jobs that pay a living wage, paired with millions of home foreclosures that were part of the 2008 economic crisis. For homeless single men and women, substance addiction and mental illness are key causes as well. These factors all combined to create a country where an estimated 1.6 to 3.5 million people, as much as 1 percent of the total population, are homeless at some time during a given year. Many of these homeless are employed, but working part time at service and other low-wage jobs that don’t pay enough to cover the expense of housing.

We get a deeper understanding of the pain of homelessness by looking at the individuals who endure it. An estimated 1.5 million American children are homeless at some time during the year. As many as half of the children who “age out” of foster care at age 18 end up living on the streets. Up to 40 percent of homeless adults are military veterans. Most are subject to open discrimination, and many to violence on the streets, with little recourse to protection from the police. Encampments of the homeless are regularly disbanded and forced to move on to other locations, where they are equally unwelcome.

We are a country that not only tolerates this ongoing tragedy, but has come to expect it.

After we finished counting in our assigned blocks that night, the three of us went back to the organizational center for a massive breakfast of eggs, bacon and fried potatoes. Relishing the savory meal, I caught myself saying to my daughter, “I’m glad it didn’t rain — we didn’t bring an umbrella.” I realized I had already detached, distanced myself from the people we had counted, returning to thoughts of my own comfort during our two hours on the streets. Is this how it happens? I wondered. A moment of empathy, quickly eclipsed by personal everyday concerns.

Seattle is fortunate that our mayor Ed Murray is committed to spending more resources to address the immediate problem of homelessness, but we can all be doing something to help. Volunteering with local organizations that support basic services for the least fortunate is a useful activity that can also remind us of the many social problems that poverty and homelessness produce.

But solace for the symptoms won’t cure the problem. If we are to address the conditions that bring about homelessness, Americans need to understand the repercussions of our dramatically rising economic inequality. Learning more can provide both motivation and a means of action. A resource that documents a dizzying array of the causes and effects of US inequality, as well as current approaches to addressing them, is Inequality.org.

Public policy produced the current crisis, and public policy can change it. The growing power of corporate America has led to legislation that protects the wealth of the 1 percent while keeping wages stagnant. In 2010 the Supreme Court determined that that US corporations have the rights of people – even while real human beings don’t have access to one of the most basic human rights, shelter. There’s a lot wrong with that. Unless we find ways to address our worsening inequality, we’ll keep counting those thousands of men, women and children living on our streets and in our alleys, well into the future.

The One Night Count: A Lesson in Gratitude

Photo Credit: Joe Iano for SKCCHThis is the second in a sequence of posts spotlighting the experiences and takeaways of some of our One Night Count volunteers.

The One Night Count is a snapshot of the number of people who are homeless outside. Overnight Thursday – Friday, January 23-24, hundreds of volunteers from across King County showed up to help with the One Night Count at headquarters in Seattle, Shoreline, Bellevue, Auburn, Federal Way, Kent, White Center, the University District, and Renton. This year, in the wee morning hours from 2-5 a.m. volunteers documented 3,123 people trying to make it through a winter night outside, while shelters were full.

While volunteers share the same mission during the Count and a common vision of our community without homelessness, each volunteer has their own unique story. Keep coming back to hear more of their stories.

This moving and powerful story was written by Kahla B-K, a first-time counter who is interning at Solid Ground, and was originally posted on Solid Ground’s blog. Kahla has graciously given us permission to re-post it here for you all to read. Here are her words:

As we gathered in the wee hours of Friday, January 24 at the Compass Housing Alliance for our initial One Night Count volunteer briefing, I thanked the twinkling stars above it wasn’t raining. Over 800 of us would spread out across King County to search for and count people sleeping outside without shelter. The One Night Count (organized by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness) would be a snapshot of homelessness between the hours of 2 and 5am.

As the count began, my team and I quietly weaved our way around the streetlamp-lit areas first, peeking into parked cars and doorways. There was no one in sight. It seemed as if everyone else in the world had vanished. That feeling was probably what allowed me to peer into the dark gaps between dumpsters, or make my way into the spaces between buildings I would never, under normal circumstances, walk into at night. The mood was warm – light, like the glow from the lamps overhead. But that would change.

The cold reality
As the condensation slowly turned to frost, the warmth I had felt was replaced with a shiver. A large park was last on our map to check. We had been told before setting out that we would likely find people here; people really do come to this park to sleep. I was fearful; beyond the reach of the sentinel streetlights, the shadowed expanse behind the vine-choked fence was eerie and unnerving.

It’s one thing to think about the experience of homelessness while warm and safe in bed, but actually going to places where people without homes might sleep was entirely different. I couldn’t imagine having to decide where to sleep each night, let alone the circumstances that would lead me to believe that entering a dark park – without a flashlight – was the best option. What I felt was probably only a glimpse of the fear people experiencing homelessness deal with every day.

We found no one sleeping in the park, however – perhaps we just couldn’t see them. As we ended our search and began our walk back to our group’s meeting spot, we admitted how relieved we were to have a zero tally. That’s when we met John (name changed for privacy).

A face of homelessness
I knew immediately when I saw him that he was homeless. No one, if they could help it, would be out wearing only a thin hoodie and track pants. He threw a smile our way then politely asked us who we were with – noting the bright yellow “volunteer” stickers plastered all over our clothes. A member of our group explained what we were doing out so late at night. John paused and looked down, and then said that he, too, was without a home.

He told us his story and of the complications preventing him from getting the help he needed. All the problems he recounted wove perfectly into the pattern of homelessness – all the issues that agencies like ours are fighting to dismantle. As we talked, he shivered uncontrollably, so strongly at one point he almost lost his balance. And then, diplomatically, he asked if us if there was anything we could do to help.

My coworker and I locked eyes; no words were needed to express how we felt. We had nothing to offer at that moment. If we felt helpless, John’s feelings of utter hopelessness must have been overwhelming. Indeed, he started to sob for a moment in the crook of his arm, hiding his face so we couldn’t see. With tears still caught in the lines under his eyes, he explained his medical condition and the barriers he’s faced seeking treatment.

Clearly suffering from the cold, he said he needed to go to the hospital and asked if we could call 9-1-1, so we did. Fearful of what might have happened to him if we hadn’t been there to call for help, I was suddenly grateful for the icy phone I squeezed in my pocket. He asked us to stay with him until the ambulance arrived. He was still shaking and having trouble standing, so we walked over to the stairs behind us so he could sit. We continued to talk – about his childhood and how he got his name – named after his father’s wartime buddy. He made jokes about what it was like fighting for bathroom time in a house with four sisters.

A human connection
When the fire truck pulled up, he held out his hand to me to shake as he thanked us. He did not let go, but held my hand as he continued to talk on, not wanting us to leave. I didn’t try to pull away. How long had it been since he was able to just talk to someone – for someone to listen? How long since he was comforted by another person’s touch? No, I wouldn’t let go until he did – or until the paramedics made me, which is what happened.

We didn’t wait to see if they would take John somewhere or leave him; after touching base with our whole group, we went our separate ways. And as I drove by on my way home, John was gone. I hoped he was on his way to a warm bed.

The impact of that night lasted far longer than the cold that soaked into my bones after only three hours outside. I shivered the rest of the morning thinking about John and my experience participating in the One Night Count – my electric blanket turned all the way up. Two pairs of socks, two sweaters, a hoodie, and two pairs of pants weren’t enough to warm me – inside or out. While the experience of homelessness is impossible to understand in just a few hours’ time, I came away with a very important lesson that I keep reminding myself of: Be grateful for all that I have – not just a warm bed or a cell phone, but a loved one’s open ears and caring embrace.

If you are interested in getting involved or would like more information on the One Night Count, please visit: www.homelessinfo.org.

All Aboard! Act now to support the Reduced Metro Fare.

Metro Bus

If you’re an able-bodied 19-64-year-old in King County, a one-way bus trip will set you back $2.25-3.00, depending on peak hours and zones being traveled. A transfer ticket will keep the money for your return-trip in your pocket, but only if you get back on the bus within two hours; otherwise, it’s another $2.25-3.00. While Metro tickets are significantly cheaper than parking, on top of the additional combined cost having and maintaining a car, we at the Coalition know that even a one-way bus ticket is out of reach for many in our community.

The Coalition, along with friends and allies at Transportation Choices Coalition, the Seattle Human Services Coalition, Puget Sound Sage, OneAmerica, and the Transit Riders Union, has been a strong voice for a reduced transit fare for people who are low income. Now, we have a real chance to make this happen! See below for what YOU can do to make this a reality! 

King County Executive Dow Constantine has proposed a reduced Metro fare that incorporates many of our recommendations.  People living up to 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line (FPL) would be eligible for a reduced fare of $1.50. In King County, nearly a quarter of the population is at or below 200% FPL. Eligibility would last for one year. At this rate, eligible riders could get a monthly ORCA pass with unlimited rides for $54.

While we are very pleased to see such a progressive and innovative proposal, we are urging the King County Council to further reduce the fare for people who are working to make ends meet.  There will be a special election this April, to raise revenue to save 600,000 hours of bus service: we are asking King County to use this opportunity to ‘buy down’ the fare to $1.25.

Metro is facing a $75 million budget shortfall, and there are 20% service cuts looming.

Why? Our local options for raising money to fund basic infrastructure, like public transportation, are limited by the State’s authority. Washington state’s lawmakers have not voted for more progressive taxes that would allow us to continue (and expand) services. In Executive Constantine’s words, “We’ve done everything within our means to keep people moving. We are out of time for a statewide solution that includes a local option. We must move forward on our own.” Now, the County has limited options to prevent service cuts.

In order to “move forward” we must pass a ballot measure up for public vote on April 22, 2014. The Executive is proposing to prevent bus cuts by increasing the sales tax by one tenth of one percent, and implementing a $60 car tab fee (there will be a partial rebate for some car owners, based on household income). It is frustrating that these two options are flat taxes, that will disproportionately burden poor and working people.  However, this is precisely why we have leverage to make the Reduced Fare happen!

Here’s what you can do right now:

  1. Call and Email your King County Councilmembers. Tell them you support the Reduced Metro Fare proposal, but that $1.50 is still too high, and we need a fairer fare. [Author’s note: I  just used this very link to look up who my King County Councilmember was. I found Larry Phillips’  phone number and left him a voicemail in just three minutes. You can do this!]
  2. Encourage others to do the same!

Here’s what you can plan to do next week:

  • Show your support for the Reduced Fare at King County’s Public Hearing on Tuesday, Feb 18 at 1:30 p.m.
    • Location: King County Council, Room 1001, King County Courthouse (516 3rd Ave, Seattle, WA 98104)
    • Use the time devoted to public comment to share your message!