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!

How the One Night Count changed my perspective.

Overnight Thursday – Friday, January 23-24, hundreds of volunteers from across King County showed up to help with the One Night Count‘s Street Count of people sleeping without shelter. They started at headquarters from Seattle to Shoreline to Bellevue, Auburn, Federal Way, Kent, White Center, the University District, and Renton. And together, over three hours, they helped us to document 3,123 people who were 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. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be posting the stories of One Night Count volunteers.

This first story is from Rebecca R., who coincidentally shares my first name and last initial! Here are her words:

I did not know what to expect going into my first One Night Count. I work with people who are homeless every day in my job at the Issaquah Food and Clothing Bank, but that’s different. For starters, it’s not in the middle of the night. Next, people usually come to me; I don’t seek them out, potentially invading their space and privacy. So I woke up at 1 a.m. Friday morning feeling a strange mix of excitement, nervousness and grogginess.

I requested and was placed at the Renton Headquarters. The rest of my team was made up of our Team Captain, two other counters, and me. It was wonderful to connect with other people who work in fields that are different from mine, but that all touch the same populations.

We set out right at 2 a.m., all piling into our Team Captain’s car for our first stop. We stopped at stores, parks and underpasses, always searching for sleeping forms or tents. We tried to be as quiet as possible, so we wouldn’t disturb sleeping people. None of us complained about the early hour or the cold, because how could we, when we were looking at people sleeping outside? The One Night Count really puts things into perspective, highlighting the day to day, hour to hour and minute to minute struggle of people who literally have nowhere to go. There is no place for people to sleep comfortably and safely outdoors. At best, they find an isolated spot, crawl into a sleeping bag and wake up with the sun. Worst case, people are assaulted, have their possessions stolen, or told to move on.

By 5 a.m. we had covered our assigned area and headed back to the Renton Headquarters to warm up and grab some breakfast. Our team had counted a total of 7 people, including a few people in campers and tents.

I can now see our customers who are homeless with new eyes. They are coming into the Food Bank having struggled for hours to get warm, dry and comfortable, plus get a little sleep. If they seem out of it or irritable, who wouldn’t be after that ordeal, day after day, night after night? The One Night Count is not only a count of people who are homeless in our community, it is a reminder that we cannot judge someone’s attitude, action or ability to accomplish seemingly simple tasks if they do not have a safe and warm place to sleep.

I am not saying it is feasible to immediately house everyone who is living outside. But what we can do, right now, today is to look at our homeless neighbors with new eyes. We can find it within us to smile instead of look away. Buy a hot cup of coffee for someone who looks cold. Feel compassion instead of irritation when someone asks for change. 

I am grateful for the opportunity to help with the 2014 One Night Count, and for the chance to see so many people with a new perspective. 

Rebecca, we’re grateful for you. Thank you for sharing in this work to ensure safety and survival for people who are homeless, and to see an end to homelessness in our region.

Support us in this crucial work. All gifts made through February 28th will be matched, doubling your impact.

Policy Update: The 2014 Legislative Session — Part 1

Washington State’s 2014 Legislative Session began on Monday, January 13, 2014 and will continue through its 60th and last day on Thursday, March 13, 2014. It’s a short one, Friends. And this is one of the many reasons why your voice needs to be heard in Olympia today, tomorrow, and throughout this Legislative Session.

Today marks the 22nd day of Session. That means we have 4 (four!) days to get important bills voted out of their respective policy committee by February 7.The naysayers are wrong when they tell you it’s too late, that too much has already been decided. There is still enough time and many opportunities to make a difference. Plenty of good bills need help — your help! — to get through the law-making process. In particular, here are some of those bills and messages (with hyper-linked Factsheets) that we hope you’ll stand with us in supporting:

At the Coalition’s Homelessness Advocacy 101 workshops this past Saturday, two Legislative Aides shared with us the “secret” to getting heard in Olympia: tell Legislators that you care, a simple message about why you care, and do it in a way that’s easiest for youNancy Amidei, cheerleader for democracy and our Guest Presenter at the workshops, echoed that sentiment, saying that one doesn’t have to be an expert or have a Ph.D. to be an advocate.

A simple message can make a big impact. Here are Nina, Maggie, Kathryn, and me (Rebecca) holding hundreds of to-be-delivered advocacy postcards at #HHAD2014.

A simple message can make a big impact. Here are Nina, Maggie, Kathryn, and me (Rebecca) holding hundreds of to-be-delivered advocacy postcards at #HHAD2014.

Whether you want to send an advocacy postcard, e-mail your Legislators, leave a message through the Legislative Hotline (1-800-562-6000), or head down to Olympia to meet in-person, your voice is valuable and needed. Communicate with your Legislators what you care about and why to ensure that Everyone Counts 365 days a year. 

Recap: Coalition’s General Meeting – December 19, 2013

As we were bidding farewell to 2013, Alison and I discussed what we’d like 2014 to look like for the Coalition’s Everyone Counts blog.  One idea that we’re running with is to post a recap after every General Member Meeting. 2013 was a great year for our Coalition, and one we want to build off of in 2014. So, here to ring in this New Year with our new tradition is a Recap of December’s General Member meeting.

As a reminder, the General Member Meeting takes place every third Thursday of the month from 9.00 – 11.00 a.m. at the East Cherry YWCA (2820 E. Cherry Street in Seattle). For more information, check our website’s Members’ tab for a link to the ‘Committees & Meetings’ page, or simply follow this link to take you there directly. Our next General Member Meeting is Thursday, January 16, 2014.

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Seattle Final Budget News & Thank You to Mayor Mike McGinn

  • Our friends at the Seattle Human Services Coalition’s handout highlights our HUGE win with the City of Seattle Budget process: an additional investment of $6,891,219!
  • Out-going Mayor Mike McGinn and Jerry DeGrieck, Senior Policy Advisor to Mayor McGinn, came to receive the Coalition’s sincerest Thank You for their leadership and commitment to Seattle residents over the past four years, and also for his strong support of the Coalition’s budget recommendations this past year. Mayor McGinn shared his heartfelt thanks to the Coalition and its members for all of our advocacy, and encouraged us to keep it up.

2014 Legislative Session Preview

  • Robin Zukoski of Columbia Legal Services (CLS) provided background and an overview about the upcoming Legislative Session.
  • Ben Miksch of Washington Low Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA) shared with us WLIHA’s 2014 State Legislative Agenda.
  • Carrie Dolwick of Transportation Choices Coalition shared the status of Transportation policy at the State and Local level, as well as the possibility of a low-income Metro fare.
  • Join the Coalition as we press forward on issues related to:
    • Funding affordable housing and homeless services,
    • Homeless students and youth in foster care,
    • Housing and Essential Needs,
    • Fair tenant screening practices,
    • A fairer tax system,
    • Sustainable funding for public transit, and
    • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits.

Coalition Staff Report

  • Rebecca Roy, Community Projects Manager, previewed the 2014 One Night Count: overnight Thursday-Friday, January 23-24, 2014 (i.e., very early in the morning on Friday, January 24 from 2 a.m. – 5 p.m.).

King County Winter Shelter Advocacy      

  • Last year, King County Executive Dow Constantine doubled the King County Winter Shelter’s capacity to provide a total of 100 beds for people who are homeless to access safe shelter and get out of the bitter cold. This year, temperatures dropped faster and much earlier than in years prior, yet the King County Winter Shelter didn’t see a correlative increase in capacity. Advocates have called, written, and petitioned, asking King County to once again double the capacity — and nothing has happened. Now, we demand that Executive Constantine respond to the need in our community just as he did last year. Please call Executive Constantine at 206.263.9600 and tell him add 50 beds to allow men who are homeless to safely sleep at the Administration Building Shelter.

Special Musical Interlude: John Shaw

  • John Shaw is a musician, activist, writer, and long-time friend of the Coalition.  He read from his newly released book, which will change how you think about the classic songs “God Bless America” and “This Land is Your Land.”  Lucky for us, he brought his guitar, and we shared in some good ol’ group singing.

Notes from November’s General Member Meeting

  • A full hour was devoted to Sara Robbins and Stephanie Earheart, Benefits Attorneys from Solid Ground, one-of-a-kind, in-depth presentation on the Affordable Care Act and Washington’s Health Benefits exchange. Issues covered included: transitions for current Medicaid recipients, new eligibility guidelines for Medicaid and tax subsidies and a little bit on navigating the WA Health Plan Finder. This was an incredible opportunity to get questions answered, and to better understand the sign-up process. Here’s a link to their presentation: ACA Lecture Solid Ground 11-21-13.

Save these dates on your calendar:

  • 2014 One Night Count will be overnight Thursday, Jan. 23 to Friday, Jan. 24.
    • Youth Count Activities will take place during the day on Thursday, Jan. 23
    • The Veterans Survey will take place during the day on Friday, Jan. 24.
  • Housing & Homelessness Advocacy Day will be Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. Register at www.wliha.org.
  • Homelessness Advocacy 101: Beyond the One Night Count Workshop will be Saturday, Feb.1, 2014 from 10 a.m. – 12 noon @ Plymouth UCC in Seattle and from 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. @ Kent Lutheran Church in Kent. Register at www.homelessinfo.org.
  • Have a Heart for Kids Day will be Monday, Feb. 3, 2014
  • Youth Advocacy Day will be Friday, Feb.14, 2014. Register with the Mockingbird Society.
  • Legislative Session will be Jan.13, 2014 – Mar. 13, 2014.

We look forward to seeing you at the next General Member Meeting on Thursday, January 16, 2014! And be sure to check back here for a Recap following each meeting. 

Nancy Amidei’s Food Stamp Diary: Week Three (Including a Holiday Message to Congress, urging them to restore cuts made to SNAP)

WEEK THREE

Day One

Went to a friend’s birthday celebration – which means I ate well that night, AND I can stretch last week’s meat purchase a bit longer.  I mentioned feeling guilty that I’d eaten so well, and was told:  think of it as a visit to a soup kitchen – rare, but wonderful.

Day Two

One thing I hear a lot:  “What about beans? They’re good for you, and low-cost.”
Answer:  I’m not too fond of beans, especially not as a big part of my diet.

However I AM getting lots of money-saving tips – many of which involve cooking that takes a long time. It’s a trade-off that can work for someone like me, but not for anyone with a low-paying job, long commutes, and/or no kitchen (e.g., if I were living in my car, or at a shelter).

Day Three

A friend gave me three oranges ~ what a treat!  Later, at a meeting, someone put out a bowl of red grapes.  Fruit TWICE in the same day!  In the past, that would not feel like a big deal; on $4.20/day – it’s a VERY big deal.
And since I’m fighting a cold, that fruit feels downright therapeutic.  Plus, I spotted some leftover Halloween candy in a kitchen drawer… good news for my sugar-craving (tho’ admittedly not in my budget).

Day Four

Finishing off my potatoes and carrots.  Running out of bread; tired of cheap cheese.  If this continues, I’ll try to make some different choices, based on what I’ve learned… if I can. However I realized today that I’m going through a lot of cough drops (which I didn’t count in my food budget). While it’s true that I have a cold and cough, I suspect this is really about keeping a taste in my mouth when I’m hungry.  Hmmm.

Day Five

It now appears likely that the Conference Committee on the Farm Bill will not finish before Congress adjourns at the end of this week.  That means the issue of food stamp cuts won’t be settled til Congress convenes again in January.  It also means I won’t be facing the holidays on $4.20/day. A relief.
But I’m keenly aware that everyone who depends on food stamps isn’t so lucky.

Last Day

Dropped another half-pound.  Used up the last of the eggs in my fridge, the last of a few other items.  If Congress hadn’t adjourned, I’d be heading out to shop for a week’s worth of groceries for $29.40. Everyone should do this for a couple of weeks, especially anyone who thinks getting food stamps makes for an easy life, or prompts people to quit their jobs.

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It is hard to fathom why Congress would “choose” hunger for millions of people by cutting SNAP even more – and yet that’s what’s being proposed when Congress returns in January.  Low-income people don’t “choose” hunger.  It’s no mystery that SNAP use rises when unemployment rises, and falls when the economy picks up.  And while SNAP helps, $4.20/day for food doesn’t make unemployment easy.

In each of my three weeks on a food stamp allotment, I was:  thinking of food a LOT; conscious of a growling stomach a LOT; and generally aware of having less energy.  Why anyone would wish that on millions of children, elderly, low-wage workers, and people with disabilities – especially in our food-rich country – is beyond me.

So I hope that everyone reading this will send a Holiday Message about SNAP to our two U.S. Senators (Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell) and your 1 U.S. Representative. Not sure how to contact your U.S. Senators or Representatives, visit the Coalition’s website to find their contact information. Your message can be something as simple as:

  ”In the midst of holiday meals and parties, I hope you will remember all those who are struggling to get by on food stamps.  And when Congress reconvenes, ask your colleagues to RESTORE the cuts made on November 1, and REJECT any further cuts in SNAP.”

 

Nancy Amidei’s Food Stamp Diary, Week 2: “This week’s bread is cheaper, but less filling.”

Greg Kauffman, who writes for The Nation, just published a scathing article on Bill Moyers’ website entitled “Why Is a Senate Democrat Agreeing to Another $8 Billion in Food Stamp Cuts?”  Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow (D) chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, and is a leading negotiator on the Farm  Bill (the huge piece of legislation that determines farm subsidies as well as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance  Program (SNAP), aka Food Stamps).  Stabenow is reportedly poised to agree to billions more in cuts. Kauffman describes the political landscape, in which Senate Democrats, as well as conservative House Republicans, are proposing devastating cuts to this basic support:

Despite the fact that the Institute of Medicine demonstrated the inadequacy of the SNAP benefit allotment and that a child’s access to food stamps has a positive impact on adult outcomes, the program was just cut by $5 billion on November 1. The average benefit dropped from $1.50 to $1.40 per meal. The Senate Agriculture Committee’s previous proposal to cut yet another $4 billion from SNAP would have led to 500,000 losing $90 per month in benefits, the equivalent of one week’s worth of meals.

“That was the first time in history that a Democratic-controlled Senate had even proposed cutting the SNAP program,” said Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “The willingness of some Senate Democrats to double new cuts to the program…is unthinkable.” {emphasis added}

Food Stamps were never designed to meet all of a person’s or family’s nutritional needs. However, as we have seen federal and state cuts to programs benefiting people who are elderly, disabled, children, unemployed, or underemployed, Food Stamps are a significant part of a family’s food budget. It is hard to imagine a more worthwhile program, or one that is more targeted to people who are clearly poor and hungry in our nation.

There are currently 47 million Americans who turn to food stamps to help make ends meet. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly 72 percent are in families with children and one-quarter of SNAP participants are in households with seniors or people with disabilities. Further, 91 percent of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes below the poverty line and 55 percent to households below half of the poverty line (about $9,500 annually for a family of three).

In other words, Food Stamps not only help poor and vulnerable people – they help our neighbors who are extremely poor and vulnerable. SNAP helps people put food on the table, and their modest purchases in turn bring millions of dollars of food purchases into local economies across the United States.  Deeper cuts to Food Stamps will produce more hungry and malnourished children and seniors, with devastating near- and long-term effects on the health of the American people.

Our friend and long-time homelessness and anti-hunger advocate, Nancy Amidei sent us the latest installment of her diary about eating on $4.20 a day, what the average person receiving Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or Food Stamps now receives.  She is urging Washington’s Congresswoman Suzan Del Bene, who is a member of the conference committee, to join her.  Please join Nancy in letting Rep. Del Bene know that we are counting on her to protect SNAP.  You may call Rep. Del Bene’s local Bothell office staff at (425) 485-0085, or send an e-mail via her website.

WEEK TWO – Post-Thanksgiving.  I admit:  I cheated.  I took a “Thanksgiving break” from eating on a “food stamp diet.” So, as my second week on $4.20/day begins, that means I also start  out abundantly well-fed.  All last week I was conscious of how much my family had of everything. It wasn’t just the heaping plates of meat and vegetables during meals, there were all sorts of nuts and cheeses before meals, and afterward — we’d have dessert!

Day One: Went shopping today, calculator in hand, to figure per-meal-costs of every item. One result:  shopping took a LOT longer.  I bought what I hope is a week’s worth of food for $29.68.  And that was only possible because I had some coupons from my daily newspaper. Even so, I could only afford two vegetables:  carrots, and potatoes. (The green ones are all too pricey.)  Also missing:  fruit, something sweet.

Day Two:  At a mid-morning meeting, a colleague bought me coffee – full-strength!  YEA. But this week’s bread is cheaper, and already I’ve learned:  it’s also less-filling. V-8 was on sale so it’s my lunch-time vegetable this week (at half the recommended portion).  Dinner will be the same as last night.  But I know I’m lucky.  If I didn’t have a fridge or was living in my car, making it on food stamps would be impossible.

Day Three: I ran into a woman who’d read about what I was doing.  She said after getting groceries for her family, she checked the food stamp amount for a family of their size, and — despite being careful — found she’d just spent nearly three times that.  Meanwhile, by mid-morning, my stomach was growling.  But, I found a couple of apples in the back of the fridge… had it in small amounts (to stretch it out). Very exciting. Dinner – same as last two nights.  Plus, I miss chocolate.

Day Four:  Had a lunch-time meeting at a restaurant. With tips and tax, lunch equaled nearly 5 days’ allotment. Even though I brought half of my lunch home (to stretch to two meals), and eating out can be avoided, not all high costs can be.  What if I had diabetes? or other special diet needs?  or was being treated for cancer?

Day Five: Confession:  last night I found, and ate, some chocolate.  Even so, when I weighed in this a.m., I’d lost another 1.5 pounds.  And, I notice that my lower-cost breakfast cereal leaves me hungry by mid-morning.  Very grateful I don’t have a waitress or maid’s job involving lots of moving/hauling/energy. Today’s menus are like all other days this week. Still eating the chicken cooked on Day One; it’s a bit old, but it’s dinner… and appreciated.

It’s time to increase shelter capacity. King County has a good place to start: inside its own Administration Building.

Pass by the King County Administration Building at 4th Avenue at James Street in Seattle on an evening between November and March, and you’ll see a long line of about 50 people. They are waiting to get inside the men’s winter shelter that has, for many years, been hosted inside the building, thanks to funding from King County. The shelter has functioned on the loading dock of the building, in the lobby, and in other space, depending on the arrangements made between the building’s Facilities Management and the shelter provider, currently the Salvation Army. (The history of how this shelter came to be is a good story for another time.)

This is a pretty minimalist shelter: no beds, just mats on the floor. There’s access to a bathroom, but no showers. Dinner is not served, and until last year not only did the shelter not open its doors until 9.00 p.m., but men were specifically instructed not to line up before then. (Given that shelter is first come, first served, and that people who spent the night there previously have priority to sleep there the next night, this instruction is impossible to fathom, unless you accept the unspoken logic behind it: homeless people should not be visibly homeless. They should materialize 5 minutes before the shelter doors open, and dematerialize 5 minutes after they exit the building, at 6.00 a.m.)

Thanks to modest additional investments from Seattle and King County, and reasonable conversations with stakeholders, including the Coalition, last winter this shelter was expanded to double its capacity, serving 100 men each night. This expanded capacity lasted not only through the winter, but through the spring, and into the first two weeks of June. This unprecedented extension of Winter shelter revealed a simple truth: when decent indoor shelter is offered consistently, people want and need and use it — even when the weather improves. The additional 50 spaces were essentially full through May, the numbers dropping only when it was clear that the shelter would be closing, and people evidently determined that they would, once again, have to fend for themselves overnight as best they could.

Here is the letter I sent on behalf of the Coalition to King County Executive Dow Constantine and the Members of the King County Council, asking them to repeat the successful trial run of last winter and spring.

27 November 2013

King County Executive Dow Constantine
Chinook Building
401 5th Ave. Suite 800
Seattle, WA 98104

Dear Executive Constantine:

I am writing to ask you to double the capacity of the winter shelter in the King County Administration building to 100 people as quickly as possible. I write not only on behalf of the Coalition’s member organizations, and the thousands of King County residents they support with food, shelter, services, and housing each day and night, but on behalf of the nearly three thousand people whom you and I know will be sleeping outside tonight. The bitterly cold weather this past week is a reminder that shelter is, quite simply, a matter of life and death.

As you noted at the last Governing Board meeting of the Committee to End Homelessness, even one person sleeping outside is too many. While severe weather and winter survival shelters have recently opened in several other parts of King County, I understand that the winter men’s shelter in the King County Administration Building has yet to increase to its maximum service capacity.

This expansion can be accomplished quickly, and for a relatively modest amount of money. Last year at this time, thanks to your support, and special additional investment from the City of Seattle, 100 men slept safely each night in the Administration Building shelter. This compassionate and efficient increase in capacity lasted for seven months. From November 15 through June 15 the original space for 50 men was full every night. The second shelter space remained at capacity as winter turned into a cold spring. Contrary to the shelter provider’s expectations, the second shelter space provided an average of 40 men dignified nightly respite even in May. There is no question about the need and desire for this additional shelter.

Our community’s commitment to ending homelessness should and must include responding to people’s emergency needs for safety, shelter, and connection, as well as the creation of stable, accessible, and affordable housing. We have come too far in the last eight years to accept anything less than an increased and energetic commitment to our common goals. As we prepare for the January 24, 2014 One Night Count, I hope that you will take swift action to ensure that 50 more people are sleeping inside on that night, rather than on the streets.

The Coalition is deeply grateful for your work and for the King County Council’s work to ensure that the budget passed this year includes support for shelter and services for homeless youth and young adults. I urge you to work with King County Council to secure the necessary resources that will allow building staff and the Salvation Army to rapidly enact the same life-saving shelter expansion as last winter.

As always, the Coalition on Homelessness welcomes close collaboration with our partners in local government in working to end homelessness for our King County neighbors today, tonight, and tomorrow.

Sincerely,

Alison Eisinger
Executive Director

cc: King County Council Chair Larry Gossett
King County Council Vice Chair Jane Hague
King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski
King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn
King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert
King County Councilmember Joe McDermott
King County Councilmember Julia Patterson
King County Councilmember Larry Phillips
King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer

Dan Brettler, Co-Chair, Governing Board, Committee to End Homelessness in King County
Gretchen Bruce, Committee to End Homelessness in King County
Greg Ferland, King County Community Services Division
Janice Hougen, King County Community Services Division
Mark Putnam, Building Changes
Adrienne Quinn, King County Community Services Division