This past week I have been helping a mother of newborn. Some people from Kent got involved but they are completely clueless about the reality of how homeless providers in King County work. They seem to forget that I've been dealing with this issue for over eight years now and not much has changed. Why do you think I work around the obvious lack of help so many homeless deal with on a daily basis? We don't need people who have never known a homeless day in their life to tell us to call a bunch of numbers we already know is a waste of time. Why? Because unlike people who are insulated from homelessness, we do not have the luxury of telling other people what to do while having a home to go to every night, assuming that if other people are in a hard position, they must somehow not be doing enough to get out of it.
The fact of the matter is, no matter what a homeless person does, calling phone numbers every day to check for openings at a shelter that is already overwhelmed is not a valid option. Telling people to go back through the 211 phone system after talking to a housing "specialist" who sets them up with appointments to programs that keep telling them there's a minimum of two years on the waiting lists for anything remotely permanent is also unacceptable. Yet that is exactly what gets said to homeless people.
Enter Nicole, a 14 year cancer survivor with a newborn she named "Miracle." I picked Nicole up from where she was staying last Friday because it was her last day at an acquaintance's house who only agreed to let them stay for a month. Nicole was going to just sleep in her car (which does not run) with the baby. Nicole is married and trying to keep her family together. Her husband works but is on disability and only gets $600 a month that they use to barely survive on, but it's not enough to keep a roof over their head. Nicole called 211 to be put in touch with a housing "specialist" who made an appointment with the Renton Housing Authority -- but that appointment isn't until June. A male representative named Shaun suggested to Nicole to go find a friend to leave the newborn with and try to get into a women's homeless shelter for herself and leave her husband behind. Let me ask you something: would you let your family get ripped apart when asking for housing help? No? Then why tell other people to do so then get an attitude when they don't? That is not helping homeless people!
Now here's another facet to this disaster. Say Nicole finds a job: how's she going to pay for childcare? If the first thing that comes out of your mouth is to call childcare assistance programs, do us all a favor and close it! For those of you who don't know, you have to qualify for assistance and if you get a minimum wage job, guess what? You don't "qualify" for childcare assistance from Washington State because there are income requirements. So OK, say she gets a living wage job and "qualifies" she gets help immediately, right? WRONG! There's a six to eight week waiting list! If childcare is not in place when you start the job, then what? Nicole's husband is trying to find gainful employment and does work temp jobs here and there so babysitting everyday won't work and they'll still need childcare! If you think this is frustrating, try dealing with social workers who are either not very bright, overworked or a combination of both. I personally can tell you of cases where social workers caused me more problems than they actually helped -- but this isn't about me. It's about a ridiculous maze of bureaucracy homeless folks have to find their way through and by the time they do, they're still homeless.
Somebody asked me about groups like the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness and my very honest reply was that I don't waste time with organizations whose only function seems to be mitigating misery instead of actually making an impact on issues like how much affordable housing has been lost, the blatant criminalization of homeless persons or even helping folks overcome barriers to finding jobs that pay a living wage. Oh they're very good at moving numbers around on paper and trumpeting what little accomplishments they've made but ask them how many people they've actually gotten into permanent housing. How much money have they spent on creating affordable housing? Take a good look at CEHKC'S profile of failure on this "Take Action" link hosted by Real Change News in April and see just how effective this coalition has been.
Remember Amanda? The 19 year old mother of a two year old I mentioned in my blogs and tweets? Her hotel stay ran out last week and I have no idea where they are. She got tired of the run around of going through 211, getting set up with appointments then going to those appointments to answer the same questions over and over only to be told there's a two year waiting list for permanent housing. Last I heard from Amanda was that she and her boyfriend and daughter were camping in a tent somewhere with nowhere else to go. Amanda keeps trying but said that she sees no way out of the endless hurry up and wait syndrome most programs are steeped in. She wants to go to school but finds herself in the same sinking boat as Nicole. Hotel stays are expensive and not the best answer to help homeless people but that's the only option they have right now and that option has a time limit. When donations run out to keep her at a hotel, Nicole and her family will be put out on the street with all their stuff and nowhere to go.
Do you get it now?