A person, not a problem: Forum puts a face on Snohomish County’s homeless

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    An overflow crowd attended the Mountlake Terrace Library homelessness forum Tuesday night.

    “I’ve actually been living in an RV since Dec. 27, with no stable place to park,” related a young, recently-homeless man. “I have a full-time job but I don’t have enough money to get another place to stay.” The 28-year-old had been renting a room, but had to move out quickly when the owner of the house sold it to take advantage of the hot local real estate market. The young renter had only 20 days to find a new place to live. As would be the case for many people living paycheck-to-paycheck, it was impossible for him on such short notice to come up with first and last month’s rent and the other deposits needed to rent another room or apartment. He ended up in the RV.

    The young man was one of several homeless persons who spoke at Tuesday evening’s “Homelessness Here” public forum at the Mountlake Terrace Library, and that put human faces on homelessness in the local area. The event explored the scope and causes of homelessness in Snohomish County, and was the last of four such forums sponsored this winter by the Sno-Isle Libraries as part of their “Issues That Matter” program.

    An overflow standing-room-only group of over 120 people packed a library meeting room to hear about the realities of homelessness in our area from a panel of experts representing local agencies and organizations that provide services for the homeless. Kathy Coffey, executive director of Leadership Snohomish County and a member of the Lynnwood Human Services Commission, moderated the forum, where four panel members shared experiences and advice from their work with the homeless.

    The leading cause of homeless is a lack of affordable housing, said Kristen Kane of the Housing Authority of Snohomish County.

    An overriding theme throughout the evening was that, while there are a variety of reasons why people are homeless, in Snohomish County a lack of affordable housing is at the top of the list. “Homelessness is a multifaceted problem,” said Kristen Cane, the director of development and policy at the Housing Authority of Snohomish County. “Some of the causes are domestic violence, mental health and addiction, and intergenerational poverty, but the leading cause of homelessness is an economic issue.”

    According to Cane, “building affordable housing isn’t profitable for the private market, so the private market doesn’t build affordable housing.” As a result, she said, many homeless people work full-time, but can’t afford a place to live. “The livable wage in our county to afford a one-bedroom apartment is $18 an hour, and is $30 an hour for a three-bedroom apartment,” Cane said. “Many jobs don’t pay that wage.”

    She also touched on the scope of homelessness among local families and children. “In Snohomish County we have almost 4,000 kids aged 5 to 18 that are homeless in our 15 school districts,” she said. “In the Edmonds School District, we have 661 homeless kids.”

    Several of the organizations represented at the forum focused on obtaining additional affordable housing and on helping homeless individuals and families find affordable housing that is already available. Elizabeth Kohl, the director of social services for Housing Hope, an organization that provides a full range of affordable housing options in Snohomish County, said that multiple types of housing are needed for the homeless, including emergency shelter, transitional housing, affordable rental units, and home ownership opportunities.

    Now the director of social services for Housing Hope, Elizabeth Kohl knows what it’s like to be homeless. She was on the streets from the time she was 16 until age 25.

    Kohl also described the broad range of homeless people served by her organization. “Last year, Housing Hope served 650 homeless men, women and children in Snohomish County,” Kohl said. Of those, 271 had a disabling condition of some kind and 357 of them were children. “Homelessness hits every member of our society,” she said.

    Speaking from personal experience, Kohl also told the audience that the homeless can get back on their feet with a stable environment and a place to live. “I was on the streets from the time I was 16, off and on until I was 25,” she said, but “Now I have had the opportunity to be a business owner, I’ve raised 6 kids, been a foster parent to nine kids, and I’m the director of an agency with 66 employees that last year served 2,000 people experiencing homelessness or struggling with poverty.”

    Elysa Hovard of Cocoon House says preventing adult homelessness starts by ensuring kids have a home.

    Elysa Hovard, the Director of Outreach at Cocoon House, an organization that serves homeless youth ages 12-24 with housing, prevention, and outreach, highlighted the importance of reaching homeless kids early before they become too accustomed to the street life. Hovard said that, “Chronic homeless adults often report that the first time they became homeless was at the age of 14 or 15. If you want to talk about prevention and what we can do as a community, we should invest in our kids.”

    The panelists also commented on the increasing numbers of homeless people in the area, and the corresponding need for services. Mark Waldin from the South Snohomish Emergency Cold Weather Shelter noted that, “We’ve had a 79 percent increase over the last five years in the number of people coming to the shelter. Five years ago, we had 412 bed nights, with 19 people on average per night. This year so far, we’ve had 1,200 bed nights and an average of 33 people per night.”

    Mark Waldin, left, from the South Snohomish Emergency Cold Weather Shelter makes a point while Elysa Hovard, Elizabeth Kohl and Kristen Kane listen.

    Based at the Edmonds Senior Center, the shelter opens its doors on winter nights when the temperature drops below 34 degrees, and provides homeless individuals with a warm bed, a hot meal, and shelter from the cold. The shelter is run by over 150 volunteers and is always in need of more volunteers.

    Waldin also pointed out that while additional affordable housing for the homeless is a key need, there is another need that is often overlooked. “There is very little energy behind how we can improve people’s lives while they are homeless,” said Waldin, explaining that the homeless need, but often don’t have access to, things that most of us take for granted, including “a mail box, lockers to store their belongings, and showers.”

    During a wrap-up session, the panelists provided final thoughts and suggested ways to help with the complex problem of homelessness. Kristen Cane suggested that local community member, “Double over your commitment to affordable housing and local resources for the homeless. Educate yourself and go to other events on the topic.”

    Kane also implored the forum attendees to work with local government. “Talk to your city council members, state representatives and congressional delegation, and explain the importance of this, and ask for additional funding for affordable housing and homeless programs, and for policies that will make developments easier to build.” She also suggested that people, “Volunteer at a non-profit organization, and If you are part of a church that’s not already involved in this issue, please think about it.”

    Elizabeth Kohl focused on the human element of homelessness, and asked the audience to remember that, “Each person you come across that is homeless isn’t a problem to be solved. They are a person,” and that, “Every person is a human being that is redeemable. We are talking about people’s sons and daughters and sisters and brothers. They are Mom’s and Dad’s and they were childhood friends of someone.”

    Additional information and resources are available on the Sno-Isle Libraries’ “Issues that Matter” web page, including a list of recommended books about homelessness.

    — Story and photos by Michael McAuliffe

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