Families are the fastest-growing group among local homeless, and the safety net intended to help them is straining

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The Seattle Times
By: Lornet Turnbull
August 29, 2010

On this chilly May night in the parking lot of Southcenter mall, Cherie Moore is growing anxious.

She and her 17-year-old son, Cody Barnes, sit almost unmoving in the cab of their old Ford Ranger, all their belongings crammed in the back their 32-inch flat-screen television, a prized movie collection, Cody's video games.

Moore is down to her last $6. It's nearing 10 o'clock and it's been hours since the two have had a meal.

Mall security has been circling. Moore knows they can't spend the night parked here, but the 48-year-old single mother, born and raised in South King County, has no clue where to go.
"I'm mentally exhausted," she says.

While overall homelessness in King County has steadied, it appears to be rising among families, a trend playing out across the nation.

Parents with children are the fastest-growing yet least-visible segment of the homeless population, far more likely to be doubled up in the homes of friends or living in their cars than to be at a busy intersection asking for help.

At its core, homelessness is driven by poverty and lack of affordable housing, and many believe the true breadth of the problem may not yet be evident as families who lost their homes in this recession still hang on with relatives.

Yet even as their numbers grow, the system in place to help homeless families a sprawling network of programs and agencies offering everything from child care to subsidized housing is bottlenecked at every turn.

Many newly homeless families try for weeks sometimes months to get into emergency shelters but can't. It's gridlocked: Those beds are being used by families who want to move into so-called transitional housing, but can't because those units are being used by families who want to move into permanent housing, but can't because many of them can't afford to.

Often, struggling families must already be homeless before they can get help. And once in the door, their progress through the system can be further slowed as agencies link them up with money-management or parenting classes meant to get them "house ready" stable enough to stand on their own when they do get into places of their own.

The slide into homelessness began for Cherie Moore and her son, now 18, in the fall of 2008, when she was laid off during a slow spell from a Boeing parts-supply company where she worked on the assembly line.

Always just a paycheck from crisis, she turned in the keys to their Auburn duplex, no longer able to afford the rent.

For other families, the trigger may be an eviction, a divorce, a medical emergency, chemical dependency, mental illness or, as is often the case, domestic violence.

Now King County officials and the area's most influential advocates for homeless families are changing how those families get help, with some of those changes possibly in place by the end of the year.

They are overhauling the support system to prevent families from becoming homeless and making it easier for those who do to be helped. The goal is to move them quickly into permanent housing and deal with their problems afterward.

The pillars of their plan are inspired by the experiences of families like Moore's. But on this May evening, ideas that exist largely on paper somewhere in downtown Seattle offices are of little use to her.

Two weeks go by

Moore and Cody moved into the truck in early May, after nearly two years of floating between the homes of family and friends.

This is their 14th night without a place. "Everything I own is in this truck," she says.

Most evenings, when many families are home eating dinner, she and Cody ease into the bathrooms of retail stores to clean up, figuring they have the best shot at privacy around that time. Then she finds a street along the Green River to park the truck.

But on this night, with less than half a tank of gas, she wants to stay close to the Tukwila office of the home health-care agency where she's worked for nearly a year. She needs to pick up the paycheck she's due in a few days.

At this hour, 211, the county's emergency referral line for people in crisis, has long since closed. "If you're gonna be homeless," she says cynically, "you better not do it on weekends or after hours."

There's an expectation among those in crisis that 211 should function like 911 providing the help they need, when they need it. Rather, the service, which operates from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., can only pass along names and numbers of programs and agencies, including shelters, for which a family might qualify.

But there are no assurances those shelters will have beds available that night, as Moore came to learn.

A petite, neat woman, her brown hair speckled with gray, she can be prone to drama.
Over the next few weeks, she would frustrate agency workers as much as they frustrate her, leading one to ask at one point: "How high do you want us to jump?"

But she can also be persistent. Almost daily since moving into the truck, she's been calling around for emergency shelter. Her phone log shows more than a dozen calls on that first day alone: to the YWCA, Solid Ground, Multi-Service Center, Hopelink.

Most go unreturned. Many agencies don't have the staff to answer or return calls and many don't call back anyway if they have no bed to offer her that night. And often, most don't.

Moore is convinced there's no help for people like her and Cody, in part because they don't fit the profile of a homeless family and there may be some truth to this.

Not an average case

The typical homeless family is headed by a young mother with two young children. Often she's unemployed and typically is referred into a shelter by an agency.

Moore, on the other hand, has a job, is not receiving public assistance and doesn't have drug or alcohol problems.

"Hotel vouchers don't exist; shelters don't accept us because of his age," she laments, motioning to Cody, stock-still next to her in the truck's front seat. "Where's the help for people like us?"

His lower lip and ears pierced, Cody dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, two years earlier, when they first gave up their Auburn duplex. He said he couldn't focus; his mother says he doesn't mix easily with strangers.

He signed up for online school through the state's Insight program, but later, after they moved into the truck, dropped out of that program, too.

Though at first reserved, he can grow animated. The days his mother works, he stays alone in the truck, sleeping and texting friends.

He speaks about his worries and the burden he feels he's been on his mother whom he's described as his closest friend.

"I feel like we're in this situation because of me," he says. "I've not really been able to be a kid in a long time because of what's been going on."

He'd says he'd like to get his GED, and if not that, maybe a part-time job in the technology field or perhaps working on cars, taking apart engines and putting them back together.

"I'm good at that," he says.

Not all shelters that house women and children will accept adolescent boys, and the family's circumstances are further challenged by Moore's desire to remain on familiar turf in South King County, where the help they need is harder to find.

As this night wears on in the Southcenter parking lot, she reaches Renton police: Is there a place she can park where she wouldn't be hassled? Where she and Cody would be safe?

A Renton police sergeant is sympathetic, tries to help but strikes out, eventually giving Moore permission to park on the lower level of the Renton City Hall parking lot.

But, he says, they need to be gone before city workers arrive the next morning.

Numbers are growing

It's this lack of visibility that makes homeless families hard to identify and accurately count.

Yet, there are numerous indications the numbers are growing.

Many providers of emergency shelter cite an increase in the number of families seeking help; wait lists are longer and they are turning more families away.

A telephone survey of families seeking help during King County's one-night count in January showed 544 people in families were turned away, up 19 percent from last year, the first year it was done.

Schools districts across the state offer another glimpse, counting more than 20,700 homeless students during the 2008-09 school year an increase of 150 percent from six years ago.

And in the first quarter of this year, calls to 211 from all households seeking help with rent and utilities rose dramatically, nearly doubling to 4,100 calls from the same period two years before.

"We're getting calls from people who have never used the system before," said Kathleen Southwick, director of the Crisis Clinic, which operates 211. "They have no idea where to go."

Always on the edge

From Southcenter, Moore drives to Renton City Hall. And as she and Cody stretch their legs and try to fall asleep, light from an overhead lamppost fills the cab.

This is not the first time they've been homeless.

Estranged from her own parents, Moore married and later divorced the father of her older son; she and Cody's dad never married.

In 2003, when Cody was about 10, she took him with her to Kentucky, encouraged by friends who told her life there is easier. She found a job rehabbing apartments but later lost it.

By 2007, she and Cody were homeless.

Cody hated it in the shelter, a sprawling factory-style complex with everyone under one roof: "I would have rather spent seven months in jail," he now says.

Moore says it wasn't that bad, that they got help right away: "We didn't get the runaround."
Her older son, living in South King County, sent them plane tickets to get back home, and within a few months Moore was making parts for military planes, earning $12.50 an hour.

"I loved that job," she says, remembering. "It was physical at times but I'm a workaholic. I got trained as an assembly lead and got a $1.50 raise."

But after only eight months she was among a group laid off from the plant. She hadn't been there long enough to qualify for unemployment.

When she turned in the keys to the Auburn duplex, she said, "I gave up my independence."

She and Cody first moved in with his paternal grandmother but were eventually asked to leave. Moore shrugs off the woman's claim that she wasn't trying hard enough to help herself.

They next bunked with a former co-worker and his family, then with the family of one of Cody's friends, then rented a room in the Renton house of friends of her older son's.

Along the way, she landed the new job at the home health-care agency in Tukwila and, using money from a tax refund, bought the truck for $1,800 to get back and forth to work.

But by early May this year, she said living in the Renton house became unbearable with rampant drug use and other problems. It was a bad environment for her son, Moore said.

One day, "I got up and said to Cody, `That's it. It's time for us to get out of here.' "

She didn't want to rent another room in someone's house but also didn't think she could afford an apartment on the $1,400 a month she was making at the time and still have money for food, gas and utilities.

What if her hours got cut? she worried.

And not even three weeks into their time in the truck that's exactly what happened, when the woman she was caring for fell ill and ended up in the hospital.

That left Moore temporarily out of work. Had she committed to an apartment, she says, "we'd be screwed."

Working poor

Moore and Cody's circumstances illustrate the critical underpinnings of family homelessness of all homelessness, in fact: a confluence of low-wage jobs, persistent poverty and lack of affordable housing.

While King County figures show that a quarter of homeless parents do have jobs, the vast majority make less than $24,000 a year, which is about 30 percent of the area's median income. Incomes that low put more than 99 percent of the apartments in King County financially out of their reach.

On top of that, there is a long wait list for public housing and subsidized Section 8 housing in Seattle and King County. The combination means it can take a long time for homeless people who get into shelters to eventually make their way out.

"Our biggest challenge continues to be the fact that there is a huge gap between the minimum wage and the housing wage" the earnings it takes to afford the region's average rents, said Bill Block, who heads up King County's Committee to End Homelessness.

The committee's 10-year Plan to End Homelessness is a playbook of sorts for the broad network of programs, funders and providers addressing the needs of the region's homeless.

And last year in King County, those agencies were able to lead more than 4,700 individuals out of homelessness.

But officials at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation say the way families in crisis are helped is convoluted, and they have initiated changes that King, Snohomish and Pierce counties are building into new plans for addressing family homelessness.

Borrowing from practices nationwide, the foundation wants to see a so-called "housing first" approach that puts greater emphasis on preventing homelessness and simplifies how families get help so they don't spend days in search of shelter, as Moore did.

And in addition to connecting them with the services they need including employment the foundation also wants counties to move families quickly into places of their own.

"It's a sea change in the way we think about this," said David Wertheimer, the foundation's deputy director.

Help arrives

Temporarily out of work, Moore heads back to Southcenter with Cody this time to engage in a guilty pleasure: window shopping.

Together, they like to look at the things they might buy if they had the money and a place of their own.

For Moore, it's always the same: a KitchenAid mixer.

"I love to bake," she says. "And with the KitchenAid, there's a lot you can make without having to knead the dough."

It's then that she gets the phone call.

Officials at Renton's Human Services Division, whom she'd contacted when she first moved into the truck, have passed along her name and number to the YWCA and now someone from the Y's Seattle office is on the line.

"They told me they were going to put me up in a hotel until they could get me into a shelter," she says. She said they also offered to help her get a nursing-assistant certificate, which would qualify her for better wages.

The agency arranges for her and Cody to stay at Town and Country Suites in Tukwila and gives them two $20 Safeway gift cards.

After three weeks in the truck, a warm bed and hot shower are heaven. They spend four days at the hotel before the Y moves them to a shelter in Kent a modest, low-slung cluster of eight apartments.

Their two-bedroom unit is threadbare and with moldy white walls, but "at least we have a roof," she says.

She and Cody are assigned a case manager, who helps them apply for food stamps and develop a plan that includes money-management classes for Moore.

And Moore's got a to-do list of her own: renew her driver's license. Get an emissions test and new tabs for the truck. Help Cody get his GED.

A stressful situation

Those who want to change the system say it's often at this point that families get bogged down paired up with caseworkers and signed up for programs intended to help them straighten out their lives.

Almost from the start, Moore's relationship with her case manager is rocky.

And while she acknowledges that she can be bullheaded sometimes, "me being that way will get me further in life than just sitting back and going with the flow," she says, "because that gets you nowhere."

She complains that her case manager doesn't show up when she says she will. That she doesn't bring the kitchen utensils that were promised.

And Cody has been unable to move forward with his GED; the YWCA won't pay for the books he says he needs and Moore says she can't afford them on her own.

The Y does not discuss clients publicly and so would not talk about Moore's case. But generally, says June Wiley, the Y's regional director for South King County, "we meet the needs of families where they are."

Others say the stress of being homeless can sometimes render people unable to function at even basic levels.

"You have a dysfunctional family operating in a dysfunctional system," said anthropologist Sharyne Shiu Thornton, executive director of the International District Housing Alliance.

The YWCA wants Moore to participate in a federal program called Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing. A limited version of what the Gates Foundation wants local counties to implement, it's designed for families with the fewest barriers to making it on their own.

It works like this: A family finds an apartment and the program helps them get into it, paying some upfront costs such as first- and last-month's rent and part of the rent for up to 18 months or longer. It also provides job training if necessary.

Moore initially balks at this, convinced she'd be better off in transitional housing, where she'd get rental help for longer up to two years giving her more time to become certified as a nursing assistant.

But the Y has other concerns: Cody is about to turn 18, leaving mother and son to separately seek help as single adults, not as a family. The Y wants to ensure they are helped before that time comes.

Moore agrees, and is assigned a case manager from Solid Ground, which operates the program for families in South King County.

But before long, she says this case manager, too, isn't showing up for crucial appointments.

The case manager is concerned that Moore's not looking hard enough for an apartment.

She's calling way too often.

And soon, that relationship starts to go sideways.

Finally, a home

In mid-July, Moore and Cody find their own place a two-bedroom apartment that rents for $808 a month on the quiet side of a sprawling complex in Kent.

It's airy and spacious, with a dishwasher and its own washer and dryer. It isn't perfect on the day they take possession: The carpet is worn, the washer has standing water in it and the bathtub needs re-caulking.

But even without furniture, Cody declares it "far superior to sleeping in the truck."

They move in July 16 some 11 weeks after their first night in the truck and a far shorter foray into homelessness than many families experience, her case managers have told her.

She is back to working full time making a little over $2,000 a month working the graveyard shift and enjoying the commute by bus to downtown Seattle where her client lives.

But that arrangement abruptly ends and her hours are cut to zero.

Her boss at the home health-care agency scrambles to find her a new client but comes up with only a part-time gig, 16 hours a week.

For the next month at least, Rapid Re-Housing will pay her full rent. Beyond that, she's not sure. She had hoped that by working full time she'd be able to stash some money away, but "at 16 hours, there's no chance of getting emergency funds built up," she said, her spirits down.

In the long run, she said, "I need something more reliable than what I'm doing right now ... ."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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