Lindsay Caruthers and her two boys spent more than a year living in a trailer in Federal Way with no water, no electricity and no heat.
Caruthers called 2-1-1, the social services hotline and first step for Family Housing Connections. She wanted to get an assessment and be referred to any number of housing providers around the region quickly.
King County established Family Housing Connections in 2012 to create a single waiting list for homelessness services. It’s known as “coordinated entry,” a way to prevent families from having to sign up for a waiting list at multiple shelters across the region and hope that one comes through.
For Caruthers and her two boys — now ages 2 and 7 — it wasn’t quick. She waited more than a year to get a call that her name had come up on the waiting list for shelter or housing. She didn’t know where to go for help, so she stayed parked at her trailer and searched for places to bathe.
“I would go into Safeway and wash my hair in the bathroom,” she said at Mary’s Place, a day center downtown, on a recent April morning.
Eventually, she called to find out that Family Housing Connections had lost her paperwork. She got on the list again, and within a few months she was on her way to an apartment through a system called “rapid rehousing,” which helps people get into housing quickly and tapers of subsidies over several months.
Caruthers’ situation was a clerical error, but many other people whose paperwork is not lost wait much longer than planned for a program that was intended to be faster and more efficient.
According to a December report by Focus Strategies, a consulting firm that King County commissioned to assess Family Housing Connections, people are waiting months for housing, and once they are referred they are often unable to get into the programs because they do not meet the sometimes strict screening criteria for the program. More than half of them are either declined by the agency or turn the service down.
Now the Committee to End Homelessness-King County (CEHKC) is working to revise Family Housing Connections, reduce the amount of time people wait to be referred to services and hopefully help reduce the number of homeless people sleeping outdoors each night. In January, volunteers working with the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) found 3,772 people sleeping outdoors in the county.
“They [Focus Strategies] certainly gave us a lot of things to fix,” said Mark Putnam, director of CEHKC. “We’re plugging away at all of them.”
Meanwhile, coordinated entry is becoming an increasingly popular method of addressing homelessness across the country. King County is starting a coordinated entry program for veterans, and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is requiring coordinated entry for all populations including single adults.
While he is confident King County can improve the program for families, Putnam recognized that it will be hard to apply coordinated entry to single adults.
“We think that could be difficult for single adults with the volume going into shelters,” Putnam said.
Family Housing Connections has been a challenge since its inception. In 2013, about a year after the program started,
organizers changed eligibility requirements because the waiting list was too long.
By December of 2013, more than 4,000 people were on the waiting list, and it was impossible to say how long it would take to get into housing. So Family Housing Connections changed the eligibility requirements to only those who were truly homeless — living in cars, encampments, outdoors or in emergency shelters. People who were at risk of losing their home or were staying with friends were no longer eligible (“The infinite list,” RC, Dec. 19, 2013).
At the beginning of April, there were 859 families on the placement roster, 584 of whom were literally homeless, staying in places not meant for human habitation. The rest stayed in shelters.
Daisy Walter was living with her two boys in a car in North Seattle earlier this year, parking overnight in a lot near a grocery store and a church.
She was waiting for any information from Family Housing Connections to get into a shelter program, a process that can take months.
“I’m like, I don’t have months,” Walter said. “I’ve got two kids living in a car. I need a place to go.”
At one point, a friend called Child Protective Services to check in on the family and determine the welfare of her youngest child. The complaint was unfounded, but Walter moved her family into a hotel anyway to make sure they could stay together.
Her boyfriend had cashed out his 401(k) account, which they used to spend $1,200 a month for a hotel.
She recently was placed in rapid rehousing, which gives families a voucher to rent a unit. Each month Walter will have to pay a little more as she gets stable employment.
Walter’s months-long wait for housing is not unusual. Typically families wait two weeks after they call 2-1-1 to have an in-person assessment, and they wait another 100 days before they are referred to services. During this time, like Walter, many are homeless, living in cars, encampments, outdoors or in an emergency shelter.
According to Focus Strategies, Family Housing Connections has struggled to connect the many people seeking shelter with the correct program. Different housing services use different criteria: One may welcome any family, while another may not be able to house people with a criminal history.
That’s what happened to Elsa Embaye, an immigrant from Eritria staying at a Mary’s Place shelter. Family Housing Connections referred her to a program that required a social security number. Embaye’s Social Security number was still in process, so she was turned away.
“Regardless of how strict the criteria was or even how lax, the differences in definitions were so immense that I can’t believe we ever were able to fill a unit,” said Kira Zylstra, stabilization services director overseeing Solid Ground’s rapid rehousing and diversion programs.
The program has suffered because it was designed to fill vacancies in services and programs instead of helping families get the best program they need.
“It’s tailored to the social service agencies,” said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute. “It’s not tailored to the family.”
As a result, families often do not make it into the referred programs. From January to November of 2014, less than half of the referrals were accepted, according to Focus Solutions. Families refused 30 percent of the referrals made, and agencies denied 23 percent of the families.
Many families were not eligible for the programs, Putnam said, showing holes in the regions’ services.
People with criminal records, drug addictions or mental illnesses, in particular, have had trouble finding housing and shelter, he said.
“Those with the highest need, we’re realizing that we don’t have any programs for them,” Putnam said. “No one is at fault, but when we have a coordinated entry system like this, we realized that there were families we can’t service.”
CEHKC has made a number of changes to Family Housing Connections to make it more efficient and better at connecting families with appropriate services.
Family Housing Connections will contract with several other nonprofits that will do assessments around the county starting in 2016.
Previously, Catholic Community
Services handled the assessments alone. This new system will decentralize the work and be easier to access.
It will also help all the many non-profits linked to Family Housing Connections buy in and commit to the program, said Bill Hallerman, agency director at Catholic Community Services.
“It’s our entry system, all of us,” he said. “I think having it spread out to different agencies, it shows that we’re all responsible for this together.”
Housing providers are working with CEHKC to change their screening criteria to remove barriers that prevent people from getting housing. Family Housing Connections will also have cleaner screening criteria so that it’s clear early whether a family qualifies for a specific housing program.
CEHKC is also emphasizing a new program it has, called “diversion,” that will be available at all of the different assessment sites in 2016.
In this program, instead of putting people through shelter or transitional housing, case managers pinpoint small fixes that can help people get housed again quickly: Providing money to help people move into their own place, relocating to another city or state where there is stable housing or family supports, or finding a roommate or other household to share the rent costing an average of $1,327 per household.
Diversion is cheap by comparison to other shelter and housing options. Shelter costs about $10,000 per year and transitional housing costs about $20,000 per year, Putnam said.
One of the quick fixes to help more families get shelter immediately took place earlier this year after housing and shelter providers were concerned about vacancies at emergency shelters.
Family Housing Connections would send a family to Bianca’s Place, a congregate shelter for families with children. Some people would not show up, leaving the beds empty for the night.
Now, emergency congregate shelter programs can welcome homeless families in after 5 p.m., if Family Housing Connections has not filled one of the beds.
“It’s helping people get shelter in real time, and that’s our ultimate goal,” said Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary’s Place, which manage’s Bianca’s Place.
It already helped Walter get her family into a shelter while she waited for housing. She was placed in a vacant bed at Bianca’s Place that would have gone empty.
She was grateful for the space and for the Mary’s Place day center where she spent one recent April morning. But she’s eagerly anticipating being placed in housing soon and becoming financially independent.
“I like you guys, but I don’t want to be here,” Walter said to a Mary’s Place staffer. “Three months is too long.”