Neda Lor and J.C. Grant showed up at Nickelsville late at night. Their 1-year-old, Jaylin, was in their arms.
After Grant lost his two jobs, the couple stayed with friends and family. They used some hotel vouchers. Finally, out of options and on the street, they went to the Seattle homeless encampment, hoping for a tent.
“The baby was freezing,” said Sharon Lee, the executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, which hosts Nickelsville in its parking lot.
By chance, Lee had an empty apartment.
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But when she tried to move the family into it, King County threatened to end her agency’s funding. That’s because all of King County’s family housing nonprofits are now part of a countywide hotline called Family Housing Connection.
It was designed to streamline the system and get families into housing faster. Now, almost two years in, the program has exposed a huge backlog of families with no place to go, quantifying a growing crisis in King County. And it has frustrated some providers who say the most desperate families are being passed over because of bureaucratic rules.
“We didn’t know what the need was, and to see the numbers, it is surprising, I think,” said Mark Putnam, director of the King County Committee to End Homelessness.
Now Family Housing Connection is using the numbers to build a system that will be more effective, he said.
“We’re really optimistic right now on the family homelessness side,” he said.
For years, homeless families called more than 80 programs looking for housing, putting their names on dozens of waiting lists.
In April 2012, King County teamed up with United Way and the Gates Foundation to pay $650,000 a year to Catholic Community Services to coordinate a waiting list for homeless families. Now one phone call to 211 connects families to almost every housing option in King County.
The hotline was supposed to be the long-awaited countywide solution to the confusing family shelter system here.
Within a year, the problem was obvious. Once families called the hotline, they waited up to two weeks for a meeting to put them on the waiting list. And the waiting list grew and grew.
Of more than 4,000 families who called the hotline between April 2012 and April 2013, only about 680 found housing through the system. Each month, about 20 new shelter spaces open up, but 30 new families call the hotline, so the list just grows longer.
Everyone knew the list would be long, said Lisa Herbold, a legislative aide to Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata, but “it’s worse than people expected.”
During the months in limbo, some families sleep in their cars or stay in tents. Mary’s Place, one of the few
housing providers in the county that has opted out of the new program in order to preserve flexibility, provides day and night shelters for kids and their parents where they can eat, do crafts, nap and catch the school bus.
“We just kept seeing a tremendous increase in the number of families,” said Marty Hartman, the executive director at Mary’s Place. “We kept asking: ‘Where are these people supposed to go while they wait?’ ”
Mary’s Place has three shelters, where families sleep in tents on the floor. But they turn people away all the time.
Even families who find emergency shelter get kicked out of it when their time there is up, because the list is so long.
Dorcia Duenes and Vicente Muna moved into a tent encampment in 2011, after Muna lost his job. They called 211 to get on the waiting list for a home for themselves and their two daughters.
They lived outdoors for a month, then in a motel, then a shelter operated by the YWCA. They were still waiting for a call from Family Housing Connection after 12 months at the YWCA shelter, when their time ran out. With no place to go, the family refused to leave, and Duenes said the shelter operators threatened to call the police.
They moved back to Nickelsville for a month.
“Two times a week I call 211,” Duenes said of her year on the waiting list. “Every time I called 211, I was explaining my situation before and after it happened, you know? It didn’t do nothing. It didn’t help me.”
In the big picture, supporters of the system say, it is working by bringing attention to the shortage of family shelter in King County. Seattle added $200,000 to its budget this year specifically to house 30 of the 250 families who are without any shelter at all. But that makes only a small dent in the backlog.
This month, Family Housing Connection began prioritizing the most desperate families. That has already cut down on the average amount of time families wait for a meeting after they call the hotline.
Lee said her agency’s apartments sometimes sit empty for weeks while Family Housing Connection sorts through the list to assign someone. Every agency has different requirements for tenants, so it’s sometimes difficult to find a match.
“It’s extremely frustrating and disappointing,” she said. “We have very vulnerable families with children living on the streets, living under bridges, in their cars and in tents. Literally, on the streets.”
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter