As this year’s Seattle Times Fund For The Needy kicks off and Seattle’s income gap widens, columnist Nicole Brodeur takes a look at who might need a hand.

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Not long ago, an 80-year-old woman made her way into the WorkSource office in Renton, looking for a job.

Her rent had just been raised by $500 a month.

“An 80-year-old going back to work. My God,” Adrienne Quinn, director of King County Community and Human Services, recalled the other day.

As we spoke, she started thinking out loud: “You can’t stand at Starbucks. Maybe there’s a way for someone to sit behind the counter.”

ABOUT THIS SERIES

Each year, The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy raises money for a group of charities that help children, families and senior citizens. Throughout the fall and winter, The Times is telling how the 12 organizations make a difference in the lives of thousands, and the impact donors can make.

Donate to Fund For The Needy »

 

From this series:

Quinn and her staff are seeing a lot more people like that woman, now that Seattle’s housing market — and cost of living — have squeezed some people out of retirement, out of their homes and out of the region altogether.

Since 1979, The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy has raised more than $20 million to help those who can’t keep up with the region’s growth and change. Last year, the fund set a donation record, raising $1.4 million.

But while some people are opening their wallets wide, others are packing up. They just can’t afford to live in the Seattle area anymore.

Consider: Between 2014 and 2015, the city’s median income grew to $80,000 — an increase of nearly $10,000 in one year. It was the biggest increase among the country’s most populous cities.

At the same time, the number of households in Seattle earning less than $35,000 fell by more than 13 percent. The city lost more than 10,000 households at that income level — an average 200 families a week.

Meanwhile, city households earning more than $150,000 grew by 13.2 percent.

It’s possible that those lower-income families may be moving up to a higher income bracket. But it’s likely that many simply moved out, thanks to rents that increased as much as 24 percent in a single year.

Those who stayed struggle to make ends meet — and are finding themselves “needy” for the first time.

“That’s absolutely true,” said Quinn. “The housing piece is huge. We are getting nonstop calls from people being displaced. If the rents were affordable, they wouldn’t be seeking help.”

Landlords have been refusing to accept Section 8 vouchers, which allow those with low incomes to pay no more than 40 percent of their income on rent and utilities. Refusing the vouchers is illegal in several cities in King County — Seattle, Redmond, Bellevue, Kirkland, Renton — and unincorporated King County. Other cities have no such protections.

“The rental market is so tight,” Quinn said, “there are not places for people to go.”

As a result, there is an increase in family homelessness and an acute need among seniors who are suddenly priced out of their longtime rentals — and are now looking for work.

The Fund For The Needy’s recipient groups tend to many of the community’s needs: The fund benefits organizations such as Sound Generations (formerly Senior Services), Wellspring Family Services, The Salvation Army, Hopelink, Atlantic Street Center, Treehouse, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, Kindering Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound, and Kent Youth and Family Services.

The agencies are vetted by The Seattle Foundation, a philanthropic organization where CEO Tony Mestres is well aware of what he calls “a decimation of the middle class.”

“More and more people are falling off the cliff,” Mestres said. “Once upon a time, charity was for people who had fallen through the cracks. Those cracks have now turned into crevasses.”

In terms of income inequality, Seattle is comparable to the Silicon Valley, Mestres said. Both regions are experiencing “the most extreme” widening of the income gap in the country.

“We have a community that has assets that are incomparable, from socially conscious citizenry and corporations to real leadership on gay rights, gun control and environmentalism.”

He sees the Fund For The Needy as a place where the entire community can play a part in making change, in some cases with actual pocket change. (It’s happened.)

It can also seed better lives for many people, and be the start of bigger things for all of us.

“While money is important,” Mestres said, “demanding systems evolution on education, health care — especially mental health — and ensuring affordable housing is as important.”

Quinn is hopeful that the community will respond with renewed compassion and selflessness. Especially now, with the holidays coming and a new, conservative administration about to take over in the other Washington.

“I’m feeling that at the local level, there is a strong desire for people to help one another,” she said. “There are a lot of community members trying to figure out how to do that.”

They can start with the Fund For The Needy. One act of generosity and compassion can make a difference for those who have never had to ask for help before.