Fearing for her infant son’s safety, China Perkins, now 43, fled her home state of Georgia in 2019 with her son.
“I knew I was done,” Perkins said, remembering a low point that year in July.
It took more than one try — but Perkins eventually packed the car and left for good. The car, it would turn out, that she was soon living in with her son in Seattle.
For Perkins, Wellspring Family Services was the lifeline she needed. The Seattle-based nonprofit is dedicated to ending family homelessness by preventing it before it happens, and intervening early when it does.
Wellspring provided support for Perkins on several fronts, first by getting her into affordable housing. Wellspring also enrolled her son, Kingston, in child care on-site at Wellspring, with a full scholarship, so Perkins could work at her job in Bellevue in early childhood education. The nonprofit also connected Perkins with therapists to help her grow into the parent and person she wanted to be for herself and her son, 30 months old and thriving.
Nefertari I, or Miss One, is now retired from her job as a housing stability specialist at Wellspring. But she well remembers Perkins, whom she helped reach her goals. “For me, it was really just being willing and patient to truly meet her where she was,” Nefertari I said.
“My job was to hear where she was, and where she wanted to go.”
She talked with Perkins twice a month, and sometimes more often, to help Perkins stay on track.
“The difference I felt was her commitment and motivation around her son Kingston. Everything with her was around her son; I was inspired by the fresh life I saw.”
Getting Perkins into affordable housing was the crucial step to stability. It’s a clean, quiet, simple studio apartment, just big enough for her and Kingston. Wellspring made sure when they moved in that the apartment was furnished with everything they needed, even a vacuum cleaner.
The apartment is full of children’s books and musical instruments; Kingston loves to sing. Things are going so well now, Perkins said she has enrolled in classes at Bellevue College, putting her on track for a degree in early childhood education.
Many people don’t understand that many of the people experiencing homelessness are families, said Heather Fitzpatrick, CEO for Wellspring, helping families since 1892. Families often hide their need because they are embarrassed, and that is especially true today with the impatience and even hostility toward people experiencing homelessness in Seattle, Fitzpatrick said.
“They are couch surfing, or living in their car,” Fitzpatrick said of families in need of stable housing. They also are afraid they could lose their kids if they reach out for help.
Those barriers are what Wellspring removes. Families are kept together, and the problems pushing them into homelessness solved, whether it’s paying off debt, providing the move-in costs for an apartment, or paying rent to a landlord to prevent eviction.
“If we can pay somebody’s rent, or help them move to something more affordable, pay their first and last month’s rent to keep them stable, that is so much less expensive [than a shelter] and less traumatic,” Fitzpatrick said. The goal is to stop a family from becoming homeless before it happens and intervene early if it has.
In addition to housing assistance, a family store is available with everything a family might need, with personal shopping assistance — but no price tags. From diapers to a warm coat, Wellspring is there to help. The store’s gift room also is piled with toys and books for children from infancy to 11 years old.
It doesn’t take much to push a family into homelessness. Just a few unexpected costs — a broken-down car, a medical bill, losing hours or even a job — can destabilize families.
An average family runs into a $2,000 emergency every 18 months, Fitzpatrick said. “It doesn’t sound like much, but it is if you are living paycheck to paycheck.”
Homelessness hurts children, exposing them to trauma that can make it more likely they will fail to thrive, have trouble in school, and even become homeless themselves as adults.
In the families they serve, homelessness is usually caused by financial crisis rather than mental health issues, including addiction, Fitzpatrick said. The family has limited means and social support. The parents are often young, led by a single female head of household. The children are usually under the age of 6. The parents of these children have to earn enough to cover both rent and child care — a mountain for low-income earners to climb.
In her more than 30 years working at Wellspring, Bevette Irvis said she sees more families that are working that are experiencing homelessness.
“They are working, one job, two jobs,” said Irvis, senior director of childhood services, who will soon take over as chief program officer for the nonprofit. “They can’t afford the high cost of living in Seattle with jobs that are not affording them a livable wage.
“People have myths around homelessness, ‘Just go get a job, why don’t they get a job.’ Well they do have jobs, they are doing the best they can to support their families.”
A lot of people also don’t think of the children and how they are affected by homelessness, Irvis said, especially young children who can’t even articulate the experience of what they are going through.
The child care center at Wellspring provides an island of stability, with staff skilled in trauma-informed care. That means using a compassionate approach for children who may act out strong emotions — behavior that could be met with expulsion elsewhere, further destabilizing a family.
Kids also are served a nutritious breakfast and lunch. There’s snack time, and an environment created to surround kids with a sense of stability. Even after parents such as Perkins are in stable housing, the early learning child care center support is continued for the sake of the child until enrollment in school.
When Perkins arrived from work at Wellspring to pick up Kingston, he was bubbling with energy and eager to get home. Arriving at their apartment, he was the one who got to open the door, eagerly putting the key in the lock.
As he turned it, he pushed inside to their home, full of expectation of play, dinner and time with his mom. Perkins unloaded the groceries and invited Kingston to come help her cut up broccoli for the family dinner, pulling his step stool to the kitchen counter.
Their everyday routine was once so anything but everyday — and is everything for her and her son, Perkins said.
“They helped me so much,” she said.