On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Alex Aguilar started whisking together eggs, milk, salt and sugar as his five children zipped around the living room. These are “French Toast Wednesdays,” Aguilar and his partner, Flor Palacios, explained, a special treat for the kids on the days they have tutoring.

“After three months of sandwiches,” Aguilar said, “it’s a blessing for us.”

This time last year, Aguilar wasn’t able to cook for his kids. The family was surviving in a minivan in Issaquah, living off of whatever it could keep in a cooler.

The three-bedroom apartment where Aguilar was cooking on this particular Wednesday was technically transitional housing provided by nonprofit Hopelink, one of 12 organizations that benefit from reader contributions to The Seattle Times’ annual Fund For The Needy.

Hopelink serves about 65,000 people a year, mostly in North and East King County, through a variety of services. Last year, the organization helped 137 families with housing, which includes a month-to-month emergency shelter program that Palacios and Aguilar first heard about when they were living with their children in the van.

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Aguilar and Palacios never imagined they’d end up homeless, but in fall 2018, they joined the more than 1,300 families in King County who are without stable housing in any given month. It’s a population that’s difficult to measure, advocates say, given the ways that families can remain hidden as couch-surfers or doubled up with others. And researchers are only beginning to understand the picture of families that move into their vehicles.

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Hopelink’s housing programs focus on families like Aguilar and Palacios. Across five housing programs, including emergency shelter, transitional housing and long-term housing, case managers work with families to provide wraparound support for kids and adults. In 2018, the organization helped 49 families that had been homeless into emergency shelter.

Aguilar had always worked to provide for the family, but after he lost his job as a manufacturing supervisor, the family accepted an invitation to stay with a friend in Issaquah. Soon, the two families living together in one household became overwhelming — particularly given the needs of Aguilar and Palacios’ then 10-year-old son with autism.

The parents made the difficult decision to move into the van, thinking it would be temporary until they could find work and save up enough to put down first, last and security on an apartment.

They spent three months like that.

That’s not an uncommon theme, said anthropologist and University of Washington lecturer Graham Pruss.

“There does seem to be an increase in the reports of families that are living in vehicles, particularly connected to socioeconomic displacement as well as larger environmental factors, like the fires in California, flooding, hurricanes,” Pruss said.

Pruss, who spent two years doing outreach to people living in vehicles in Seattle, said that families tend to move into cars as “a short-term solution between their immediate loss of housing and what they see as the next step.”

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Aguilar and Palacios’ children remained in the Issaquah School District while the parents tried to establish normalcy outside of school hours. Palacios picked up housekeeping jobs while Aguilar took care of their then 3-year-old daughter and looked for work. The family tried staying at a church shelter a few times, but didn’t feel safe with the children sleeping in the same space as people in varying degrees of crisis.

Flor Palacios kisses her son Balian, 8, at home in Redmond. The nonprofit Hopelink, which helped the family, serves about 65,000 people a year, mostly in North and East King County, through a variety of services. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Flor Palacios kisses her son Balian, 8, at home in Redmond. The nonprofit Hopelink, which helped the family, serves about 65,000 people a year, mostly in North and East King County, through a variety of services. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

Eventually, the couple found a safe parking-lot program behind a church with limited hours — 6 p.m. to 9 a.m. They’d spend afternoons at the park or the community center before heading back to the parking lot and tucking under blankets provided by the church.

Aguilar and Palacios told the kids it was an adventure — and sometimes, it felt that way, too.

“It gets pretty pitch black here in Washington,” Palacios said. With a tablet playing movies in the back seat as the only source of light, some nights the minivan felt like a drive-through theater. “We would just sit there and watch movies and keep the kids entertained until they started to fall asleep,” Palacios said.

But other times, Palacios felt invisible.

“You could be shopping at Safeway and the other people that are there, they don’t know you’re homeless,” Palacios said.

Palacios and Aguilar joined an invisible population in another sense, too. The full scale of family homelessness is rarely captured by point-in-time counts, some advocates say, because the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of homelessness doesn’t include families that are couch-surfing or doubled up in friends’ homes; the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of homelessness does.

What your donation means for Hopelink

$25: A month of fresh fruits and vegetables for 10 seniors or people with disabilities 

$50: A two-day emergency supply of food for eight people who are homeless

$100: Two hours of one-on-one financial coaching

$200: One week of housing for a parent and child

“Family homelessness is often invisible, especially in the suburban and rural areas where we’re more spread out,” Hopelink CEO Lauren Thomas said. “I think the popular perception of homelessness is the person with the sign on a street corner, and for people who haven’t had much exposure to people experiencing homelessness, that might be their only visual. Here on the Eastside, it’s so much more than that.”

While the annual one-night counts of homelessness in Washington state have shown overall decreases in households with children experiencing homelessness in the past three years, measures in schools counted an uptick. Between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, for example, the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) counted a 2% increase in homeless students. In the 2017-18 school year, King County school districts counted 9,174 students sleeping in hotels, motels, in shelters, doubled-up with friends or family members or without shelter altogether.

Aguilar and Palacios’ luck began to change when the family popped up on the radar of a food-bank worker. Palacios was driving home from work when she received a call from a Hopelink employee who explained that a mutual acquaintance at the food bank had referred her their way. Hopelink had shelter space available, the staffer explained — a three-bedroom apartment in Redmond.

Aguilar remembered being skeptical of the offer. When he thought of shelter, he didn’t think of an apartment with a door that locked. But after the family went to Hopelink to fill out paperwork, staffers handed Aguilar and Palacios a set of keys.

“I was amazed because it was literally an apartment,” Palacios said. “It just felt so good to walk into that restroom and take a warm shower and just know that, OK, after this one shower, I’m going to have a nice warm bed to lay on. I’m going to be able to stretch my feet out. The kids finally have the rooms where they could just put up their toys however they want and have their own beds.”

Palacios and Aguilar spent a few months in the emergency shelter apartment before moving into a different transitional housing unit, also provided by Hopelink. At this apartment, the family pays 30% of its income while Palacios, who has secured a job, and Aguilar get back on their feet. Hopelink provides tutoring for the kids, too — hence the family’s new tradition of French Toast Wednesdays.

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After settling into new housing, the kids began to blossom, Palacios and Aguilar said. Their autistic son began to speak more words than he ever had before.

And sometimes, the kids will also point out something many adults around them miss, Palacios said. They’ll spot a family in the corner of the grocery store, looking anxious, and ask their parents to do something.

“That really made me feel very proud of my kids,” Palacios said, “to know like, wow, they know what we went through and they want to help.”