Donnetta Jamerson has seen a lot at work. Severed fingers, broken limbs, chemical burns.
She’s a medical assistant at an occupational health clinic in South King County, where, throughout the pandemic, she’s been tending to area first-responders.
But two years ago, Jamerson didn’t have her medical assistant’s degree, let alone a place to live. She was sleeping in a room in a church with her two children, and with other families who found themselves homeless.
How she ended up in an emergency shelter is an all-too-common story for the 3,743 families with children that are estimated to be homeless on any given night in King County. But part of how Jamerson pulled out of homelessness she credits to the help she received from her case management and support network at local nonprofit Wellspring Family Services, one of 12 local nonprofits boosted by reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.
The kind of help Wellspring offers is increasingly in demand. With pandemic job losses and the pressures of child care, low-income families are finding it more difficult to afford the basics. Wellspring has helped more than 7,000 individuals and families in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties through October with housing, pandemic-relief funding or other services, more than double the number of individuals and households served by Wellspring in 2019.
Too often, the families that fall into homelessness in tough times are already fighting to make ends meet while supporting other relatives. Jamerson grew up in what was once known as Holly Park, a low-income Seattle housing development that was rebuilt as mixed-income housing. Without a financial safety net around Jamerson and her family, it didn’t take much to push her into homelessness.
As an adult, two crises — the death of Jamerson’s best friend and then her father — sent Jamerson’s family spiraling. The family moved in and out of various homes, and once an extended-stay hotel, trying to stay afloat, while other family members going through hard times stayed with them. Jamerson was able to get a federal housing subsidy, but lost it when it was discovered that her family was staying with her.
“I was drowning,” Jamerson said.
Jamerson had been living at the church with her children for a year when Wellspring offered her a shot at a short-term rental-subsidy program called rapid-rehousing.
The idea worried Jamerson at first. After the subsidy reduced or expired, would Wellspring leave her without support?
“I talked to Trina, my (Wellspring) caseworker, and she said no,” Jamerson said. “As long as you’re trying to better yourself and really making an effort, there are programs we can keep you on for a year.”
Jamerson knew since she was a kid she wanted to work in the medical field — while in the shelter, she applied for school and won a scholarship. Trina Clay, her case manager, made sure she had bus tokens to get to school, gift cards for gas and other items at Fred Meyer, and after looking at Jamerson’s resume, redid it in Microsoft Word.
Once, Jamerson remembers meeting with Clay, only to have her look disapprovingly at the condition of her medical scrubs, which were worn with use.
“She would always talk about my scrubs,” Jamerson said. “She would always offer to replace them. About the third time, I was like, OK, I’ll go ahead and get the new scrubs.”
Clay remembers that Jamerson “didn’t like to ask for things.” Jamerson was used to being asked how she could help others — and that’s how she liked it.
“To me, that’s when you’re really living, when you’re able to give back,” Jamerson said.
But Wellspring had practical ways to help Jamerson as she earned her degree. The organization supports families with something called a “baby boutique,” which allows parents to pick up clothing, toys, books, diapers and formula for children up to 18 years old. Wellspring also runs an early learning center for families that are living through homelessness and in need of child care.
Through case managers like Clay, Wellspring “helps people navigate a really big system that’s pretty unyielding and connect them to the services they need,” said Wellspring president and CEO Heather Fitzpatrick.
For families grappling with homelessness, it’s important to make sure they’re supported in multiple ways, said Fitzpatrick.
“What we know about family homelessness is that just handing people a set of keys is not enough,” Fitzpatrick said. “Most homelessness for families is financially driven.”
More than half the homeless families Wellspring serves are working. But it’s “unrealistic” to think a minimum-wage job will cover both high rent and other necessities, Clay said.
“You have to pay not only your rent but you have your bills, you have child care, you have a car payment, you have car insurance, you have groceries,” Clay said. “And that minimum wage is just not going to cut it.”
With Wellspring to help with necessities and social support along the way, Jamerson was able to get her medical assistant’s degree within a year. Clay watched her transform from someone who had been quiet, afraid of using her voice, to a person with newfound confidence.
At the end of 2019, Jamerson attended Wellspring’s annual holiday toy store — a version of the regular “baby boutique” the organization holds, for parents to pick up diapers, warm clothes, toys and other items their kids might need. Each floor, decked out in red and green, had a different theme, with hot cocoa, cookies, coffee and gift cards for the families. It felt like a Christmas party, not a place where she’d be judged for seeking help.
For her 13-year-old son, Jamerson chose a speaker. For her 9-year-old daughter, a stuffed animal.
Looking back, Jamerson says Wellspring didn’t just get her connected to housing.
“Wellspring gave me an option with a support system,” Jamerson said.
Jamerson is no longer using Wellspring, but she emails Clay from time to time to share her achievements.
“Even after I got my place, (Wellspring) didn’t just drop me,” Jamerson said. “That’s what I was really scared of. They didn’t drop me.”