Rikita Charles, 39, and her 1-year-old daughter, Mylah, were staying with family when a disagreement over the young girl left Charles no longer comfortable living there.
“Me and my daughter were put out, and we were on the street,” Charles explained as, nearby, the toddler played with hardcover children’s books and colorful blocks. “I called 211 after a couple days of just being on the street, and they referred us to Mary’s Place.”
Charles was speaking from the playroom of a new facility run by that same organization, a local nonprofit that operates family homeless shelters across King County. Opened less than two weeks ago in what used to be the office of a South Lake Union tech company, the facility is the tenth Mary’s Place shelter but the first to specialize in a housing strategy called “diversion.”
The new “Family Diversion Center” is geared toward families that already have a housing voucher, source of income or other resources that make their needs short term. By having “creative problem-solving conversation[s]” with these families, said Alyson Moon of Mary’s Place, staff can help them identify which resources they have and which ones they need, opening up the door to flexible funding that can cover everything from an apartment application fee to new work boots.
“A lot of [homeless] families may have a solution that they’re able to identify, they just don’t have the financial means to make that possible,” said Moon, the organization’s community impact director. Diversion funding can “make those solutions possible.”
Public money for diversion programs is limited to the first 30 days a family is in a shelter; until recently, the rule was that families had to remain unsheltered to be eligible. That policy change was the impetus behind opening a diversion-focused shelter, Moon said. The program is funded by the Schultz Family Foundation and other contributors to the No Child Sleeps Outside campaign.
That short timeline means that Mary’s Place can move people in and out quickly, freeing up beds elsewhere for those who might need longer-term support.
A quick turnaround is particularly important. Only 41 percent of families that sought shelter in 2018 wound up with it; the rest, whether from lack of availability or personal choice, did not, according to data from an emergency hotline for homeless families run by Mary’s Place.
Diversion has “emerged as a promising practice that helps move families, with a much lighter touch, from homelessness to housing,” said Marty Hartman, Mary’s Place’s executive director.
Charles’ situation exemplifies as much; barely over a week passed before the shelter set her up with an apartment in Bellevue.
“I told [a staffer] that I was moving and that it would be helpful if I could get some assistance with moving, because I had just started my job,” Charles recalled. When she said she’d have to wait to get her first paycheck, the Mary’s Place staffer said, “‘Well, if that’s the only thing that’s holding you back, then we can help you.'”
The diversion program ultimately covered Charles’ deposit and first month of rent, buying her time until the paychecks from a part-time job as a radiology office assistant started coming in.
Diversion has become an increasingly prominent strategy to address King County’s declared homelessness crisis. A pilot in King and Pierce counties between 2014 and 2016 had higher rates of people getting into housing than those who went into emergency shelter, and at a cost of almost $9,000 less per household.
King County now offers diversion help at the front door of the homelessness services system.
Mary’s Place’s diversion program has evolved over time, starting off as a drop-in site before becoming a mobile service and now cemented in place at the new location.
Its diversion program has connected 731 families with stable housing, redirecting them from shelters altogether, according to a statement by Mary’s Place. Moon said that 75 to 85 percent of families that have been engaged in diversion programming moved on to a permanent housing situation.
“I didn’t know my next step,” Charles said of her time before arriving at Mary’s Place. “And it’s like, they’re giving me options, and it’s opening up options for me that I didn’t think that I had.”