Before the pandemic, an Eastside mother of two thought she wouldn’t have to call Hopelink for help ever again. After fleeing from an abusive ex-partner to that part of King County, she’d become homeless. She got a job at a hotel, but she and her children didn’t feel real stability until February, when Hopelink helped them get into their own apartment.
A month later, the woman was laid off as COVID closures hit the county.
So she asked Hopelink for help again. The nonprofit, one of 12 organizations that benefit from reader contributions to The Seattle Times’ annual Fund For The Needy, ensured that she kept her newfound housing by paying a month’s worth of rent and her energy bill.
“I’m thankful for them, because they helped me in a lot of ways,” said the woman, whose name is being withheld to protect her identity for personal safety concerns.
Hopelink staff also helped clothe her kids, who are 4 and 5.
Last Christmas, the agency donated Christmas gifts. This year, they’ll send gift cards in the mail.
The family’s story has become increasingly common on the Eastside, and burst into view during the pandemic. From March to July, Hopelink paid out more than $800,000 in emergency rent assistance to nearly 700 families — eight times more than usual. Many of those families had never asked for assistance before in their lives.
“I’m sure there’s been more (requests) than that,” said Hopelink CEO Lauren Thomas. “That’s just what we could afford to provide.”
For years, when Thomas told people she worked with low-income communities on King County’s Eastside, they would often respond with: “That must be easy.”
Hopelink typically serves about 65,000 people a year, mostly in Redmond, Bellevue and Kirkland, with locations as far west as Shoreline and as far east as Snoqualmie Valley.
Besides being home to two of the richest men in the world, the Eastside also boasts America’s richest city by average household income, Sammamish. Another three are in the top 35 richest cities larger than 65,000 people. All four have a higher median household income than San Francisco.
Still, homelessness — and the number of those on the edge of it — has grown in these areas. In the last federal one-night survey of homelessness, King County’s Eastside had 9% of the county’s homeless population, the vast majority of those living outside.
Once COVID-19 hit, that growing need was forced into the spotlight.
“We do have to combat that perception on the Eastside, but not as much as we used to,” said Lauren Thomas, Hopelink’s current CEO. “The need is becoming more and more evident to people across the Eastside.”
Angela Birney, mayor of Redmond, says poverty has always existed on the Eastside but was harder to see. Birney sits on the board of Hopelink and said she finds it more and more common for wealthier people to know those who are on the edge of losing their housing.
“Now it’s your kid’s friend at school that their family is struggling,” Birney said. “I still think it takes that personal touch to understand what’s going on.”
Hopelink offers a variety of help — money for energy bills, adult education, job coaching and more. In 2019, it served almost 2.4 million meals, helped house 135 families, logged more than 5,000 hours of case management and arranged nearly half a million trips to cancer care, dialysis and mental health care centers for people without transportation and people with disabilities.
This year, food and financial assistance have dominated everything the nonprofit does.
“It’s a different group of people struggling right now,” said Kris Betker, communications manager for Hopelink, “because they had jobs and they lost the jobs.”
And meanwhile, the wealthy Eastside community jumped into action. Early on in March, donors, corporations and government agencies were calling Hopelink around the clock, Thomas said.
Microsoft leaders asked to set up a weekly call to stay up-to-date on Hopelink’s needs and deployed its volunteers to help upgrade Hopelink’s internal technology systems. A drive-by food drive in April generated a line of cars half a mile long. At another four-hour drive in May, a hundred pounds were donated a minute.
The agency still struggles to keep up with demand, and those demands are diverse: Hopelink partnered with Muslim donors to provide halal food at its food banks, and a local beet farmer to grow and donate 10,000 beets for the large Russian community in Bellevue.
With a second lockdown in full swing and the expiration of the state eviction moratorium looming next year, Hopelink’s work is far from over. The job training, family development case management and adult education classes that has taken a back seat to more immediate needs will be key during the economic recovery to come.
“We continue to get crystal-clear about the needs in our community: What do people need today?” Thomas said. “And then, what do they need on a longer term basis? They need a job, they need coaching.”