SideWalk making strides to combat homelessness

jdodge@theolympian.comSeptember 22, 2013 

Homeless for two years, former Tumwater resident Brenda Hall, 62, is starting to see a little light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

Two weeks ago, she moved into a duplex in Lacey with two other women. Instead of staying in a homeless shelter or sleeping on friends’ couches, she has a place she can call home.

“I almost ended up on the street — and I’m no street person,” she told me Thursday.

I met Hall at the office of SideWalk, a nonprofit homeless services center on Fifth Avenue in Olympia in a home owned by the neighboring First United Methodist Church of Olympia. The home has been converted to office and meeting space for SideWalk’s four part-time employees, up to 50 volunteers and 300-plus clients per year.

Formed two years ago, SideWalk embraces a program called rapid rehousing for the homeless. In communities across the state and nation that have turned to rapid rehousing, they’ve seen the number of people living on the street decline and the average stay at homeless shelters become shorter.

Here’s how it works: SideWalk provides a rental subsidy for its clients, working with willing landlords.

Case managers called advocates work side by side with clients, helping them manage their money, search for jobs and connect with social services.

It’s a one-time assistance program that costs about $1,071 per client on average, mostly in rent support for up to a year. In Hall’s case, SideWalk pays $250 of her $400 monthly rent. Hall’s advocate is helping her apply for Social Security disability, which would boost her monthly Social Security check from $287 to $700. If she receives the larger Social Security check, the SideWalk rent subsidy will stop.

With her advocate’s help, Hall has applied for long-term subsidized housing to stretch her meager income, which also includes about $200 a month in food stamps.

“Rapid rehousing is like giving a bottle of water to someone who is running a marathon,” said SideWalk program director Phil Owen.

And that bottle of water is making a difference. In November 2012, SideWalk launched a campaign to house 100 homeless people in a year. At 93 housed clients, they are closing in on their goal with over a month to spare. With federal, state, county and private funding to support a $270,000 annual budget, they expect to help another 100 homeless people find housing next year.

About 10 of the 93 clients housed in the past year are homeless again. A survey showed that many of them lost touch with their advocate and foundered without them. Nationwide, the rapid rehousing retention rate ranges from 85 percent to 95 percent.

SideWalk plans to cut back on its other social service work for the homeless to concentrate on the rapid rehousing efforts, which work best for the 85 percent of the homeless population that is capable of living independently.

SideWalk plans to beef up its private-sector fundraising campaign after realizing that public-sector funding is unpredictable, fraught with contractual red tape and places the nonprofit in competition with shelter and transitional housing programs that are better known in the community.

But spend time listening to Owen, who is 34 and a longtime Bread & Roses shelter worker, and it’s easy to see rapid rehousing as one of the most promising tools to end homelessness in South Sound.

Hall agrees. She praises SideWalk and has kind words for Bread & Roses, where she lived this summer, and Capital Recovery Center, which has helped Hall combat severe depression.

Prior to becoming homeless, Hall had lived in the same apartment in Tumwater for 11 years and was employed by a commercial cleaning business. But she lost her job two years ago, and when her unemployment benefits ran out, she lost her apartment.

“I cried for three weeks before I moved out of that apartment,” she said. She lived with a daughter in Beaverton, Ore., for about a year.

“That was a disaster,” Hall said. “I didn’t know anyone or anything. After a year, my daughter brought me back to Olympia.”

She stayed with various friends before connecting with Capital Recovery and SideWalk.

Her new residence in Lacey is close to the bus line and a discount grocery store. Friends and family are helping her furnish the place. Reading mystery novels and watching television are some of her simple pleasures. She wants to find a job, but isn’t sure what work she can do.

“Right now, my only goal is to be happy,” she said. “I’m lucky to be where I’m at — I have my own room. But I’m not looking really too far into the future. I don’t trust the future.”

GET INVOLVED

SideWalk volunteer training is set for 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Oct. 1-3. For more information on SideWalk and its 100 Homes Campaign, go to walkthurston.org.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

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