Reaching out to the homeless

Advocate Josh Black of Olympia winner of Housing & Homeless Hero Award

lpemberton@theolympian.comJanuary 13, 2014 

Josh Black of Olympia was recently awarded Thurston County Housing Task Force’s Housing & Homeless Hero Award.

Black, 35, is the manager of Capital Recovery Center’s Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH) program.

“I would describe him as an incredibly compassionate person,” said Heather Moore, executive director of Capital Recovery Center. “(He’s) somebody who is very hard-working, has a deep understanding of the community and the unique needs of the population he serves.”

The recognition is a people’s choice award for exemplary service in the area’s housing and homeless network, according to city of Olympia Housing Program manager Anna Schlecht.

“His peers felt he best embodied the spirit of strengthening cooperating and minimizing competition,” she said. “It can be tough for social service providers, in an era of reduced resources, and the people who work most collaboratively make a huge difference. And they inspire others to do the best that they can.”

Mark Collins, a social worker with the Washington state Office of Public Defense, agrees.

“I was just really impressed with his skills, and his engagement with the clientele,” Collins said. “He’s very energetic and innovative and I really enjoy working with him.”

The Olympian interviewed Black about the award and his career. Here are excerpts of the conversation:

Q: Tell us about your family.

A: I’m married to Danielle Westbrook. She is an assistant to Thurston County commissioner Karen Valenzuela and a musician, and she also runs political campaigns.

I have a 17-year-old stepdaughter, Jesika.

Q: Where did you go to college?

A: I have bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Washington State University.

Q: Tell us a little about your job.

A: I have not been doing this for very long. I started in the PATH program last February.

Before that, I spent (a couple months) with the Downtown Olympia Ambassadors program. … Doing that job really kind of opened my eyes to the needs of the community. A short time after that, this position came open and I jumped at the opportunity.

Before that, I worked at Green Hill School (in Chehalis) and did security, counseling and supervision for about 10 years.

Q: How did you get into social services?

A: I went to school with the purpose of counseling juveniles.

I really wanted to help youth.

… I grew up in Aberdeen. We didn’t have a lot of money. I was actually the first person in my family to go through college and get a degree.

I feel like I came from a strong family, but I really had to work to get to where I was.

I felt like I could be a positive role model for a lot of individuals who have never had an opportunity. It was very rewarding. … This work is different. This position I’m in now, my experience with the Ambassadors, really opened me up to (issues). It was shocking how much need there is for mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, shelter and housing in general.

Q: What does your job entail and what do you like most about it?

A: This is mostly an outreach program. The focus is going out and finding people and meeting them where they are, getting them enrolled, and into housing, into shelter, coordinating mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment. A lot of what we do is help people navigate the system. … It can really be a labyrinth for people.

… We try to make it predominantly an outreach program, so we start the week by going out in the community to different locations — the Union Gospel Mission is a good one — and in downtown Olympia. We follow up with old clients and make new contacts.

Starting Monday, we’re actually going to start outreaching at the Timberland Library because they have such a need there.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges in your job?

A: Funding is a huge challenge. I think that’s for the network in general. We really need more money that goes toward mental health treatment and housing, and getting people who are recovering from mental health (issues) into housing. That’s a huge barrier.

Q: Tell us about the award. What was your reaction when you learned you won?

A: It came as a complete shock to me. I think I was at home and I received an email saying I received it. It completely caught me off guard. It’s extremely humbling and almost embarrassing. There are so many people working so hard and we’re working together. It’s flattering and motivating. And to follow in the footsteps of Selena (Kilmoyer), who won last year? Those are huge shoes to fill. It’s just a great honor.

Q: Thurston County’s point-in-time homeless census is coming up. Tell us about the event, what it’s about and how people can get involved.

A: It gives a snapshot of the need out there. We can only branch out so far. We can collect our own data, but this gives us a broader snapshot of the need out there and maybe some individuals we have not contacted. It will allow us to make connections with them.

Q: There are many groups in the area that want to work toward ending homelessness. What do you think the community needs to make this happen? Do you think it’s even possible?

A. That’s the goal. This is one of those rare professions where the ultimate goal is to work yourself out of a job.

There are two routes of that: failure or success. … I think it comes out to funding. We really need more funding to branch out our efforts. I do think it’s possible, it’s going to take a lot of working together and funding to get there.

The motivation is certainly there.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?

A: I just really hope that The People’s House (low-barrier shelter) gets off the ground here. I’ve worked on it a little bit. The need is so great in the area, and especially the epicenter for lack of a better terms is downtown Olympia.

Providing more low barrier shelter options is a necessity. And the day center is such a huge part of that because it gives people a chance to get resources in one area.

… It’s been a pretty contentious issue, with not wanting it to be downtown, but the unfortunate really is that if you move it out of the area, you create a barrier.

how to help

Volunteers are needed for Thurston County’s Point in Time Count of Homeless Persons, set for Jan. 23.

This year’s event will include resource fairs in Olympia and Yelm, where folks can get hot meals, warm clothing, coats and information on social services.

The Olympia resource fair will be from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. at First Christian Church, 701 Franklin St. SE; times for the Yelm event have not been set, but it will be at the Yelm Community Services Center, 624 Crystal Springs Road NW.

For more information, call Krosbie Carter at 360-753-8062 or Anna Schlecht at 360-753-8183.

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433 @Lisa_Pemberton

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