Out of the Woods shelter helps families

Nonprofit group with close ties to Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation plans fundraisers next week

jdodge@theolympian.comFebruary 11, 2014 

They must be doing something right at the Out of the Woods family shelter, a nonprofit group with close operating and physical ties with the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Olympia’s west side.

The three-bedroom home on church property houses three homeless families with children for up to 90 days. It’s one of only two shelters for families with children operating in Thurston County that offer longer than single-night stays.

One way to measure the shelter’s success is by tracking what happens to the families who take up temporary residence there. Out of the Woods program director Jo Ann Mitchell Young said more than 90 percent of the families living at the home end up finding housing for at least six months after they depart the shelter.

The program is the church members’ way to put a dent in the community’s homeless population – three families at a time, said OTW treasurer Brian Walsh, a retired federal auditor who keeps track of finances for the shelter.

“The core thing we’re trying to do is take away the burden of not knowing where a family is going to spend the night,” he said.

The church used to operate as an overnight-only, low barrier shelter, relying strictly on volunteers. The shelter shut down for a few months in 2006 to reorganize into a separate nonprofit group with two paid employees, an overnight caretaker who lives in a recreational vehicle on the property and a new commitment to create a welcoming environment for families down on their luck.

The three-bedroom home is tucked in the woods, but right on the Intercity Transit bus line so residents can ride to appointments and job interviews. School-age children receive school-supported transportation to get to and from school.

The families who live there for up to 90 days have been screened by Family Support Center of South Sound, an Olympia-based nonprofit. The house rules are designed to provide a safe, secure living arrangement – no alcohol, drugs or weapons are allowed on the premises and prescription drugs must be locked up. Strict curfews are in place, as well as reminders not to use the television as a babysitter.

The kitchen is shared by the three families, which may or may not eat together. They cook and clean like they would in their own home. House rules and suggestions for nutritional meals are posted on the living room and kitchen walls. Chores are assigned and efforts are made to make life as normal as possible.

The most common clients are single mothers with children, including a mother who gave birth last summer to her second child just one day after moving into the home.

“We also try to model and support good parenting skills,” Young said.

Since 2006, the shelter supporters have provided thousands of nights with a bed and meal, hundreds of food coupons and bus passes, food closet visits, holiday meals and gifts, and a stable environment for children to learn and grow.

One of the families living at the shelter this winter includes a 40-year-old man, his wife and two young children. The father, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he has a master’s degree in health care but is having trouble finding a job. The family became homeless last year when his wife became ill and lost her job. They moved from Pierce County to Olympia in December. She’s found a low-paying job, and he spends time looking for work and caring for their infant son.

“This can happen to anybody,” the Pacific Islander native said of his family’s homeless fate. “This is a trial and a challenge my family must go through.”

He said his faith in God and family sustains him. “I am very strong,” he said. “I will not let this beat me down.”

It takes about $1,000 a week to operate the family shelter, which brings me to the reason I’m writing this column now.

The Out of the Woods key annual fundraiser is set for 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Feb. 22, at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 2300 East End St. NW, Olympia. It’s called “Books, Brownies and Beans.” All the proceeds from the sale of used books, DVDs, CDs, coffee, tea, pastries and handicrafts support the shelter. Last year, the event raised slightly more than $9,000, event chairman Mark Swanson said.

He expects some 8,000 books, including a healthy supply of children’s books, to be available at the sale. Admission to the fundraiser is free.

Anyone who wants a sneak preview of the book sale should come to an informal party at the church from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Feb. 21. Admission is on a sliding scale of $10 to $50, which is good for one book, wine and hors d’oeuvres.

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

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