Ten newborn babies and their mothers were discharged from the hospital directly to a Thurston County homeless shelter in the past year.
The good news is that it’s an excellent shelter. Pear Blossom Place, a project of the Family Support Center, has been in operation for nearly two years in a repurposed office building it bought from the city of Olympia for $1. The building provides a shelter than can serve up to 36 people; seven apartments provide long-term housing with continuing social services.
The staff and volunteers at Pear Blossom manage to place homeless children and their parents in housing in an average of about 40 days, and its staff offers follow-up services to keep them housed and on a path to stability. Shelter staff include specialists who work to find landlords willing to take a chance on people who may have been evicted from their previous housing, and to help with job searches, parenting skills and connections to other services.
About 40 percent of shelter guests are two-parent families. About half are working, but have low-wage, often part-time jobs that just aren’t enough to pay the rent. Only after they become homeless do they get priority placement on the waiting list for federal housing vouchers that limit their rent payments to 30 percent of their income, says Schelli Slaughter, director of the Family Support Center.
Other shelter guests become homeless for a variety of reasons, ranging from struggles with mental health to family breakups, trauma, chronic or acute illness, disability and job loss.
The hardest part of their work, says Pear Blossom program manager Keiya Johnson, is finding landlords willing to work with people who have housing vouchers or past evictions, especially now, when the rental vacancy rate is low and landlords can afford to be choosy.
What is even more troubling to shelter staff is their waiting list, which varies from about 40 to 60 families. Currently, 30 families on the list are living in cars, tents and campgrounds.
Not all homeless children are on that waiting list. In our county, the schools’ count of homeless students is 1,770, up from 1,658 last year.
That number is based on a more expansive definition of homelessness that includes sharing housing due to economic hardship, living in shelter or transitional housing and awaiting foster care placement. It also is the sum of all students who met the definition of homelessness at some point during the school year. Thus, although it is a broad measure of real hardship and instability, it doesn’t tell us how many kids are unsheltered.
Final numbers from the county’s “point in time” count, due out in about a month, will provide that number. But whatever the number, the staff and volunteers at Pear Blossom Place are proving this is not a hopeless problem. Given the right assistance, families can and do find their way out of homelessness.
Still, most of these families will continue to face herculean struggles to climb out of low-wage poverty. That is a profound defect of our economic system.
And it’s that defect that makes continuing investments in shelter, affordable housing, social services, job training and education so critically important.