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Seattle homeless families left with few options for housing

The trip to the grocery store was routine, at least for Seattle it was. My girlfriend and I both saw the woman at the entrance to the parking lot, with children at her side, holding a sign asking for anything people could spare to help.

It could have been the same woman (with kids) I gave a few bucks to a couple months ago, but I wasn’t sure. I definitely saw that woman and the same children outside a different grocery store a few miles away since then.

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The family was still there, holding that sign, when we exited the store. As I was loading my car with bags full of groceries, we were approached by another party — a man and a little girl, maybe eight years old. She was slowly eating an apple and staring at us as the man made his pitch.

“Hello, we’re homeless and I was hoping you had a few extra dollars, we’re trying to get a hotel tonight,” he said.

We looked at the girl, prizing that apple, and then back at the man.

“Sorry man, I’m cashless,” I said, which was true.

His eyes dropped and the little girl broke from her apple long enough to give a very sincere, “Thank you anyway.” The pair continued down the line of cars, approaching every person with a full cart, giving the same pitch. He got a few handouts.

“Thing is,” I told my girlfriend, “that guy could call the city, or any number of local charities and have a place to stay tonight if he wanted.”

After all, with a homelessness crisis going on, charities are on full alert. And if you are a family with children, that has to put you at the head of the line for shelter and assistance. It’s children we’re talking about here. No one would let that continue. This isn’t the stereotypical addict running a con to get a few bucks. This is a family. Something had to be in place for this situation.

I truly believed this when I said it. I was wrong.

“According to the families we serve, who have called 211 (Crisis Connection), the wait for emergency housing is six months or more,” said Britt Stockert with Babies of Homelessness.

Crisis Connection is a low barrier service for people in need. It acts as a coordinated entry point to get services.

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“Individuals needing shelter no longer have to call each shelter day-after-day and check and see if there is a spot open,” Stockert said. “With Crisis Connection, there’s a single phone number and a single wait list; this setup is supposed to be much easier for families. But Crisis Connection doesn’t have enough resources for every family. A shortage of family shelters and affordable housing is at fault for long delays, not Crisis Connection. Given resources are limited, Crisis Connection is having to triage and prioritize the most vulnerable families.”

“When Crisis Connection refers families to outside agencies, families tell us they have to go through three to five rounds of screenings before actually getting services,” she said. “Each agency has its set of strict criteria.”

Stockert adds that while obtaining emergency housing can take up to six months for a family, getting into transitional or permanent housing can take between 3-8 years.

Kids on the street

The 2019 homeless count for the King County region showed that there were 11,199 people experiencing homelessness countywide; an estimated 2,451 individuals were in families with children. Seattle’s relatively new homeless shelter, the Navigation Center, can accommodate up to 85 people.

According to Yelp’s top 10 best Seattle homeless shelters (yes, that exists), many shelters focus on specific demographics. The Union Gospel Mission serves men. Mary’s Place serves a variety of families. Catholic Community Centers also serves families. Bread of Life is inclusive with 72 beds for emergency guests, among other services.

Babies of Homelessness does not provide housing. It has no case workers. Rather, it’s a nonprofit that acts as a crisis response team, providing basic needs such as diapers, baby wipes, non-expired formula, and infant/toddler food and snacks to families without a home. They can also put families in touch with other charities for help with things like clothing and strollers. They generally deal with families with children age eight and under.

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Babies of Homelessness doesn’t have any strict criteria for their service. They deliver to tent encampments, tine homes, shelters, safe car lots, or those who are couch surfing. For them, the main issue is that there are homeless children in the Puget Sound region.

“Our ability to be a direct service provider of basic necessities within 48 hours without the long wait list or referral process is what truly makes our nonprofit unique,” Stockert said. “No red tape. No bureaucracy. The child’s basic needs are always a priority.”

“The panhandlers you have met with children — it’s hard knowing their story,” she said. “There’s a market in Washington where women and children are forced to beg (they’re trafficked) to bring home money.”

Stockert notes that sometimes immigrants are part of these forced operations, but that overall represents a very small number of panhandling families they have encountered. According to a spokesperson with the Seattle Police Department, detectives have not encountered this scenario. But they also didn’t think “it was that far fetched” and that similar incidents of forced panhandling, wage theft, or human trafficking could be happening in the city.

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Most of the time, Babies of Homelessness develops a relationship with the family. Stockert says that panhandling is not often the case, rather, someone in the family is working.

“They’re drug-free and not mentally ill and/or violent people,” she said. “They don’t think of themselves as homeless, because most feel this is a temporary situation. In rare circumstances, if our outreach volunteers see neglect and abuse, we partner with local law enforcement and CPS to report our observations.”

“Many times, one parent is employed, while the other parent watches the kids,” Stockert said. “The family lives in their car while working with a housing case manager, who is frantically trying to find a low-income unit in two to three counties. This wait can be anywhere from 5-8 years long.”

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