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Simple kindness and challenging policies both help homeless

By Deidre Jacobson

Sheila Morley has learned the power of looking homeless people in the eye, smiling and granting the simplest of human kindnesses.  

She also knows the power of coordinating services and challenging government to assure funding and resources to protect people who lose their homes.

Sheila, who is emergency assistance case manager at the Spokane Valley Community Center and Food Bank, joined the leadership team of the Homeless Coalition in June to work with others in the community to meet the needs of the homeless in Spokane.

“Homelessness has worsened because of cuts in mental health services and the increase in need,” she said.  “House of Charity, Hope House, Union Gospel Mission and Anna Ogden Hall are full to overflowing.”

Sheila developed her passion for the homeless while volunteering at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church as host church coordinator with the Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN).  She started in 1998 shortly after joining the church and served four years while working from her home as an account manager.

In 2002, she joined the IHN team as aftercare case manager, assisting families in moving to and succeeding in permanent or transitional housing when they “graduate” from IHN.

At the Spokane Valley Community Center and Food Bank (SVCC&FB), she manages the emergency assistance program, providing Spokane Valley residents with food, clothing, financial aid and referrals to agencies providing various services. 

The center’s building at 10814 E. Broadway houses the Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC), a health and nutrition services for pregnant women and mothers with young children; a high school re-entry program; Career Path Services, education services for teens and teen parents, and the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program, offering federal energy assistance and staff from the Homeless Outreach and Alight Counseling Services.

Spokane’s Homeless Coalition is part of the Washington State Coalition for the Homeless.

According to the State 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, there were 20,222 people reported as homeless in a statewide point-in-time count in January 2006. 

Based on Housing and Urban Development 2000 and Community Health Association of Spokane data, there are also about 99,000 renter households at risk of becoming homeless because the household’s income is less than 30 percent of the area’s median, and the household’s need to spend more than 50 percent of that income on rent.

Sheila said the statistics do not reflect the actual level of need.

“We see many families who are doubling up, staying with friends or relatives, trying to share homes as roommates.  People do whatever they can to get a roof over their heads,” she said.

Concerned individuals and agencies, plus city and county governments have been studying the issues and in 2005 developed a 10-year strategy to end chronic, street, emergency-sheltered and long-term sheltered homelessness in the Spokane region. 

The strategies are:

• Move people into appropriate housing with supportive services:   Providing long-term and stable housing requires matching individuals with services such as case management, mental health services and medical care.  A range of housing options is needed to address the range of needs.

• Fully use existing resources:  In the Spokane region, there are partnerships and collaborations among homeless-service organizations, such as the Spokane Homeless Coalition and the Spokane Low-Income Housing Consortium.

• Prevent homelessness:  Risk factors such as poverty, illness, disability and violence need addressing before homelessness occurs.  The homeless-service system must be able to aid individuals and families with pending eviction or utility shut-off notices because of financial crisis.  

• Coordinate among regional jurisdictions:  The planning process involves coordinating conversation with Spokane County, the City of Spokane and the City of Spokane Valley.

• Develop a community responseto homelessness:  Aware that homelessness is not an easy issue to address, planners try to create avenues for citizens to become aware of issues of homelessness and create opportunities for individuals, groups and organizations to take action.

Advocate for changes in public policies:  Some policies inhibit the community’s ability to address chronic homelessness.

• Develop funding sources: Budget tightening is prevalent within federal, state and local government sources. 

The Spokane Homeless Coalition has developed a plan to address the need for expanded options to those who are homeless in extremely cold weather. 

The City/County Coalition has provided additional funds for the House of Charity, the Salvation Army, Volunteers of America’s Crosswalk and Volunteers of America’s Hope House to be designated as warming centers.  These sites will be open on days when temperatures will drop to 5 degrees or lower with or without wind chill and each of the shelters was full the previous night.

“Spokane providers work well together, helping clients with complex needs, but the problems are great and the needs are increasing,” said Sheila, who finds that her faith gives her strength to advocate for those who are suffering. 

“Faith gives me the ability to be compassionate.  The people I work with inspire me.  We are joining together to do what we can for this community,” she said.  “We need the help of everyone to solve this complex problem.” 

She urges people to support legislation to fund programs and services aiding the homeless.

The 2007 legislative agenda of the Washington State Coalition for the Homeless includes:

Increase funding and expand eligibility criteriafor programs providing short- and longer-term tenant-based rental subsidies, support services and flexible cash assistance, such as the Transitional Housing Operating and Rental program, which rapidly houses those who became homeless, including victims of domestic violence, and prevents at-risk families from becoming homeless.

• Support increased fees to fund the Homelessness Housing and Assistance Act of 2005.  The state and counties have adopted 10-year plans to end homelessness and need to implement them.

• Increase the Housing Trust Fund, which Sheila considers the state’s “largest, most effective tool” for creating affordable homes for low-income families and individuals.

• Strengthen discharge planning and temporary housing assistancefor individuals released from state and local institutions, such as the criminal justice facilities, foster care and state mental hospitals.  Failure to ensure that these vulnerable individuals are linking to housing and services on discharge means many end up homeless and cycled back into state institutions or systems.

• Improve access to and quality of mainstream services. 

We must maintain or increase funds for programs such as the emergency shelters, food assistance, temporary assistance to needy families, subsidized child care, domestic violence prevention, mental-health and substance-abuse treatment, job training and Medicaid.  We must also support living wage jobs, if we are to eliminate homelessness in the state,” Sheila said.

“We have the power to make a difference,” she said.  “When you see a homeless person, look him or her in the eye and smile or say hello.  The homeless are often invisible and don’t receive even the smallest of human kindnesses.”

For more information, call 927-1153 ext. 12.


The Fig Tree - © January 2007