Homelessness in America, these days, comes dressed with many different faces, and the stories of how those brothers and sisters of ours ended up on the streets, are rich, poignant, and broad in scope. The stories that follow go further yet. They speak not only to how a couple of the folks that wear these faces found themselves homeless, but also to how SideWalk, an organization new to Olympia, Washington, brought each of them into shelter and a new life.
I sat with Merrill on a recent autumn morning, in her living room at a transitional home for low income people. She had just excitedly taken me to the back deck, overlooking an expansive view of forest, rooftops and an occasional view of Mt. Rainier, to show me what she “gets to wake up to.” Her pleasure over her new home was contagious as I met several of her housemates, women also working to gather their lives around themselves and stand on their own two feet. Merrill’s journey is a story she wants to share, a story worthy of being told. After 25 years of living under the cloud of crack use, and the past 8 under the domination of her boyfriend/crack dealer in Tacoma, Washington, she has freed herself. On a recent 4th of July, she chose her own emancipation. Encouraged by a friend, and with the help of the United Way, she found herself surrounded by the supportive arms of Safe Place, a temporary home for women fleeing abuse, in Olympia. A few months later, being eligible for shelter at Bread and Roses, another gracious stop-over for women in Olympia, Merrill signed herself up for housing help from SideWalk, an organization formed in October of 2011, under the umbrella organization Interfaith Works, to address and end homelessness in Thurston County.
Staffed largely by local volunteers who have experienced extensive training to become advocates for the homeless who come to them, SideWalk is rapidly becoming “the place” for many folks to go to who are faced with homelessness. Phil Owen, the Program Director, along with Jill Esbeck, Program Manager, and Emma Margraf, Community Outreach Coordinator, are the underpinnings for an organization staffed primarily by a group of big-hearted volunteers (many are retired Baby Boomers) who are serving as safety nets in the first line of defense, advocating for the burgeoning wave of our homeless brothers and sisters.
SideWalk was named so to clearly express the idea that those who come there will find helpers who do not rescue, but who walk beside them on their journey out of homelessness, empowering them to seek solutions and access available resources, sometimes creatively finding alternatives to traditional systems. Arriving at SideWalk, Merrill was matched up with her own Advocate, Pat, who as Merrill describes it, “put me on the right path. She let me know who I needed to see and what I needed to do.” Having felt empowered by the experience, she added, “I worked to take care of the details myself as much as I could. But whenever I was weak or despondent, she was there to pick up the phone, make the necessary calls and get me back on track. It gave me hope again.” Merrill has nothing but praise for the SideWalk staff of volunteers. “I’ve tried to get help before at various agencies, but the people there are getting paid for their jobs—their hearts aren’t always in what they do. At SideWalk the volunteers do it because they care. Everyone there is friendly, kind and helpful. And they work as a team, helping each other when they don’t have answers themselves, to make things happen.” Settled in her new home, Merrill attends Toastmaster’s meetings, has become an enthusiastic spokesperson for SideWalk, and is now attending classes at South Puget Sound Community College as she works to “pay it forward” by becoming a counselor for others.
While Merrill’s life experience covers multiple years full of sometimes great difficulties, many of today’s homeless come bearing far less years, but often face some of the same burdens. Meeting with her at a local cafe, I learned that Ally is one of those who, very early in her life, found herself without a home or financial support. Like so many young people today, her time came to leave home, a loving one in her case, with parents studying and working to raise themselves out of debt while caring for her six other siblings. Struggling to make it on her own on the streets of California, she came face-to-face with the harsh reality of the times. As she tried to get help from the state’s social services, she discovered that she did not fit into the eligible masses. There was frustration in her voice as she recalled, “if you don’t have children, or are not totally sick, you don’t qualify for help in California.”
Feeling that she had nowhere to turn, but wanting to change her life, and drawn by a dream to attend The Evergreen State College, she took what little savings she had and caught a train to Washington. Her last dollar bought her a bus ride to Olympia’s Salvation Army. Ally quickly jumped into her search to find a home, and within a week she got a job at Jack In The Box, where she currently works. Ally’s struggle to keep her head above water during this time was compounded by her already-diagnosed panic and social anxiety disorders, and clinical depression. Like Merrill, she eventually found refuge at Bread and Roses. She was befriended there by a grandmotherly sort who showed her kindness. However, her new mentor, suffering from ill health, died at the home shortly after Ally’s arrival. Encouraged by a housemate to “use her death as a reminder to yourself to be healthy,” she gathered her strength, shifted her attitude at her work place, and resolved to return to health herself, both physically and emotionally. Applying for housing help at SideWalk, Ally and her Advocate Pat found her eligible for financial assistance through the resources of Rapid ReHousing (RRH), a new approach to addressing homelessness, and she and a fellow Bread and Roses housemate soon moved into their own apartment. Now enrolled at a community college, she sees herself moving toward her ultimate goal of a degree from The Evergreen State College one day that involves her love—photography.
Phil Owen, the Program Director, has been a key figure in the formation of SideWalk. In a TV interview on “Around Thurston County” (TCTV), hosted by Patrick Babineau, Phil clearly outlines the goals and processes of SideWalk. It serves, he says, as “a coordinated entry point” for clients, helping them to “apply for disability benefits, move into housing, conduct job searches, and access community services.” The Advocate volunteers learn how to field all possible scenarios. They are trained to listen closely to their clients, and to see each individual as a worthy human being. Empowerment is the name of the game, and educating the public about the reasons people become homeless, and dispelling the stereotypes that cling to them is a major part of Phil’s role as Director. “Only 15% of the homeless,” he points out, “are part of the chronically homeless—the panhandlers who are the most visible part of the population.” Many others, far less visible, are becoming part of the statistics. Often today they are families with children who have been hit hard by the economic downturn. People with disabilities fall to homelessness through their inability to financially care for themselves as they suffer under the social stigmas heaped on them around substance abuse and mental illness. Seniors fall prey to homelessness as their support systems are undermined by government austerity measures. Those suffering from major medical problems, too, often find themselves no longer able to work, support their families, pay their mortgages, or pay off huge medical debts, ending in homelessness. SideWalk and the dedicated folks at Interfaith Works have taken ‘caring for our human family’ to a whole new level as they work not only to turn around the attitudes our culture promotes regarding the homeless, but also to encourage the recognition and the embracing of the homeless as loved and valued members of our society. They walk their talk.
Governmental services, both state and federal, exist, of course, to address this critical issue in our society, however their very size and political/ bureaucratic approach often hinders their effectiveness. Organizations such as SideWalk are able to see from a different, more grassroots, vantage point and are offering alternative solutions that adjust for the holes in the larger systems. Phil Owen offers clarity to the financial holes in the bigger system, pointing out that their lack of central coordination and screening protocols allow for inappropriate housing placements, resulting in some people being underserved—falling back into homelessness and shuffling from one shelter to another at taxpayer expense. Others are over-served and unnecessarily add to the cost of the system—those who are capable of supporting themselves, but only needing a boost up, end up being housed in permanent subsidized housing at huge taxpayer expense. This is where Rapid ReHousing (RRH) comes in. Owen points out that since 80% to 90% of homelessness is due, for one reason or another, to lack of funds—not mental illness, criminal activity, or substance abuse—a small financial boost back into stable housing makes huge economic sense. This newer, more cost-effective approach to homeless services, offers this boost. Through careful screening, following specific protocols, Advocates are able to determine client eligibility. Some form of income is necessary. Good relations with former landlords is expected. Personal health, psychological, legal and chemical dependency problems are examined to determine a client’s ability to sustain a home. Research has found that, for those who qualify for RRH, rather than covering all of their expenses through big programs, an average of $1,020—total cost—per household is often all it takes to reestablish stability simply through a little rental assistance. Developing a working relationship with local landlords who are open to helping with this process is part of the ongoing work at SideWalk, as they strive to develop a system of outreach, education and support for participating landlords to insure their properties are properly cared for and rents covered.
Supported by funds from Thurston County, local faith groups, grants and fundraisers, and most-welcomed private contributions, SideWalk has grown in a little over one year to become a force to be reckoned with. Always on the lookout for creative and substantial funding, Emma Margraf, the Community Outreach Coordinator, is a tireless instigator of ways to generate the Green Energy required for this very ambitious endeavor. During one radio PR spot she was asked if SideWalk had trouble finding homeless clients who were willing to do what it takes to stay in housing (a perception often held by the public). She answered, “We have no problem finding clients who want homes and are willing and able to do the work. Our primary challenge is growing rapidly enough, through funding support and inner organization, to serve all our clients’ needs.”
Jill Esbeck, the Program Manager, holds profound gratitude for the advocates, the volunteers who are the very core of SideWalk. The heart of the agency,” she says, “is propelled by their tenacity and passion. They have built a culture of caring that wraps its arms around each client and walks beside them as new pathways are forged and barriers to housing are diminished. We have volunteers from all walks of life coming together to share a common commitment to end homelessness, one client at a time. Their work inspires me as I watch how they are making a difference in so many peoples’ lives.”
Homelessness is an issue that, although many do not realize it, touches us all in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And it is through each of us, recognizing our membership in and responsibly to our communities, that this heart-breaking reality can be addressed, one person at a time. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer for SideWalk, or would like to offer donations of financial or in-kind support, please contact Emma Margraf at 360-545-3082.
Desdra Dawning, a recent client of SideWalk, and a recipient of housing help through Rapid ReHousing, has become a volunteer, offering her writing and community outreach services in her own efforts to support its’ work to end homelessness.