Island County opens housing aid center

Looking at a stack of 121 client files on her desk, Island County Housing Support Center Housing Navigator Malissa Taylor remembers a lot of stories, a lot of faces. Few, if any, of the memories are warming to the heart, but that’s the nature of her work.

Taylor and the rest of the housing support center’s staff assist families and individuals who are at risk of being homeless or already homeless. The Coupeville-based support center opened Aug. 8 and in just two months of operation, 261 people have walked through their doors. Stagnant salary wages, a hot housing market and increasing cost of rent has put more people on the street or riding the couch of a neighbor or friend. According to Joanne Pelant, housing resource coordinator, the 2015 homeless point-in-time count indicated homelessness in Island County had increased by about 34 percent from 2014. The percent increase is also in line with homelessness figures across the state.

Pelant said the ultimate goal for the center is to minimize the number of steps it takes to get housing. Before the support center, a homeless person or someone at risk of being homeless could visit a variety of different housing programs before finding the right service that met their qualifications. Having to retell their stories over and over to the different program facilitators can often be emotionally distressing and sometimes discouraging to those in need, said Jackie Henderson, housing support center director.

The support center is changing that.

“It really is all about streamlining our services and how we deliver those services to folks struggling with homelessness,” Pelant said.

The center conducts screenings and assessments and determines which program or service provider best serves the people’s needs. It can connect people to six housing programs — the Opportunity Council, Compass Health, Sunrise Services, South Whidbey Homeless Coalition, Citizens Against Domestic &Sexual Abuse and Ryan’s House for Youth — which range from prevention assistance to transitional housing and temporary shelter.

The prescreening process looks at two things — income and housing status, Pelant said. The support center helps those who are at 50 percent of the AMI (Area Median Income) and below.

“If they qualify, then they’ll come into the coordinated entry office [housing support center] and get a bigger screening,” Pelant said.

If housing is not readily available, the clients are put on a housing interest list. The support center’s work, however, doesn’t end there. They consistently check in with phone calls or meet in person and ask questions such as what’s paralyzing them or what’s keeping them moving forward. The staff eventually develops a list of three to four steps that can help improve their situation.

The screening process also allows staff to hear their stories and build relationships.

“It’s really about making them comfortable,” Taylor said. “Their situation is terrible, but a lot of people are going through it. It doesn’t seem like anyone is validating the position they’re in.”

Helping clients become familiar and comfortable with the system is another task at times. Pelant said some of the folks can be distrustful of the system.

“Therefore, building a relationship and just connecting with them over a period of time is really important,” Pelant said.

Taylor often takes her work home with her.

“I go home thinking about these people, what can be done and what things are going to make their lives better,” Taylor said. “It can be very difficult.”

“I don’t think you can do this job without having compassion and empathy for people,” she added.

The process is not always quick. The need is currently greater than the availability of housing. Of the 121 client files, 72 are still awaiting referrals.

“We have so few houses available that we’re working as quickly as we possibly can,” Taylor said. “It’s really dependent on the housing programs.”

Some people spend up to 70 percent of their income on rent, which is often a debilitating amount. Pelant said around 30 percent of a person’s income should go to housing.

The support center also works with landlords to help forestall evictions, and assists those with criminal backgrounds. Landlords sometimes hold people’s past eviction and criminal history against them, going back as far as 10 years. There are success stories, however. Pelant and Taylor said they once helped a man with a criminal history who was unable to qualify for a housing program. With the support center’s help and communication with the landlord, the man is now housed and has a steady job.

“At the end of the day, the big umbrella goal for all of us that work in homelessness is to reduce or end homelessness, or get to that functional zero,” Pelant said.

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