El Centro de la Raza offers programs to prevent family homelessness

(This is the first of two articles today about family homelessness and two Beacon Hill-area non-profit organizations that provide services for homeless families and families in danger of losing their homes. The articles are part of a wider project in conjunction with The Seattle Times and other neighborhood news blogs to address the topic of family homelessness. See the project’s home page at the Times and the second article here at the BHB.)

by Melissa Jonas

The first five years of a child’s life are the most likely time for a family to become homeless. According to the United Way of King County, 3388 children and their family members were homeless in King County for the 2010 One Night Count. Many parents reading this will be shocked, but not completely surprised. It’s shocking to think that young children are at such great risk of becoming homeless and unsurprising because raising kids is so challenging—not to mention expensive. Single parent households, low income families, and families who have experienced homelessness in the past are especially vulnerable to losing their housing.

Invisible Families: The homeless you don’t see

Invisible Families: The homeless you don't see

They squeeze in with relatives, couch surf with friends or camp out in cars. More families are quietly becoming homeless, driven to the edge by a lack of jobs and affordable housing. The Seattle Times and its local news partners tackle the topic together. Project home

Families become homeless for many reasons, ranging from purely financial to a combination of social and economic problems. Parents miss work for medical appointments or to care for a child when school/daycare is closed. Extra expenses associated with a new addition can tip a family over the edge from “barely making it” to homeless. Sleep deprivation, clashes over parenting styles, and lack of social support can all push relationships to their breaking point. How would you handle these impossible choices: pay rent or pay for child care that allows you to work? Stay in a violent relationship, or take your kids to sleep in the car? Sleep together in a park or leave dad behind and go to a shelter?

Being homeless is traumatic for kids and parents alike. Parents question their ability to care for their families, sometimes not asking for help because they are afraid of losing their children. School-age children who are homeless struggle in class, and have difficulty making friends. Even very young children are affected by homelessness; homeless children are at greater risk of developmental delays and behavioral problems later in life. Children who experience homelessness are at greater risk of becoming homeless as adults, continuing the cycle of generational homelessness. Helping parents create and maintain a stable home for their children is the one of the best investments a community can make.

A child in Columbia City Park reads cardboard signs intended to raise awareness about family homelessness. The sign in front reads: "We live in a car. Don't just look away." Photo by Melissa Jonas.
Where can families turn when they are about to lose or have lost their housing? The King County 2-1-1 Community Resource Line provides referrals and conducts intake for rental assistance. Those in need can call 2-1-1 or visit www.crisisclinic.org to learn about local resources.

Two agencies in the Beacon Hill area provide emergency assistance and long-term support to prevent homelessness and to stabilize families who have lost their homes. These programs work with each other and other agencies across the city to provide the most comprehensive services possible.

For 38 years, El Centro de la Raza has been working on behalf of the “Beloved Community.” Executive Director Estela Ortega told us about some of the organization’s dreams to provide housing on their Beacon Hill property for people of all races, income levels, and ages. Ortega hopes to begin meeting with Beacon Hill neighbors soon to collect design ideas, explain how the project goals fit the North Beacon Hill Neighborhood Plan, and encourage support for the zoning changes needed for this project. (See previous articles about proposed zoning changes here and here.)

El Centro’s goal is to create a mixed-income building, offering rental rates affordable to very low income individuals as well as workforce housing targeted at those earning 80% of Area Median Income (approximately $60,000 for a family of four). El Centro’s location adjacent to the Beacon Hill light rail station makes it ideal for those who work or attend school anywhere in Seattle. Residents would also benefit from living near the programs already offered by El Centro.

Graciela Gonzalez is the Human Services Director in the Frances Martinez Community Service Center (FMCSC) at El Centro. The FMCSC offers a range of programs that work together to help people in need—including a food bank, meal program, and senior exercise classes. This “one stop shopping” approach makes it easier to access services. All services are provided in a culturally sensitive manner by case managers fluent in the languages spoken by the diverse clients who live in Beacon Hill and by visitors to El Centro. Gonzalez shared information with the BHB about two programs specifically targeted to help homeless families: the Eviction Prevention Program and the Housing and Case Management Program.

Seattle residents earning less than 50% of the area median income (approximately $45,000 for a family of four) can apply for help from the new Eviction Prevention Program. Qualified families facing eviction receive help with rent and support to help them identify and work on the challenges that led to their threatened eviction. Common referrals include financial literacy or English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and assistance with applications for child care, or utility assistance to help stretch their income farther. This combined focus on emergency assistance and improving overall stability is effective—so far none of the families enrolled in the project have become homeless.

The National Council of La Raza recognized the innovative Housing and Case Management Program at El Centro with an award in 2008. Case managers provide wraparound services and comprehensive case management to 54 families each year. The Housing and Case Management Program at El Centro is unique in its focus on helping participants find permanent housing in the private market, then working with them to ensure that they can afford this market-rate housing long term. Participants in the program receive coordinated case management addressing the reasons they became homeless and helping them avoid homelessness in the future.

Families create a service plan, outlining their short and long term goals to become self-sufficient. They work with case managers to identify the challenges that led to their crisis and work towards solutions: financial literacy workshops to improve credit, job training to increase their income, parenting classes, language/citizenship workshops, etc. Participants receive vouchers for short-term housing to provide immediate safe shelter, followed by a list of available apartments in their price range. Case managers follow up with home visits at three, six, nine, and 12 months after the family is housed. Both participants and the landlords are encouraged to contact El Centro if the family is at risk of eviction.

Many of the families enrolled in the Housing Case Management Program at El Centro are forced to look for housing outside of Seattle city limits, seeking cheaper rent in South or North King County. While they are saving money on rent, they are also increasing their transportation costs and often moving farther away from their support systems. El Centro is working to find ways to keep families closer to work, school, and family. Someday, this will include offering affordable apartments on Beacon Hill.

How you can help: Attend the upcoming 3rd Annual Auction Banquet on September 25th! Take classes at El Centro to learn Spanish or make tamales and, by doing so, support El Centro’s programs. To learn more about classes and workshops available or to register for their September 25 auction, visit the El Centro website. Donations are always needed, especially housewares and gift cards to help families settle into their new home. To learn more about how to donate or become a volunteer, contact donor@elcentrodelaraza.org or call 206-957-4652. Look for El Centro de la Raza on Facebook as well.

(El Centro de la Raza is not the only organization in our area that focuses on preventing homelessness. Follow this link to the second article in this series, about Wellspring Family Services.)

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