ARTICLE: Efforts under way to increase emergency shelters for homeless families

By on February 23, 2011. Posted in , . Tagged as , , , , , .

Helping Hand House featured in article from the Puyallup School District, a key partner in serving homeless families in east Pierce County.

Efforts under way to increase emergency shelters for homeless families

Peggy, a parent of two Sunrise Elementary students, lived in a motel with her children for more than a month last fall after being evicted from her apartment on South Hill.

The single mother said she tried diligently to find an opening in one of the area’s emergency shelters, but was repeatedly turned away because of a lack of space.

“I called agency after agency,” she said. “It was shocking to me the number of people who need help. I would call the emergency shelter and be told there was a six-month waiting list. That was a real eye-opener.”

Efforts are under way to increase the amount of emergency shelters in Eastern Pierce County to meet the needs of the growing homeless population, especially families with children.

While many of these efforts are in the talking stage, advocates for the homeless say they represent a starting point toward finding solutions to the growing shortage of emergency shelters.

New centralized phone number

As of January 31, 2011, there is one centralized phone number — (253) 682-3401 (or 211) — for homeless persons to call about shelter availability in Pierce County, complete an assessment, and get help finding services targeted for their needs.

Associated Ministries, in partnership with Pierce County Community Connections, launched the new phone number to help people like Peggy avoid having to make numerous calls for help.

Barb Pope, the school district’s director of student services, said she is excited about the new centralized intake phone number, which took effect on January 31.

“It is so disheartening for a homeless person to pick up the phone and be told there isn’t an opening for them,” she said. “These people are already in difficult situations, and the last thing they need is rejection after rejection.”

Puyallup Homeless Coalition

The Puyallup Homeless Coalition, which is in its tenth year of advocating for the homeless, is made up of community groups, organizations, and individuals working to find more short- and long-term living spaces for the homeless.

During a meeting last month, the Coalition discussed plans to survey area churches to gauge the interest in helping the homeless, including the willingness to set up temporary encampments or — for those living in their cars — temporary safe parking areas.

The Puyallup City Council, following the state Legislature’s passage of House Bill 1956, approved an ordinance last September allowing religious groups to host tent cities and other types of temporary encampments that meet certain conditions.

The Coalition is also trying to find a more long-term solution to sheltering the homeless. The group has held roundtable discussions with community leaders this past year and hopes to meet with city officials this spring to discuss developing a citywide strategic plan to help the homeless.

Freezing Nights

Freezing Nights, which formed in 2004 in Puyallup, is exploring how it can expand its emergency housing program for adults to include families with children.

The volunteer program, which operates nightly from November through March, uses churches in Puyallup and the surrounding area to provide a clean, safe, warm place for homeless men and women to spend the night. The program is set up as a traveling shelter, with cots and bedding moved daily to each church that participates in the program.

The hope, organizers say, is to develop a Freezing Nights for Families program with the goal of finding churches that can keep a family sheltered for up to a month at a time.

The need is great

Local agencies that provide direct services to homeless people report that requests for help have increased anywhere from 30 to 50 percent or more in the last two years, said Ted Brackman, co-founder of the Puyallup Homeless Coalition.

Between January and October 2010, Helping Hand House reported turning away more than 3,000 people in Pierce County who were seeking shelter or rent and utility financial assistance. The organization provides emergency housing and homeless prevention services.

Open Hearth, an all-volunteer organization that provides immediate short-term housing by giving motel vouchers to homeless families in eastern Pierce County, also struggles with having more requests for shelter than there are beds and money available.

The organization, founded by the Puyallup Homeless Coalition and financially managed through Associated Ministries, provides emergency housing for homeless families for as long as one week in a Puyallup or Sumner motel. During that time, a family can use the phone and shower, have a place to sleep, and have up to seven days to try and arrange a more permanent housing situation.

Bev Cascio, chair of the Open Hearth Board of Directors and a former Puyallup School District counselor, said volunteers meet with families once they are placed in a motel to provide them with resources and, often times, emergency food.

“We remind them, ‘you have each other. It’s not hopeless. This is not the rest of your life. It’s just a moment in your life.’”

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