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How Do Seattle’s Homeless Families Make It Work?

ParentMap answers a reader question from #SeaHomeless 2018

Published on: August 20, 2018

Homeless man in Seattle, Washington

“How do homeless families with young children do it?”

That's the question ParentMap received from a curious reader as part of #SeaHomeless. The project, which this year involved eight local media outlets including ParentMap and received hundreds of crowdsourced questions, aims to answer what readers want to know about homelessness in our city. 

So, how do homeless families do it, asked Hannah Lidman, mother of two preschool-aged children and ParentMap reader? “It’s hard enough to parent small children with a roof over your head. Naps. Snacks. Stuff," she says. "What is it like when you don’t have a home?”

Simply put, it’s hard. 

Really hard. 

Gus, his wife and their two sons, ages 9 and 14, became homeless when their landlord declined to renew their lease. For the last few months while they’ve waited for permanent housing to become available, they’ve been living in a South Seattle hotel thanks to vouchers from the YWCA. Gus told me it’s hard raising adolescents in a hotel room. 

We have one burner, a microwave and a small fridge. You can’t make meals for a family.

“We have one burner, a microwave and a small fridge. You can’t make meals for a family. It’s from the freezer to the microwave and one kid eats. Do it again and the next kid eats,” he says.

“I can’t wait for the boys to have a space to call their own, to hang out with friends, to just be alone if they want,” Gus continues. “We aren’t allowed visitors, and it’s hard to adjust to being stuck in a hotel room all the time.” 

Bonnie* and her preschool-aged granddaughter have spent the last six months making the daily trek between an emergency overnight shelter and a daytime shelter operated by Mary’s Place, a Seattle-based nonprofit that serves women, children and families by offering shelter, job training and advocacy. 

Before they came to the shelter, Bonnie and her granddaughter camped “because I could afford to do that, but when the weather turned bad, we did a little couch-surfing until we came here,” Bonnie says. Every day, she pushes a stroller loaded with gear back and forth between the two shelters. She thinks about sleep a lot.

“Callie* doesn’t get naps. I worry about her not getting as much sleep as she’s supposed to … they’re supposed to be sleeping about 12 hours a night at this age. No way she’s getting that.” 

Their day begins at 6:00 a.m. when they’re awakened at the overnight shelter so everyone can be out by 8:00 a.m. From there, they board a city bus for the shelter where they spend their days. There are showers and laundry and meals and activities, and then it’s back to the first shelter with its strictly enforced “lights out” time. It’s not unusual for Callie to be awake until 10 or 11 p.m. trying to settle down.

What resources are available?

King County has a robust system that provides assistance for families; a “one-stop shop” of sorts, says Debra Monroe, the housing director at YWCA. Each individual family is assessed according to their most pressing needs and the appropriate agencies are mobilized to tailor specific solutions such as rent subsidies to avoid eviction, moving costs, shelter placement or hotel vouchers. 

Once a family’s short-term shelter needs are met, their appointed caseworker activates a strong network of community partners to help with long-term needs. But even so, there are clear logistical and psychological challenges for homeless families with young kids.

James Flynn, the youth services director for Mary’s Place, knows the difficulties. They staff an intake line for families seeking shelter that fills county-wide after-hours shelters on an emergency basis without a lengthy assessment process. Because their priority is pregnant women and women with kids younger than 2, Mary’s Place shelters have a lot of toddlers. 

“Fussy babies keep everyone up at night, it’s hard to put your child down for a nap amid the noise and activity at a shelter, parents who are homeless don’t have many opportunities to get a break and privacy is almost nonexistent,” Flynn says. 

Mary’s Place staff work hard to serve each family according to their specific needs and limitations — with drop-in childcare, assistance with health needs and parenting support — and get families into permanent housing as quickly as possible, but Flynn says “the needs always outstrip the supply.” 

Indeed, Monroe of the YWCA says that their biggest obstacle is the lack of affordable housing. Waiting lists are long and options are few, which means that families are often in temporary shelters and hotels for longer than is comfortable, which adds another challenge: timing. 

Puget Sound parents know that registering for school, ECEAP, Head Start and summer camps begins months in advance, but if you don’t know where you’ll be in a few months, it’s hard to find options for your kids. And even if they do manage to keep kids in their same schools while they’re in a shelter, it can mean a long commute to and from school. It can be hard to strike a balance between opportunities for education and recreation and the logistics of signing kids up for programs, transportation and funding. 

What's next for these families?

Gus’ family was recently notified that they’ve made it to the top of the permanent housing waiting list and will move before school starts, which means he knows where his kids will be enrolled come September. 

Bonnie wants to sign her granddaughter up for preschool, but she has to wait because she doesn’t know how much longer they’ll be in shelters. 

Both families expressed gratitude for the range of services available to them, but they agree that the unique social/emotional needs of kids concern them. Kids need stability and some level of predictability for healthy development. Not knowing where you’re going to live or go to school for months at a time is a significant source of stress and anxiety, especially if nobody in your family has any control over when you’ll have permanence. 

“Waiting is the hardest part,” Gus says, but he remains optimistic and excited about the prospect of cooking a full meal in his own kitchen soon. Bonnie says her granddaughter is really looking forward to taking a bath.

“I can’t wait to shower and cook when I want to and make the food the way I like it. I want to go to sleep when I want and wake up when I want and Callie wants to decorate with rainbow curtains and rainbow lights and a rainbow bedspread. That will be nice.”  

*Names have been changed.

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