The new Bel-Red Family Resource Center is a faith-based response to this crisis and is a beautiful example of the great things that can happen when churches heed the call to live out their faith and serve their neighbors and the wider community.
By Dawn Stenberg, Church Engagement Partnership Specialist at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission
Last year, Redmond city officials approached Evangelical Chinese Church (ECC) to ask if they would be willing to engage the issue of homelessness by opening up their building for use as a shelter. ECC then began to ask themselves what more they could do to help their homeless neighbors. They started exploring partnerships with area congregations and non-profit agencies to better understand the issue and how they could get involved.
ECC partnered with Creekside Covenant Church, Westminster Chapel, and Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission to explore how they could serve families experiencing homelessness. They’ve been working together for nearly two years on opening the “BelRed Family Resource Center” or BRFRC and are ready to do a “soft launch” opening for the BRFRC. Operations for a day center will begin in a facility owned by Creekside Covenant. The long term hope is to operate a 24-hour shelter for single moms at a large house ECC owns on the property adjacent to Creekside Covenant Church.
In preparation to open this day center for single moms, the congregations involved have taken part in several training opportunities. Working in partnership with Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, they hosted a Poverty Simulation Workshop at ECC. More than 80 people attended up on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and we even had to turn some people away as the workshop reached capacity. Other trainings offered were a Trauma Informed Care and Boundaries training at ECC that had about 180 in attendance. Additionally, Westminster Chapel recently hosted a “Homelessness 101” workshop where people came and learned about the facts and myths about homelessness, and participated in an interactive training.
The congregations are very committed to serving families experiencing homelessness. We hope to open the BRFRC at the end of May and have started recruiting volunteers from the congregations and the community. For more information, and to see how you can get involved you can visit www.ugm.org/BelRed.
By Lisa Gustaveson, Program Manager, Seattle University School of Theology & Ministry
On the first Tuesday of every month you will find a handful of Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry faculty, staff and students at the Emergency Family Shelter. We finish up our work day, grab our families if they are joining us, and meet down at the Belltown shelter with a prepared meal. Sometimes we bring homemade sauce, meatballs and pasta, other times we pull together something easy like a taco bar.
The food we bring is greatly appreciated – the families love the variety and recognize the time and money it takes to organize these monthly visits.
School of Theology and Ministry graduate students, staff, faculty and their families at the Emergency Family Shelter.
The best – and most needed – part of our visit happens after we dish up the meal. That’s when we join the families at the tables and share stories about our day. We complain, or rejoice, about the weather and the joys and challenges of parenting. We laugh at the antics of children showing off for the visitors. We open our hearts to hear stories of heartbreak and frustration from mothers who just want to find a better life for their children.
The last time I was at the shelter I met Mary (not her real name). When I asked if I could join her she smiled brightly and welcomed me. There was something about her smile that put me at ease. I felt the stress of my day melting away, and I let myself relax.
“How are things going for you?” I asked. Over the years I’ve asked this question of people experiencing homelessness hundreds of times. Sometimes people shrug and say, “o.k.” This lets me know today is not the day for them to share their story with me.
More often than not the question is met with a smile and “good, and you?” This opens the door to a more personal exchange.
This time, Mary and I quickly connected and found ourselves laughing about the funny things that happened to us that day. Her two-year-old daughter took advantage of her distracted mom to eat a couple packets of butter (at least one with the wrapper still on) before we noticed. We laughed some more about how much trouble kids get into when Mom is focusing her attention elsewhere.
In a short time I learned that Mary was the daughter of a very young mother, and was placed in foster care at age 11. She bounced around from foster home to foster home until she turned 18 when she “aged out.” That means, at an age where many kids are still relying on their parents for support, Mary was left to support herself.
Without a supportive community to rely on, she fell into a crowd that wasn’t always on the right track. Somehow, Mary managed to stay out of big trouble. She told me she didn’t have her daughter until her 20’s because she knew how hard it was for her mom to raise her alone.
Infographic created by Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness.
Like so many of the homeless women I’ve met, there was a man who came into her life that didn’t treat her well. She didn’t go into the details and, frankly, she didn’t have to for me to understand how instability, trauma and violence led her to the place she is today.
At this point in the conversation I asked her how her housing search was going. Mary was quick to tell me that the first thing she does every day is check the Capitol Hill Housing website to see if there’s an open unit that meets the requirements of her Section 8 voucher.
Like all homeless families, receiving that housing voucher was a big deal for Mary. For almost a year she’s held onto that voucher – bouncing between couches and shelters – searching, searching for that one break that will change everything. She told me that all she wants is a place to call her own where she can rest and play with her daughter after a long day of work.
One thing became crystal clear to me: Mary really wants to break the generational cycle of poverty. “If I had a job I would be so grateful. Even if it’s at McDonalds I would treat it like it was a 5 star restaurant.”
Suddenly, it was time to clean up for the Therapeutic Play program run by volunteers from Ballard Church on the first Tuesday of the month. (Watch for an upcoming post about this important program.)
I walked out to my car with Mary’s words running through my mind: if I had a job….
But I know the deck has been stacked against Mary since she was a child. She didn’t get a great education – each move meant she fell further and further behind in school. Bouncing from place to place made difficult to build trusting relationships, especially with caring adults. It’s never going to be easy for Mary.
What is so incredible to me is that Mary gets up every day, turns on her phone and looks to see if today is the day she gets a break. Is today the day everything changes?
Read blog posts on Firesteel about homelessness, poverty and the brain – how toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) affect outcomes for children as they grow up.
Learn about the One Home campaignand invite friends and acquaintances who are property owners/landlords to consider modifying their rental criteria to help families move out of homelessness. Consider hosting a Landlord Coffee Hour to reach out to landlords in your faith community. (Contact us to find out more.)
Do somethingto help homeless individuals and familiesRIGHT NOW:
Volunteer with one of Union Gospel Mission’s many shelters or meal programs – there are special opportunities for Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up.
Volunteer with or donate to Mary’s Place, which serves homeless families through rotating and permanent shelter and a day center.
Donate your time and resources to one of Seattle’s sanctioned encampments, two of which are opening at new locations this week – Tent City 5 in Interbay and Nickelsville in Ballard; or to one of the other many encampments in the greater Seattle area: Tent City 3 (currently at Bryn Mawr UMC in Skyway), Tent City 4 (currently at Hans Jensen campground in Issaquah), and Camp Unity (currently at Bear Creek UMC in Woodinville). All of these communities list their specific priority needs on their websites, so please check them out!
Each time I hear a homeless family tell their story I become even more committed to our goal of making homelessness rare, brief and one time. Their voices – more than the written word – stick with me for a very long time. More stories that stick will, I believe, result in more people committing to ending homelessness for families. The question is, how do we find those stories and help people tell their personal stories well?
We’re excited to announce a new storytelling workshop right here in the Pacific Northwest!
Photo Credit: Jason Falchook
Our partners at Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness are partnering with the national non-profit The Moth to bring their acclaimed storytelling workshop to local homeless advocates. Selected participants will gain valuable storytelling skills from the experts, while honing their personal story about family homelessness into a compelling five-minute narrative.
People with a personal story about family homelessness are encouraged to apply. It may be hard for you to tell your story if you’ve experienced homelessness as a child. Or, you might work or volunteer for family homelessness service providers, advocacy organizations or faith communities and want to share your passion for justice with others. These workshops are for you!
Applications are being accepted now through Feb. 6, 2015, for “Home: Lost and Found,” a series of storytelling workshops in February/March in Seattle. (If you just thought, “I will never be picked… so why bother?” THINK AGAIN! Please do apply!)
The sixteen people chosen to attend will be coached on how to craft their narrative into a five-minute story. All participants will be offered an opportunity to share those stories at the end of the workshop. “Graduates” will also be considered for a public Moth event in April.
Participants will take what they’ve learned back to their organizations and share their new skills with all the storytellers there, resulting in more powerful stories for dozens of organizations!
People often ask us how we stay hopeful while doing the work we do – so many thousands in our communities are experiencing homelessness and the problem can seem insurmountable.
Reverend Jan Bolerjack is one of those who keeps us hoping.
Jan has been quietly doing the work and walking the talk for many years. Earlier this month, Jan received one of two Gertrude Apel Pioneering spirit awards from the Greater Church Council of Seattle, a special honor given to individuals and organizations who have modelled a faith-filled compassion with justice and demonstrated a “talent for fostering cooperation and getting things done.”
Rev. Jan Bolerjack (center) with Mark Horvath and Catherine Hinrichsen visiting Tent City 3 at Riverside Park UMC in Tukwila, WA
The Church Council recognized her work in this way:
The Rev. Jan Bolerjack lives her vision to “see with the eyes of Christ” as the Senior Pastor of Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila. Offering the “sanctuary” of her church means presiding over community dinners, a food bank twice a week, creating shelter space both inside and outside the church building, tutoring children and accompanying them on outings. Seeing airport workers lining up at the food bank moved her to be the leading spokesperson for the effort to increase SeaTac’s minimum wage for hospitality and transportation workers to $15/hour. As she said to the Seattle Times, “There’s such a ripple effect right down to the kids . . . I see so many parents at the end of their rope, just trying to cope, to hold things together.” For her ministry of restorative healing and social justice, borne out in a love of people and hope for the future, the Church Council of Greater Seattle is proud to honor Rev. Bolerjack with the Gertrude Apel Pioneering Spirit Award.
Children playing in their new home in one of the Sunday School rooms at Riverside Park UMC
Jan is currently hosting several families in housing on the church property and in rooms for religious education in the church building itself. Under her guidance, Riverton Park UMC recently hosted Tent City 3 and is active in serving homeless and needy families in the larger community of Tukwila, which has a frighteningly high proportion of homeless children. In the 2012-2013 school year, 305 students enrolled in Tukwila public schools were homeless – over 10% of the districts’ student population, compared to 2,370 homeless students in Seattle Public Schools during the same period – or roughly 4.5% of that district’s population. (This data was collected by WASEH, the Washington Alliance for Students Experiencing Homelessness; you can find more student and family homelessness data here on our site.)
Jan interacts with families that make up these statistics every day and she relates one of these stories below.
By Rev. Jan Bolerjack
It had been a long day and I was tired, so shortly after 9 pm I slipped into my comfy pajamas and set out to relax in front of some mindless TV. It wasn’t long before I heard a knock on my front door. Oh please, can’t I just be done for the day? My parsonage is on the church property so it isn’t unusual to get visitors at all hours of the day. Usually it is about a plugged toilet at the church or a suspicious car in the parking lot.
This time, it was the police.
Two badged, blue-suited, armed giants stood before me as I somewhat hesitantly stood before them in my pink pajamas. They didn’t seem to notice my embarrassment because they launched into their concern. It seems that they had discovered a family sitting on the curb at the Homeland Security Office , which is located within our city limits.
The family, although speaking in very limited English, managed to communicate to the officers that they had been evicted from their home in Kent and the Sheriff had driven them to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) building and suggested they wait there until the next morning. The police had come to my door hoping that there would be space in my church building for this family to find shelter and safety for the night.
“It’s a family of eight, including an infant,” they told me.
“Of course,” I said, knowing that I already had two homeless families that had come to us the week prior staying in the Sunday School rooms.
A child’s bed in one of the Sunday School rooms at Riverside Park UMC
I could, of course, give this new family floor space in the social hall. We could dig up extra blankets and pillows, find some food, and offer a welcome. While the officers went back to ICE to pick up the family, I got dressed and rushed over to the church building. I gathered the blankets, moved some tables and waited for their arrival. My building groundskeeper and security manager also pitched in. We found some cup of noodles, bread, juice, crackers and cookies in the Food Pantry to share with them. And soon they arrived. The police officers showed great concern and compassion as they dropped them off, asking several times if there was anything else we needed to get them through the night. “No,” I assured them. We had become well practiced in receiving families at all hours of the day.
As they left, I said, “How could we, the church of Jesus Christ, ever say to a homeless and desperate family that there was no room at the inn?” Haven’t we learned that, maybe, in that leftover, unused space, God may be born?
What a joy it was to see this refugee family find a temporary home with us. I thank God for the work of my community that works to receive and care for the homeless.
Introduction by Lisa Gustaveson, Project Manager for the Faith & Family Homelessness Project at Seattle University
The beginning of this summer, my family, friends and I committed to volunteering once a week at Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission and Mary’s Place Emergency Family Shelter. Our posse of volunteers take turns bringing the evening meal, and stay for an hour or so afterwards to help with the children while the moms set up their sleeping areas.
Each Monday, I find myself looking forward to our time at the shelter. The time spent with the families has changed me in subtle and startling ways, and the love and respect I have for the families and the dedicated staff who care for them has grown. Hanging out with the kids is fun for all of the volunteers; on the outside, the children seem a lot like housed kids – energetic, silly and sometimes naughty. They thank us when we bring them strawberries and watermelon, and run to the library after dinner when they can read a little and play a lot with the teen volunteers.
Looking deeper into the eyes of the children, I can see how living in turmoil, chaos and crisis affects them. I know that every night they sleep on the floor, every meal they miss and the hours in school that are wasted because they can’t focus, will likely add up to a lifetime of struggles.
This seven part series by our partners at Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness for Firesteel gives us a glimpse into how difficult it is for children living in poverty and homelessness to succeed in school. The data and stories the author, Perry Firth, shares helps us to understand the special needs of homeless students, and offers ways WE can be the catalyst for change. Please take a few moments out of your day to read this first piece, and subscribe to Firesteel for the next six posts. You won’t be disappointed.
As the new school year starts, teachers face many challenges. So do children who are dealing with homelessness and poverty. And this couldn’t be truer than for impoverished children who are also in need of special education services. With parents focusing on day-to-day survival and too busy to consistently advocate for their needs, children who are homeless may fail to receive the services they need to succeed in school.
The result is that children already harmed by their living circumstances can fall even further behind. Therefore, adults who work with children in poverty and homelessness need to understand how this environment influences academic skill and emotional development, and how it relates to special education needs.
So, we present this seven-part series on how homelessness and poverty affect the development of children, and how this can show up in the education system. Thanks to Perry Firth from Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness for contributing this important series.
Written by Perry Firth, project coordinator, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness; Seattle U School Psychology graduate student
Hungry and tired, the boy squirms in his seat. Surrounded by classmates studiously working, he stares out the window, one leg anxiously thumping the side of his desk. In second grade, he has already experienced the types of stressors that dull the colors and geographies of childhood into shades and valleys of gray.
His teacher, a young enthusiastic woman standing at the front of the class, observes him. His book is opened to a happy story, but neglected. There are dark circles under his eyes, and he startles easily.
She has noticed that he seems both alienated from his peers and clearly desperate to fit in. Unfortunately, the basic social skills required to gain social acceptance don’t come easily to him.
Regulating his emotions is also a struggle. Prone to outbursts, he doesn’t communicate his needs in grade-appropriate ways.
He accumulates school absences and tardies the way other students accumulate new clothes.
Having noticed that he is also struggling in reading, she is beginning to wonder if he may have some sort of disability.
Truth is, the boy is homeless.
This account is a fictional, yet realistic, description of how a child’s homelessness may manifest in the classroom. Indeed, these struggles and outcomes related to homelessness could typify any of the more than one million homeless school children living in America today, or the 30,000 school children who are homeless in Washington state.
This scene also captures the confusion that teachers may encounter as they attempt to pinpoint the reasons that a child is struggling in school without understanding their housing situation. The teacher in this story — like many real ones — is confronted with a difficult challenge: How to differentiate whether a child is struggling because he is homeless, or because he has a disability (or both).
This problem of differentiation brings up many questions:
Does the child struggle to read because she’s missed so many school days, or because she has a learning difference? How has homelessness and poverty impacted her cognitive and emotional development in general?
How does this influence her success in the school environment?
These are all good questions. Yet, as we often encounter when seeking to tease apart environmental and genetic influences, the answers are layered, nuanced and ecological.
What to expect in this series
This seven-part blog series seeks to answer the last question: the impact of homelessness on academic success. We’ll explore how homelessness and poverty affect the cognitive, emotional and behavioral development of children. Given that success in school is so essential to a child’s future, poverty’s influence on academic success will also be a major theme.
We’ll pay explicit attention to what school professionals and child advocates need to know, including:
The harmful factors that accompany homelessness and poverty, like frequent school moves and low quality housing.
How homelessness and poverty can create toxic chronic stress, and how this stress impacts the brain and can impair a child’s ability to develop normally.
How the stress of homelessness influences academic achievement and learning.
The unique issues school professionals face as they evaluate and try to provide services to children who are homeless.
Intersection between special education and homelessness
We’ll also delve into to the special education category “Emotional Disturbance.” Children receiving services under this category struggle with many issues, like emotional-behavioral disorders and high drop-out rates. In turn, this hinders their ability to find secure employment as adults.
Unfortunately, children who are homeless and/or living in poverty are more likely to need special education services – but don’t always get them. Therefore, we’ll highlight how trauma, scarcity and stress can affect special-education placement, and contribute to the cycle of poverty.
Useful strategies and connecting to policy
In the last two posts in the series, we will provide practical strategies that school professionals can use to ensure that homeless children get the special education services they need. Finally, we’ll give an overview of important policy and legislation that can influence how schools provide these services.
Coming up next, on Sept. 3: “Hungry, Scared, Tired and Sick: An Overview of How Homelessness Hurts Children.” This post will provide a foundation in some of the problems that can accompany childhood homelessness, from increased mobility and school changes, to poor-quality housing and poor physical health.
What you can do
Share these posts with your friends and colleagues to increase their impact.
If you’re a McKinney-Vento Homeless Liaison, teacher or school staff member in Washington state, attend the upcoming training sessions hosted by Washington state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Oct. 8 in Spokane or Oct. 9 in Seatac (registration required).
Families now make up a THIRD of the homeless population; a typical homeless family in a shelter is a woman with two children. Throughout our history, FaithTrust Institute has sought to address the complex dynamics of domestic and sexual violence, particularly the faith and cultural aspects of abuse. The psychological impacts of witnessing and experiencing violence have lifelong effects. The isolation of domestic violence leaves many women without a stable, independent source of income or credit history. It can also destroy social networks and support systems. Without the means to rent an apartment and no close relationships, a woman and her children who are fleeing – sometimes for their lives – have nowhere to go.
Women of faith experience domestic violence within the context of their belief system; religion and religious teachings will be either a resource or a roadblock. Especially at a time of crisis, a woman needs to know that her faith community values her wellbeing. I believe that we as helpers should never put a woman in the position of having to choose between safety and the support of her faith community. She needs both. And it’s up to us to provide that.
Image courtesy of Helping Hand House, Puyallup WA.
Diane is a devoted wife, mother of two daughters and grandmother of three. She and her husband are entrepreneurs and have owned their own business for over 30 years. Diane has participated in 60-mile cancer walks, Kiwanis, Lions, and has volunteered with St Jude’s and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. She is a passionate advocate for better programs to prevent and eliminate family homelessness.
This is her family’s story.
One Night in a Car
Over the past year I’ve dreamt of being involved in an event where others can learn what it is like, just for one night, to sleep in your car. If nothing else, the event would increase community awareness around the many children who call the family car home. These kids wake up in their car and head off to school to return to a car that may or may not be in the same place. My family has first-hand experience with homelessness, and I believe it’s important that we join together to help homeless families move out of their cars and into permanent, affordable housing.
Inspired in part by my family’s story, One Night in a Caris a unique opportunity to taste the reality lived by hundreds of school-aged kids across east Pierce County – and the means to change it. More than an experience, One Night will directly impact kids’ lives in the context of community. Partner organizations have assembled a one-of-a-kind experience – a thought-provoking simulation of family poverty with a twist. Funds raised will directly help families out of homelessness. PLEASE join us Friday to Saturday, Aug. 22-23, at Meridian Habitat Park in Puyallup. Learn more and register at http://onenightinacar.org
Many years ago, a CEO at a local mission told me that whenever you see a homeless person panhandling, he or she is there by choice because there are plenty of programs for people experiencing homelessness. With this understanding, though my husband and I have always been involved in our community, I never considered volunteering for any organizations that served the homeless – it just didn’t hit home for me.
Photo courtesy of Seattle University School of Theology & Ministry
A year ago everything changed; our youngest daughter, a single mom with three children, became homeless. She had been working as a medical administrative assistant for more than five years when she became ill. Not able to work, she tried taking a two-week unpaid leave of absence. After two weeks, she still couldn’t work, so she lost her job. Without pay, she lost her home and eventually lost her car. Like many families, we didn’t have the space or resources to bring them into our home. On Mother’s Day 2013, I helped her pack up her stuff, reassuring her that I had learned that if we call 211 they would be able to help us.