Is Today the Day?

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.

STM faculty, staff and grad students at EFS (August 2015)

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.

Firesteel-Blog - ACE Score and Relation to Adult Homelessness (Infographic)

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?


  1. Watch All Home’s “I Am” video about local community responses to homelessness and visit to learn how you can use your passions and gifts to help your neighbors.
  2. Sign up to volunteer/serve a meal at the Emergency Family Shelter (as an individual or as a group) and get to know the families there, sharing stories, forming relationships and offering support and much needed respite childcare for stressed and exhausted moms.
  3. 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.
  4. Learn about the One Home campaign and 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.)
  5. Do something to help homeless individuals and families RIGHT NOW:
    1. Volunteer with one of Union Gospel Mission’s many shelters or meal programs – there are special opportunities for Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up.
    2. Volunteer with or donate to Mary’s Place, which serves homeless families through rotating and permanent shelter and a day center.
    3. 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!
    4. Firesteel has other great ideas here (see the list at the end of the post).
All Home Faith and Family Homelessness Homeless Families School of Theology & Ministry Women

Highlights: #NAEH15 Ending Youth & Family Homelessness

Our region sent an impressive delegation to the national Youth and Family Homelessness Conference in San Diego last week. Twitter helped us stay in touch during the busy two days – follow our journey through a sampling of the tweets that are captured by this Storify.

Click on the image below to be directed to the Storify page. 

Storify NAEH15

Ending Homelessness Faith and Family Homelessness Homelessness Data Youth
2015 One Night Count Volunteer Breakfast

From the Director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County: Turn the One Night Count into Positive Momentum!

One Night Count 2015On or around January 23, 2015 most regions of the country – and every county in Washington State – completed local Point in Time Counts. These manual counts of people who are experiencing homelessness give us a snapshot of how the homeless system is performing. Last week King County reported a 21% increase in the number of people they found living in places not fit for human habitation. Clearly, we need to make changes to the way we are doing things to reach the outcomes needed  to make homelessness rare, brief and one time.

In press release, Alison Eisinger, Executive Director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which organizes the count, reports a substantial increase over those found without shelter last year. “This year’s Count is heart-breaking evidence that we cannot cover our community’s most basic needs. Clearly, the crisis of people homeless and without shelter is growing, and clearly we must respond by using every resource we have. Everyone needs a safe place to rest.”

Courtesy of Dan Lamont

Photo by Dan Lamont

Even more shocking, the One Night Count numbers don’t include the more than 500 “literally homeless” families who are on the wait list for emergency shelter in King County (there are over 200 who are staying in emergency shelter, and are in the queue for housing.) These are the families who have burned out their social supports and are in their cars, on the street or in tents.

These are more than numbers… we are talking about very poor men, women and children who have no place to go tonight. Every night they spend homeless adds to the time it will take for them to recover.

Mark Putnam, Director for King County’s Committee to End Homelessness, shares his thoughts about the 21% increase in the number of people found outside. Take a look at his ideas of ways YOU can get involved in local efforts to end homelessness… it’s up to all of us to make change happen.

Good afternoon,

If you’re like me, the results of last week’s One Night Count are still weighing heavily on this sunny Monday. The increase did not surprise me, or most people I talked with, because of what we see all year long. All felt very somber about it. Some felt enraged. I feel some of both, with some measure of optimism, resolve, and conviction mixed in as well.

There should be no more denying that homelessness is a crisis in King County. We can do better and we should not accept 3,772 unsheltered people on a night in January as a part of our culture. It doesn’t have to be this way. We could instead choose to fund our safety net through investments such as ensuring there are enough psychiatric beds for those in need. We could choose to prioritize affordable housing, and renter protections. To ensure we are providing what people need, we need to shift the way we work to be more flexible and creative. We need everyone involved, from congregations to businesses to landlords. And as individual residents we could choose to be more compassionate to our homeless neighbors, to pay it forward by helping them today, tonight, in any way possible.

This mailing list is 1,500 strong, and each of you have networks of friends, business associates, and allies. Reach out to them, and tell them what they can do to support our efforts to make homelessness rare, brief and one-time in King County. A friend of mine asked me on Facebook this weekend how he could help. Here are my ideas, and I’m sure you have many as well:

First, you can learn about the issues and advocate. The state needs to fund affordable housing and mental health services, and increase renter protections, among many other things. Read our legislative agenda here and get advocacy alerts from our partners like the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and Housing Development Consortium.

Second, you can give money to nonprofits that are providing housing for people who have been homeless. We are lucky to have dozens of really strong organizations building housing, and providing shelter, job training, and meals in our community.

Third, if you’re part of a faith community join in the conversation at

Fourth, if you’re a landlord, rent a home to a homeless person! More than 1,000 people who are homeless have the money to pay for rent (courtesy of government programs) but can’t find a place willing to rent to them — usually because of competition with other renters, past evictions, or criminal histories. Fact is, people need second chances. CEH created a campaign called One Home and you can learn more and sign up here:

Fifth, share the stories of homeless people in your community by liking Homeless in Seattle on Facebook or sharing the StoryCorps project. Crowd funding projects like Homeless in Seattle are doing an amazing job of connecting people who want to help to people who need help. They post stories almost daily of people who need help, and give concrete ways you can provide help, by crowd-funding, or asking if anyone can provide a sleeping bag, or a room to rent, etc.

Finally, review CEH’s Draft Strategic Plan. This set of new strategies includes ideas from other communities that have made more progress than King County as well as many more changes we know we need to make to get people off the streets.

Add or edit this list, and send on to your networks.

Make sure each of the 3,772 remain on your minds, today, tomorrow, and all year. Thanks for all you do,

Mark Putnam,

Director, Committee to End Homelessness in King County

Faith and Family Homelessness

The Moth Home: Lost and Found

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

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!

Photo Credit: Roger Ho

Photo Credit: Roger Ho

Curious? Listen to this 5 minute story about a boy who realizes he’s poor.

For more information and to apply, please see the project page , or contact Sarah at The Moth,, or Catherine Hinrichsen at Seattle U,

Art for Social Change Faith and Family Homelessness Homeless Families Homelessness Project on Family Homelessness Social Justice Women Youth

As Heard on NPR: Homelessness Threatens Student Success

Denise Miller points out a staggering fact: Over 30,000 schoolchildren in Washington state are experiencing homelessness. Read on to learn about what the Storycorps “Finding Our Way” Initiative is doing this summer in our region, to hear a Seattle mother and daughter’s story of experiencing homelessness (that recently aired on NPR!), and to find out what you can do!


In a StoryCorps conversation that aired on NPR this morning, Erika (left) talks with her mom about attending high school while living in a car. Image from StoryCorps.

Written by Denise Miller, Firesteel Advocacy Coordinator, for Firesteel

More than 30,000 schoolchildren in Washington state are experiencing homelessness.

In a heart-wrenching story that aired on NPR this morning, one of these students, Erika, talks about the challenges of attending high school while living in a car with her family. Listen on the StoryCorps website.

Erika’s story was collected as part of the StoryCorps “Finding Our Way” initiative, which has given more than 150 people in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties a chance to share in their own words how homelessness has affected their lives.

10411256_10152546606313622_4547776611150686327_n[1]As the YWCA of Seattle | King | Snohomish hosted StoryCorps recordings, I met many of the participating families. All the parents I spoke with have gone to great lengths to protect their children from the stresses of homelessness. Continue reading on Firesteel’s Blog→

Faith and Family Homelessness Uncategorized

The Smiths — The Film About Homelessness That Had To Be Made

A new animated film about family homelessness and helping neighbors 

Following a wonderfully successful event last week (more to come on that!), we’d like to share a blog post written by our very own Lisa Gustaveson for the Project on Family Homelessness Blog. In the piece below, Lisa reflects on the film “The Smiths,” one of four animated shorts produced as part of the Film & Family Homelessness Project at Seattle University. Scroll to the bottom to learn more about what you can do and for links to reviews of the other films in the “American Refugees” series.

By Lisa Gustaveson, Project Manager for Seattle University’s Faith & Family Homelessness Project

As program manager for Seattle University’s Faith & Family Homelessness Project, I spend much of my time visiting local emergency shelters, churches, synagogues and mosques. During my visits, I often meet dedicated volunteers who spend countless hours providing meals, collecting clothes, back to school supplies, and hygiene items, for people experiencing homelessness (you all know who you are!).

During these visits, the question I am most frequently asked by volunteers is, does any of this make a difference? They wonder if they really are helping to end family homelessness.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and unappreciated when the number of homeless families seems to grow every day. It’s also hard to find the best way to describe the importance of each and every act of kindness, how all those little gestures make a difference.

That’s why I was so excited when I learned about filmmaker Neely Goniodsky’s plans to create the short animated film, “The Smiths,” as part of Seattle University’s Film and Family Homelessness Project.

“The Smiths” is one of four short films created through the project, collectively titled “American Refugees.”

The Smiths American refugees

A still from the film “The Smiths.” The vivid colors used throughout the film convey the intense emotions of a family who is homeless, as they try to make ends meet.

I was a member of the project’s advisory team, so I had the opportunity to read the proposal by Neely Goniodsky. As I read it, I knew that the film should be – no, HAD to be – made.

The concept was simple: A child narrates her family’s experience with homelessness and illustrates the importance of a supportive community.

What wasn’t simple was the way Neely skillfully tells the story through beautifully hand-drawn images (a magic bike bell that grants wishes), use of color (things spiral out of control into black), and music (which perfectly fits each step of the family’s journey).

I could watch this film over and over (and I have) and never get tired of it.


Filmmaker Neely Goniodsky takes a question at the May 19 SIFF premiere of “American Refugees.” Neely directed, co-wrote and animated the film.

The opening scene draws the viewer into the story where we first get a glimpse of the Smiths – the neighbors whose generosity makes all the difference to the 10-year-old narrator’s family. Throughout the four-minute film we learn about her family, and more importantly, how little gestures and acts of kindness on the part of the Smiths and their surrounding community help them weather one of the worst challenges to face a family – homelessness.


The filmmaker, Neely Goniodsky, uses impressionistic, interpretive images throughout the short to bring depth to the family’s experiences. Scene from “The Smiths.”

A supportive community makes a difference

Even while the family is on the verge of collapse as they struggle with the turmoil and pain of homelessness, the Smiths and their church group are there. The narrator’s little brother thinks it is his magic bell that is summoning the resources of a supportive community, but his older sister (the narrator) knows better. She reminds us that the bell doesn’t work without churches and people like the Smiths.

A powerful reminder for all of us, and an answer to the question I hear so often: does it make a difference? Yes, it does.


“The Smiths” is one of four short films in the “American Refugee” film series. This image from “The Smiths,” of a supportive community, is the signature image of the series.

What You Can Do

  1. Ask at least one other person to join you, and watch “The Smiths.” Download the discussion guide here, and spend some time reflecting on the ways your community could offer hope and companionship to families who are homeless, along with the material goods that are so crucial to survival.
  2. Watch the three other short animated films that comprise the “American Refugees”  film series. Each tackles an aspect of family homelessness, including the experience of fathers in “Super Dads,” the impact of a foreclosure on families in “Home for Sale,” and lastly, reflections from a young adult who has been homeless for much of his young life in “The Beast Inside.” You can also use the discussion guide to go along with any of these films.
  3. And then, get out and do something. Trust me, it makes a difference.

Wondering what that “something” should be? See our list of “15 Things You Can Do to Help End Family Homelessness.”

 Editor’s Note: Read the other “American Refugees” reflections in our series:

Faith and Family Homelessness

Catholic Community Services: Rapidly Re-housing Families in Pierce County

Jonathan RossBy Jonathan Ross, Catholic Community Services of Western Washington (CCSWW)

Jonathan Ross works for the Office of Mission Resources at Catholic Community Services of Western Washington. He has worked with L’Arche communities advocating for adults with developmental struggles, AMIkids for adjudicated youth and now focuses his time on outreach for homelessness. This post was written in conjunction with Alan Brown, Housing Services Director for Homeless Services with CSS. 

Unemployment, eviction and homelessness were the realities for Joel and Donna’s family. After Joel received notice of being laid-off from work the family’s only source of income was a small SSI benefit to care for their disabled daughter. Following the eviction they found themselves without a roof over their heads or a meal in their stomachs. This situation repeats itself far too often for many struggling families throughout Western Washington.

PHN guests celebrate new home

Catholic Community Services of Western Washington (CCSWW) serves many families in need of emergency services, housing and above all respect and dignity in the face of a difficult situation.

Phoenix Housing Network (PHN), a program of CCSWW, specializes in housing for homeless families. It is the largest provider of Rapid Rehousing in Pierce County and works not only to get families into housing, but also provides supportive services to give families the best chance to succeed once they have attained housing. Parents receive intensive case management typically each day, forming a housing case plan, engaging in job searches and/or employment training, or other activities to promote self-sufficiency and the path out of homelessness.

When they were referred to PHN, Joel and Donna were in desperate straits, seeking simply to survive and to connect with the resources necessary to regain housing.

Faith and Family Homelessness Youth