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

“If you want to go far, go together”: Snohomish County Affordable Housing Conference


The ancient story of the blind men and the elephant still has many lessons for us today.

Do you know the story of the blind men and the elephant? It’s an old parable from India that speaks to the nature of truth and the limits of personal perspectives. It goes something like this: six blind men want to learn what an elephant is like, having never seen one. So, they approach an elephant and each touches a part of the animal, but only that one part (i.e. one feels the trunk, another a tusk, another a leg, another the tail, etc.). When they report back, they find that they are in complete disagreement as to what an elephant is. One says it’s like a snake, another like a spear, another like a pillar, and so on. The moral: each of our perspectives is valid (and warrants respect), but no one has a complete grasp of or monopoly on the truth. We can learn from one another, and only together, by integrating our perspectives, can we come closer to the truth.

A little over a week ago, Lisa and I attended Homelessness & Hope: A One-day Affordable Housing Conference in Everett, and Captain John DeRousse of the Everett Police Department led the morning panel discussion with this parable. And what a fitting parable it was! In the world of homeless services, housing and advocacy, there are many such truths – we need more shelter beds, we need more affordable housing, we need to house homeless families more quickly, we need better mental health services, et cetera. And while each of these needs is very real, each is also just one part of the larger picture – none represents the complete solution in and of itself. Rather, we need to work simultaneously – and most importantly, cooperatively – from all of these different angles in order to fulfill our common goal of ending homelessness. As one speaker at the conference said, “complex struggles call for comprehensive responses.”

Some of these various responses were represented in the breakout sessions – from workshops on Housing First models like 1811 Eastlake, Homelessness and the Business Community, Landlord Engagement, and Local Ordinances that Work, to the success ofTiny House communities like Quixote Village, HMIS Data Dashboards & Tableau, a 2015 State Legistlative Session Review, and finally, a workshop on Engaging the Faith Community (with our very own Lisa Gustaveson, and Rev. Chris Boyer, Pastor of Good Shepherd Baptist Church). It was a rich and fruitful day of sharing lessons learned, best practices, and stories.


Program Manager Lisa Gustaveson presenting at Homelessness and Hope: A One-Day Affordable Housing Conference in Everett on 6/5/15.

Some other takeaways from the conference include the following:

  • John Hull, Director of the Everett Gospel Mission’s Men’s Shelter and Day Center, encouraged us to reframe the way we talk about what constitutes “success” for our neighbors moving out of homelessness: “self-sufficiency” doesn’t exist, he says – all of us depend on others, after all, no matter our situation. Instead of self-sufficiency, the ultimate goal for people experiencing homelessness, and for all of us, should be to flourish and to thrive.
  • Middle class solutions don’t work for people in poverty. It’s important to be creative and to empower people who have or are experiencing poverty and homelessness to develop and contribute to solutions.
  • The majority of people experiencing homelessness in Snohomish County are people who have grown up around us – they’re our people, our neighbors, and we need to treat them that way. (Only 9% have come from outside of the county.)
  • Stories are incredibly powerful, motivating tools that keep us moving forward and remind us of why we do the work we do. Three amazingly courageous panelists shared their stories of abuse, addiction, homelessness, and heartbreak to a room full of service providers, policymakers and advocates. One of the panelists, Gina, a domestic violence victim who lost her children due to a meth addiction, is now working for the Snohomish YWCA, helping families in the child welfare system. Another panelist described his struggle with addiction and his brothers’ decision to lie about his involvement in a drug deal in order to save him because, unlike them, he didn’t have any felonies and “still had a good shot at life.” The last panelist shared her story of emigrating as a young mother from Africa to save her daughter from female genital mutilation and to save her family from retribution; she experienced horrible exploitation and psychological abuse once here, until she found help through Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County, her current employer. We all felt privileged to have been allowed to share in these stories and bear witness to the tellers’ courage and resilience – there wasn’t a dry eye in the house!

Argelia Grassfield (left) interviewed Gina Enochs (right) for the StoryCorps Project, Finding Our Way: Puget Sound Stories About Family Homelessness

* An important note: One of the panelists, Gina Enochs, recorded her story as part of the StoryCorps project, “Finding Our Way: Puget Sound Stories About Family Homelessness.” Gina’s story, and many others like hers are can be found at Learn more about these stories and how you can use them here.

And finally, I’d like to share the wisdom of this African proverb, which Mary Anne Dillon (Sr. Regional Director for Snohomish County YWCA) shared with the group as a send-off:

If you want to go fast,

Go alone

If you want to go far,

Go together.

Things you can do:

  1. Listen to and share StoryCorps stories recorded in Snohomish County:
  1. Visit the Project on Family Homelessness’s webpage for more action items: StoryCorps and 10 Things You Can Do to End Family Homelessness




Advocacy Data and Reports Events Faith and Family Homelessness Housing First

Storytelling, Human Connection and Advocacy: Transforming Numbers into Faces

By Hannah Hunthausen, Program Coordinator, School of Theology and Ministry Faith & Family Homelessness Project

Often, when we talk about homelessness, we talk numbers. Numbers convey information powerfully and provoke instant (hopefully productive) outrage. Take this little taste of regional homelessness by the numbers: in January of this year, at least 3,772 people were living without shelter in King County; last school year, Washington state school districts identified 32,494 Washington students as homeless; and, as of this March, over 800 families were homeless in King County – on a waitlist for housing while living in emergency shelters or in places not meant for human habitation.

Affordable Housing in King CountyWhen we talk about the affordable housing crisis in our region, we consider the almost 300,000 households that spend more than 30% of their income on housing and the sad reality that a single parent would have to make over $27/hour in order to afford a 2-bedroom apartment in King County.

These numbers pack a punch. (The idea that over 30,000 children are homeless in our state is particularly distressing; more so when we consider research on the lasting effects of childhood trauma.) And yet, numbers don’t give us a face, a human to connect to. People experiencing homelessness might easily remain “the homeless” in our minds if we approach them exclusively through statistics and infographics. For those of us who have never experienced homelessness, they’re a group of people whose lives can seem remote and profoundly different from our own.

And data won’t tell us their stories. Numbers can’t force us to recognize and honor the human dignity of the grizzled guy with the cardboard sign on the side of the road or consider the day-to-day struggles of a single mother and daughter living in their car.

Lynie and Dinkus

Lynie and Dinkus sharing a moment of friendship on the bench by the canal. Photo Credit: Rex Hohlbein, Facing Homelessness

Our brothers and sisters experiencing homelessness have been increasingly and systematically devalued and dehumanized in our society (see also), and, while data paints a picture, it can’t rebuild our lost human connection.

For that, we need stories.

As Paige McAdams wrote recently in a blog post for Firesteel, stories are bridges. They bridge the gaps between us – our real and perceived differences, but also our gaps in awareness and empathy. Storytelling allows all of us to enter into the reality of another person or group of people, if only for a moment. As we listen to or read about the personal experiences of others, our humanity recognizes the humanity of the tellers, and giving voice to a story can lend both the storyteller and her listeners incredible strength and agency. As Franklin Gilliard, a formerly homeless Tacoma husband and father, recently said at a community event celebrating the StoryCorps “Finding Our Way” project, “Giving people my story makes them stronger. They know that people can relate to them, and people are not always looking down.” Storytelling makes us feel closer to one another and gives us purpose.


Sherry and Franklin Gilliard. Photo: StoryCorps

Many of us who are advocates have felt this particularly strongly in the last few months. Powerful personal stories of experiences with homelessness have been in the air quite literally – streaming and playing on the airwaves of KUOW. It’s been a season of stories, first with The Moth’s “Home: Lost and Found” showcase in April, and more recently, at community events at the WA State Conference on Ending Homelessness in Tacoma and at the Gates Foundation celebrating the incredible StoryCorps project, “Finding Our Way: Puget Sound Stories About Family Homelessness.

And stories like those of the participants in the StoryCorps and The Moth projects not only fill our hearts, they serve as powerful tools for advocacy. When you can share with a city council person or a legislator the story and challenges of someone who has experienced homelessness in their city or district, you give the startling data and statistics they already know a face. You humanize the issue(s) and begin to bridge those gaps.

Firesteel now has a website that puts this power at our fingertips. At, advocates can access dozens of oral interviews recorded through the the StoryCorps “Finding Our Way” Project. Some have been edited down to 2 or 3 minutes, others exist only in their full 40-minute form. All can be accessed and used upon request and searched for by subject, key words, and by legislative district. Visit the site to learn more and to explore this incredible advocacy tool.

When we tell and listen to stories, we give faces to the numbers, and we come to find that people aren’t “the homeless” – they’re just people without homes. People who, like us, have a fundamental right to housing.


Advocacy Faith and Family Homelessness Social Justice

Mad Men, ACEs and Child Homelessness – Escaping the Past Is Not So Easy (Firesteel)

In light of last night’s Mad Men finale (shhh, don’t tell – I haven’t seen it yet!), we thought we’d repost this gem of a blog post on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Diving into the booze-fueled, glamorous and tumultuous world of Mad Men, Catherine and Perry take the case of anti-hero Don Draper and show how childhood trauma can translate to myriad struggles and pathologies in adulthood. A higher ACE score generally means an indiviual is at higher risk of substance abuse and mental health issues as an adult (among other things). Read on to find out what Don’s ACE score is and learn what all of us can do to mitigate the effects of childhood traumas like abuse, poverty and homelessness.

Don Draper giving his most famous new business pitch, just before revealing a shocking secret from his past about a Hershey bar. Photo from AMC.Don Draper giving his most famous new business pitch, just before revealing a shocking secret from his past about a Hershey bar. Photo from AMC.

Written by Catherine Hinrichsen with Perry Firth, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness, for Firesteel

It’s been tantalizing and a little agonizing, in the final weeks of the landmark TV series “Mad Men,” to guess how it will all end – especially for the protagonist and last of the “difficult men,” Don Draper.

Will he jump off a building? (Absolutely not.)  Will he find the “sad tornado,” mystery waitress Diana? (It’s hard to care about this.) Will he escape to California and re-brand himself yet again? (Quite possibly.)  Is he D.B. Cooper? (Oh, come on.)

Mad Men has been a powerful force in television, and not only for its portrayal of the last breaths of the boozy ‘60s advertising industry. The acclaimed drama captures our attention because of its depiction of a supposedly powerful man’s attempt to outrun his traumatic childhood. Viewers have watched Don drink, womanize, hurt people and hurt himself. As my colleague Perry Firth describes it, “he is the living, breathing embodiment of the truism, hurt people hurt people.”

Perry is a grad student in school psychology, one of Firesteel’s most popular bloggers and my go-to person for anything related to childhood trauma. You’ll see her influence throughout this piece. Because she is not a Mad Men viewer (yet), she was the perfect person to work on this piece with me, and assess Don’s behavior from a more clinical perspective, as opposed to my position as a fan who desperately wants to see a realistic yet positive end to Don’s journey through self-destruction and redemption.

And you can’t write about Don Draper without addressing his terrible childhood, which crops up throughout the series.

Note: There may be spoilers in this post; however, one of the beautiful things about watching Mad Men is that even knowing what happens doesn’t diminish the pleasure of the viewing experience.

Don-blended-family-ustv-mad-men-season-6-portraitsDon’s blended family, dealing a generation later with his tumultuous upbringing. Image from


Don didn’t grow up in the kind of family that pulled together and faced adversity together, their love helping them survive. In fact, there wasn’t any love in that bleak home. Don was just another mouth to feed, a weight around the neck of the people who raised him out of obligation, not affection.

Yet, outwardly, Don has achieved the American dream. He came from nothing and became a millionaire, along the way marrying a gorgeous model, buying a beautiful house in the suburbs, raising three adorable children and rising to the top of the New York advertising world.

3-Betty_gunDon’s wife Betty in one of her finer moments, avenging her family. Image from AMC.

However, what keeps viewers hooked is less his success and more his inability to hang on to it.

Don is an alcoholic. His health is generally bad, and he contributes considerably to the success of his tobacco-industry clients. He has difficulty attaching to anyone emotionally and sustaining a mature adult relationship. He destroys his own marriages, and endangers those of friends, with his deceptiveness and serial womanizing. He treats women as conquests to be tossed aside, including a string of secretaries – the exception being his protégé, Peggy. He’s known to disappear without warning, leaving colleagues in extremely awkward situations.


In “advertising heaven,” Don ponders an escape yet again. Image from

One question the show is really asking, through Don’s adult actions, is: How much adversity is too much adversity? On a deeper level it asks viewers: Should the loss and adversity which drive someone’s actions dictate how we interpret them?


As it turns out, much of Don’s behavior is grounded in what psychological research has identified as adult consequences of childhood adversity and trauma. We know that serious adversity and trauma in childhood, especially when it is sustained over the child’s lifetime and isn’t buffered by protective factors, can have serious long-term consequences. It can even make it hard for people to make healthy decisions. In fact, the research areas of Adverse Child Experiences (ACEs) and toxic stress explore these relationships specifically.

In “The Hobo Code,” a homeless man confirms the negative influence of Don’s father via a mysterious carving. Image from

In “The Hobo Code,” a homeless man confirms the negative influence of Don’s father via a mysterious carving. Image from

ACEs research looks at how adversity in childhood hurts adults, and how it shows up in behaviors like substance abuse, poor health and increased risk for early death. ACEs are actually broken down into different events, which can then be used to generate an ACE score, which can help to explain someone’s risk for negative consequences in adulthood, or partially explain why an adult is struggling. For example, childhood sexual abuse, emotional neglect and mental illness would yield a score of 3 ACEs.

About a year ago, Perry wrote about this fascinating research. More recently, to help me with my Mad Men analysis, she explained ACEs in the context of the show.

“The original ACE study included the following events as Adverse Child Experiences: physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; parent with mental illness; incarcerated household member; domestic violence; parental substance use; and parental divorce,” Perry said. “These are all events, especially when they accumulate, that we know cause toxic stress and potentially lasting mental and physical health consequences. Today, however, other ACEs that could be added to the list include poverty and childhood homelessness.”

Infographic from depicts three categories of ACEs. Don has experienced quite a few.

Infographic from depicts three categories of ACEs. Don has experienced quite a few.


Though we meet Don when he’s living the American dream in the 1960s, his story gradually unfolds to reveal some staggering hardships in his Depression-era childhood. Continue reading on Firesteel’s Blog→

Advocacy Faith and Family Homelessness Firesteel Project on Family Homelessness Youth

End homelessness? For me, it’s personal.

By Lisa Gustaveson, Faith & Family Homelessness Program Manager

553830_10200650804746093_599565699_n[1]In the spring of 2002 I was offered a six-month contract to manage the development of a local plan to end homelessness. I quickly accepted – I love project management and come on, the goal was to end homelessness!

Eighteen months and a ton of gray hairs later, I proudly stood by as the planning committee adopted a 57-page plan, A Roof Over Every Bed: Our Community’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness in King County.

Many people don’t know or remember that the 10 Year Plan represents countless hours of research, meetings and then, more meetings. A broad coalition of people from local government, service providers, faith communities, advocacy organizations and people experiencing homelessness created the first Committee to End Homelessness (CEH) and the Staff Circle. Throughout the project hundreds of people offered ideas and suggestions at community meetings. At times it was easy for the committee to agree, but more than once tough compromises were made to move the plan forward. Draft versions of the plan circulated between committee members; each word was carefully chosen to clearly convey our intentions. The final plan represents our collective vision; using the resources we had available at that time.

I tell you all this to explain why it’s hard for me to hear people say the plan has failed. You see, ending homelessness is PERSONAL to me – and many others in the community. When I hear about a family who finally finds housing I feel great. When the numbers of people experiencing homelessness go up… and up, I feel responsible, and take it personally. It’s personal when a family tells me they’ve been living in their car while waiting for a space in a shelter. It’s personal when I drive by a makeshift shelter on the side of the road knowing a person who was, or is someone’s child calls it home.

It’s not like we don’t know the problem exists. Show me a city in the region where you don’t see homelessness in plain sight. The topic of homelessness is all over social media and local news stories.  Recent coverage includes Jon Stewart’s tongue in cheek “The Homeless Homed.” The Dean of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, Mark Markuly, contributes through his February 19th Seattle Times Op-Ed, “Seattle can solve the homeless puzzle by learning from other cities,” and the Seattle Times followed closely behind with their February 25th straightforward message from the Editorial Board, “Cities should use the Golden Rule when dealing with homelessness.” Just this week our local radio station, KUOW, probes deep into the issue through their well researched six part series, “Seattle’s Homeless: No End in Sight.”

So, what to do? Throw up our hands in despair? Or, do we pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and start again?

We are tough Seattleites – we don’t give up that easily. This year CEH is working hard to migrate from the 10 Year Plan to a community-wide Strategic Plan. The Plan will guide policymakers, service providers, advocates and the greater community as we recommit to our goal of making homelessness rare, brief and one-time. The Plan’s strategies build upon local success and national best practices, and offer clear guidance to the organizations and individuals who make up the Homeless Services System.

The Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Emergency Shelter Program serves more than 4,000 men and women each year, providing safe, secure shelter, meals and a day-time safe haven from the streets. DESC’s outreach efforts help people stabilize their lives, and ultimately get permanent housing. Photo by Gabriel Rozycki.

Photo by Gabriel Rozycki.

What is new – and in my opinion game changing – is the acknowledgment that success will continue to elude us until the crisis of homelessness is made personal to each King County resident. I think we are closer than ever before; when the new plan is adopted CEH plans to offer specific actions for people of faith to take to be part of the movement

That said; you don’t have to wait for the new plan! You can make a difference today by taking one step… just one. I’m making it easy for you – look at the list below, pick one thing to do, and see where that leads you.

Then, let me know when solving homelessness becomes personal for you.

  1. Volunteer for, or donate to, an organization that helps people who are living in poverty. In addition to the speakers you heard today; check out United Way of King County’s great volunteer database
  1. Gather a group and watch SU’s American Refugees: four short films on family homelessness, especially “The Smiths”. Download the discussion guides and reflect on ways you can get involved
  1. Use the power of the Internet to advocate for affordable housing and an end to poverty and homelessness. Stay up to date on what’s happening in Olympia through Action Alerts on social service policy and budget issues:
  1. Join Firesteel, the statewide platform for social change led by Washington YWCAs. Sign up at
  1. Learn about the policies that affect poverty, housing and homelessness by reading a blog such as “Schmudget.”
  1. Make sure your local school has appointed a homeless education liaison who can help get children connected with the services they are entitled to. Contact the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction for more information:  
  1. Support low income and homeless newspaper sellers by buying a copy of Real Change from an authorized vendor. Find your local vendor:
  1. Participate in a Poverty Simulation to learn experientially about the incredible stresses and challenges faced by those living in poverty and experiencing homelessness. (Check out our “Upcoming Events” feed to find the next one in your area.)
  1. If you’re one of the thousands of board members of Washington state social service nonprofits, get involved with advocacy to end poverty and homelessness.
  1. Write letters to your elected officials, newspaper Letters to the Editor pages and others about the causes of poverty.
  1. Spend time reflecting on the impact of poverty on people in our community. How do their struggles affect the greater community? What responsibilities do I have to address the causes of poverty in my community and nation?
Action Citizen Committee to End Homelessness Ending Homelessness Faith and Family Homelessness

Tech Nonprofits Collaborate for Hack to End Homelessness, May 1-4

Written by Catherine Hinrichsen for the Project on Family Homelessness Blog

We built a community empowered by technology & design thinking to solve the problem of homelessness together.

– Candace Faber, Hackathon Project Manager

At Seattle’s first-ever Hack to End Homelessness, May 3-4 at the Impact Hub, more than 60 technologists, graphic designers and storytellers worked side by side with nonprofit service providers and advocacy organizations.  The purpose of the weekend was to build technology tools that the nonprofits can use for service and advocacy.

 Hackathon participants working Maine 20140504_Hack2End-45

During the Hackathon, teams worked together for 36+ hours building projects. Photo by Michael B. Maine.

Our project served as the community liaison, connecting the Hackathon organizers to the dozen community partners.

There were 12 teams of 3-7 people each, plus three additional people who floated. One team worked through the night to create an intake interface forYouthCare that will help them place homeless youth in shelters. Another generated incredible insights on our city’s homeless population and their reasons for remaining unsheltered, based on data collected earlier in the week at United Way’s Community Resource Exchange at CenturyLink Field.

Hackathon feedback session photo by Michael B. Maine

At the finale, the team working with Building Changes presents its work. Photo by Michael B. Maine

Some of the other highlights were:

  • A huge collection of maps, both static (but easily updated) and dynamic. One highlight was a map project led by the Committee to End Homelessness in King County that visualizes homelessness for 25 major metro areas in the United States. Find it for now at:
  • The beta version – complete with Twitter sign-in and first user – of a social network for homeless people, We Are Visible. This vision was brought by Mark Horvath of, our special guest for the weekend. It’s at
  • And the one that got the most attention, an app for on-site data collection byUnion Gospel Mission search & rescue van volunteers. This equips relatively untrained volunteers to collect time-stamped, GPS-marked data about people sleeping on the streets and automate communication with the program’s full-time staff, so that outreach staff and volunteers can quickly respond to the individual needs of the people they meet.

Every project was completed and then some. There were some lower-tech solutions as well, such as a new e-commerce site for Sanctuary Art Center, a new call to action-centered Web site for No Child Sleeps Outside, and a design thinking-inspired messaging strategy for Building Changes that they are excited to debut.

There were several other extraordinary achievements, including lots of data clean-up and education for our non-profits on how to improve their data gathering. By bringing best practices from tech to non-profits, we can reduce noise in the data and make it easier to analyze trends.

You can see more about the weekend, including in-depth descriptions of the projects and some of the media coverage highlights, at the project Web site.  See highlights from the Hackathon weekend and the finale in our Storify social media recaps.

The weekend kicked off with two community engagement events:

Hackathon @home Panel Maine 20140502_Hack2End-8

@home post-film panel: Mark Putnam of CEHKC; Mark Horvath; Susanne Suffredin. Photo by Michael B. Maine.

Congratulations and thank you to all the teams — including our partner organizations, who spent several months working with the organizers to develop their project proposals and get the data into shape.

And, our extreme gratitude to the organizers of the event, who worked tirelessly for months on a volunteer basis to pull off this event: Project manager Candace Faber and Hackathon organizer Ethan Phelps-Goodman, as well as Peter Kittas, Aparna Rae and Sol Villareal.


Action Ending Homelessness Faith and Family Homelessness Project on Family Homelessness Seattle U Social Justice Technology for Social Change
Poverty Immersion Workshops Build Understanding (Seattle University)

Poverty Immersion Workshops Build Understanding

Written by Lisa Gustaveson, Seattle University Faith & Family Homelessness Program Manager for Firesteel

(Updated on 11/10/14)

“What’s the best way to learn about complex social issues like poverty and family homelessness?” This question forms the basis of my work as program manager for Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry Faith & Family Homelessness project.

When asked, I’ll usually suggest a review of the many poverty-related studies and reports published in both local and media outlets to get started. Socio-economic data released by the US census bureau just this past week confirms what social service providers know: poor families in every part of the country are struggling to survive, with little hope for the future. Sadly, if you are a poor, single mother with little education, your chances of economic recovery are very low.  Another study suggests simply being poor impacts one’s ability to make decisions.

After reading an article about how poverty damages decision-making, I commented to my Facebook friends, “I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for parents worrying about how to feed or house their children… Of course poor decisions might be made! I’ve made some of my worst decisions in moments of stress.” Although I have faced financial crises during childhood and as an adult, my experiences are nothing like families living in poverty today. It’s hard for me to imagine what it’s really like for struggling parents to get help in an often confusing, disconnected system. Seeking a Deeper UnderstandingReading data and reports is one way to learn about poverty; however, it is more difficult to really know what it is to be poor. 

Over the past 18 months we’ve been working with the 14 Faith & Family Homelessness Project sites in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties to identify the best faith-based educational activities that can help us more deeply understand and take action to stop the cycle of generational poverty and homelessness. Early on, the Temple Beth Or and First Presbyterian Church teams in Everett wanted to plan a large-scale simulation to help their members learn what pushes poor families into homelessness. They understood how challenging it would be to use a simulation or immersion experience to educate their members about such a difficult topic. One of the planning team noted, “If we were to spend days and nights on the streets we’d never fully know what it means to be homeless. When you know you have a home waiting for you, it’s different.” They knew that an exercise in “pretending” to be poor could be seen as insensitive.

The team also realized that creating their own simulation from scratch would consume most of their time and resources set aside for the project. An Internet search brought up a handful of options – ranging from online tools like Playspent, to short “equity” exercises in which participants are assigned varying levels of resources. A trend emerged, with most searches containing the widely acclaimed Missouri Community Action Poverty Simulation. Further research led the team to local expert Ezzy Salazar and her team at Hopelink, who were trained in the Missouri model and graciously agreed to help put on the simulation.

Poverty Immersion Workshop

Poverty Immersion Workshops Build Understanding (Seattle University)

Poverty Immersion Workshop participants deepen their understanding of the complex factors that force poor families into homelessness. The workshop will be offered at Temple de Hirsch Sinai (Seattle) on November 16, 2014. Photo courtesy Lisa Gustaveson.

Action Events Faith-based Advocacy Homeless Families School of Theology & Ministry Seattle U Social Justice