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

Is the Golden Rule the Key to Ending Homelessness?

Golden RuleThe Golden Rule. So simple, yet so powerful. Treat others how you would like to be treated. It gives us a foundation for societal  norms; a lens for decision-making. It’s the tool we parents reach for during those “teaching moments”. I think of it as the thread that runs through belief systems, offering a common touchstone  for us as we work toward the common good.

Imagine, just for a moment, that you are a homeless mother staying in a local emergency shelter. You grew up poor and married early to make a fresh start, but the white picket fence dream ended quickly. You adore your two young children, but worry constantly about them because they have  witnessed things no child should see.

The good news is that you qualify for, and have been offered housing assistance through King County’s Rapid Rehousing Program. You will have help paying your rent for a few months – or longer – while you get back on your feet. You will continue to work with your case manager if things get bumpy. You just started a new job that has the potential to lead to a living wage position.Things are looking up.

The bad news is that you can’t find a landlord who will rent to you because you have an eviction on your record. You fill out application upon application (paying the fee each time, which dips into your already meager savings) and each time face rejection and humiliation. Your children ask, over and over, when are we going home?

The Committee to End Homelessness recently estimated at least 1,000 households in King County have access to housing resources but can’t find a landlord who will rent to them. Ending homelessness is within reach – if we can close the rental housing gap.

Although I am not a landlord, I can understand the hesitation to rent to families with rocky rental history or even a felony conviction. The Great Recession hit many of us hard; property values are finally rebounding. The economy is making a slower than predicted comeback. Property owners worry we could face another recession, and are hesitant to take risks. I get it – we are all a bit more cautious. Sometimes families face discrimination just for being poor and homeless. Some landlords see the families through a dangerous – and unfair –  stereotypical lens: homeless families will damage their property and, in general, be unreliable tenants.

Bottom line: these families need someone to take a risk, someone to show them the compassion we would all want to receive if we were in their situation.

What if landlords could follow their hearts AND their heads?

King County is one of a few regions in the country that has programs that offer safeguards and supports to give landlords the help they need to live the golden rule with little or no risk. Unfortunately, most landlords are unaware of the programs.

Here’s where you come in – help us spread the word through local faith communities, and invite landlords to end homelessness for one family.

  1. Learn more about the One Home Campaign
  2. Invite all the landlords you know to the Landlord Appreciation Reception (below) where they’ll learn more about the One Home Campaign.
  3. Talk to us about hosting a One Home coffee or happy hour at your congregation.

Let’s give homeless people the break we’d all expect if we were in their shoes.

Everyone deserves a safe and stable place to live. When you help house a family, you are not only helping individual take charge of their lives; you are making our community a better place to live, One Home at a time.

Help us spread the word – Invite landlords you know from your congregation and community. 

Download: PDF version of the Landlord Appreciation Event Invitation   ♦Landlord Appreciation Event Poster for your bulletin board ♦ JPEG Notice (also in GIF format) for your congregation bulletin

*Note: we can provide printed copies for you upon request: Email gustavel@seattleu.eduLandlord Appreciation Reception Flyer (5-6-15)

RSVP by May 1st to Michelle Valdez at or fill out the form below

One Home: A Landlord Partnership to End Homelessness, One Unit at a Time

Citizen Events Faith and Family Homelessness