Forging New Partnerships in Family Homelessness and Health

By Hannah Hunthausen, Program Coordinator, Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry

Car camping (Real Change Long Road Home story)

At least 776 people live in their vehicles in Seattle alone. Photo credit: Daniel Bassett, Real Change

Imagine living and sleeping day after day in your car in 90 degree heat, shuttling your daughter to and from work and trying to get yourself to dialysis three times per week. This is the situation Lana and her 23-year-old daughter Rachel found themselves in this summer.[1] Mother and daughter were evicted from their two-bedroom apartment in Renton last year when Lana’s kidneys failed and she could no longer work to keep up on rent. Like many families, they opted to hold on to their vehicle and the little bit of security and freedom it still offers them;  they can keep their stuff relatively safe, and get to appointments and work more easily than if they were living at a shelter. Lana and Rachel are just one of several families and individuals profiled in Real Change’s ongoing series on vehicle residents in Seattle (see the 7/22/15 article “Nowhere to Go” and the 7/29/15 article “The Long Road Home”). [2]

All this to state the obvious: those without a stable place to call home – whether they’re living in their vehicle, in a shelter, on the street, or couchsurfing from place to place – are vulnerable and often have health conditions (physical and/or mental) that are either brought on or exacerbated by their situation. Some may become homeless because of a health crisis, like Lana.

In the post below, Anna Markee, Senior Manager at Building Changes, discusses the intersections of homelessness and health and offers ideas and hope for new kinds of collaboration and ways to help.

Forging New Partnerships in Family Homelessness and Health
by Anna Markee, Senior Manager at Building Changes

It’s not always easy for organizations to reach across silos to one another, but that’s exactly what a group of local leaders working on homelessness and health care are doing.  Their goal: ensure the region’s most vulnerable families benefit from big changes and new opportunities in health care.

Building Changes - Mother and baby (with binky)

Many leaders were meeting one another for the first time at the May 27th event,  Leading Across Systems: Exploring Opportunities to Connect Family Homelessness and Health, hosted by Building Changes and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The group discussed ways they could partner across systems to make sure that every family has a home and access to the care they need.  The theme of the day: health begins where you live and play.

While it seems obvious that being homeless isn’t good for your health, research reveals more striking impacts than you might imagine. One study conducted in five US cities discovered that homelessness during pregnancy poses unique dangers: prenatal homelessness increased the risk of a baby being born prematurely and with low birth weight. Low birth weight puts babies on difficult life course, with increased risk of infant mortality, respiratory disorders, and neurodevelopmental disabilities.

Homeless parents often suffer from high rates of illness as well. Sometimes an unmanaged illness can lead to homelessness, through loss of a job or crushing medical debt (see local couple Nick and Charlotte’s story, recorded as part of the StoryCorps: Finding Our Way Project).  Symptoms can get worse if a family becomes homeless. Data from Building Changes’ evaluation of permanent supportive housing shows that half of the parents have a chronic medical condition and over 60% have a behavioral health diagnosis. These families report challenges accessing the care they need. While most are insured, they often feel stigmatized in health care settings due to their homelessness or behavioral health needs.

2015_HNFProgram_OutcomesforFamilies (Building Changes)

The connections between homelessness and health are clear, and new solutions are beginning to come into focus – especially in Washington State, which has been a national leader in this complex work.  One example is a new program launching in Snohomish County focused on pregnant or parenting homeless young adults. Cocoon House, a leader in serving homeless young people, will provide dedicated support to quickly identify homeless or at-risk youth who become pregnant, ensure they have access to housing, and work with local health care providers so that their babies have the opportunity for a healthy start in life.

While difficult in a fast paced clinic environment, health care professionals can help by remaining patient and non-judgmental. Similarly, service providers often struggle to keep the lights on and keep up with demand; finding the time to develop partnerships is a challenge. Nevertheless, these agencies are finding that often, by working together, they can achieve their goals and better serve families.

Building Changes - Doctor checking patient's ear

Regardless of your role, here are some steps that anyone can take to help homeless families lead a healthy life:

  1. Many people still don’t know that they are eligible for free or low-cost health insurance. Make sure people you know or serve are enrolled in health insurance through Washington HealthPlanfinder.
  2. If you are involved with a meal program, consider ways to add more fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains to the meals and reduce high calorie, high sodium, high-fat foods and sugary beverages. Public Health-Seattle & King County has tips
  3. Love to garden? Consider organizing a Giving Garden on unused land such as church property to grow fruits and vegetables and donate them to a local food bank.
  4. Volunteer at the upcoming Seattle/King County Clinic, a four-day volunteer-driven clinic providing a full range of free dental, vision and medical care to underserved and vulnerable populations in the region on October 22-25 at Key Arena. Active or retired health professionals are needed as well as non-clinical general volunteers.
  5. Share this article with people in your faith community.

Building Changes Logo v2Building Changes is a nonprofit that transforms the ways communities work together to end family and youth homelessness. We act as a “compassionate engineer,” designing and implementing a better system to make homelessness rare, brief and one time. Our goal: reduce youth and family homelessness by 50 percent by 2020. 

We believe that homelessness can be significantly reduced when nonprofits, government, and philanthropy work seamlessly together, in a high-performing system that tailors solutions to the needs of each youth and family. (Source: Seattle Foundation website)

[1] Names have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.

[2] “Bangarang Village,”  the vehicle resident community Lana and Rachel joined earlier in the summer, , included a pregnant single soon-to-be-mom suffering from arthritis, a couple with a baby on the way, a mentally and physically disabled Vietnam veteran, and a mentally ill deaf man, among others. The group had banded together for security and community in a city that has very limited affordable housing and limited shelter as well as a slew of regulations and scant options for those trying to get by living in their vehicles. (The group was recently forced to disband and vacate the area they had occupied along N Northlake Way – some have found housing, others have gone to shelter or have found other safe places to park with the help and collaboration of community activists, the police, generous faith communities, and Road to Housing case managers from the City. Follow Homelessness in Seattle on Facebook for updates.)

Data and Reports Faith and Family Homelessness Gates Foundation Homelessness and Health Mental Illness

“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
Vince Matulionis and Catherine Hinrichsen, StoryCorps

“Stepping Into Homelessness”: Domestic Violence and the Power of Empathy

Check out this fabulous blog post written by Haley Jo Lewis for our partners at Firesteel. Haley edited and shares below a conversation between Project on Family Homelessness director Catherine Hinrichsen and Vince Matulionis of United Way of King County that came out of this summer’s StoryCorps project in Puget Sound. Read or listen to their conversation and learn about how domestic violence can push families out of their homes, as well as some of the ups and downs of working in the business of ending homelessness – what’s frustrating and discouraging, but also what gives Vince and all the rest of us the hope and inspiration we need to carry on.

Vince Matulionis and Catherine Hinrichsen talked about ending homelessness in their StoryCorps recording. Photo courtesy of StoryCorps.

Vince Matulionis and Catherine Hinrichsen talked about ending homelessness in their StoryCorps recording. Photo courtesy of StoryCorps.

Written by Haley Jo Lewis, Seattle University student and project assistant, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

Lisa Gustaveson vividly remembers a day in 1999 when she and Vince Matulionis were sitting in a cubicle at United Way of King County, talking about how to take on the issue of homelessness in our community. Fifteen years later, says Lisa, “Vince continues to work day and night to make a difference in the lives of those on the margins of society.”

That’s why our partner Lisa, who’s now leading the Faith & Family Homelessness Project at Seattle University, invited Vince to participate in our StoryCorps “Finding Our Way” project this summer at Seattle’s YWCA Opportunity Place.

Vince’s partner for his StoryCorps recording was my supervisor, Catherine. During their 40-minute conversation, Vince talked very movingly about domestic violence and its role in family homelessness.

So we decided to create an edited version of the StoryCorps conversation and share it here on Firesteel during the final few days of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Give it a listen:

The StoryCorps story of Erika and Kris Kalberer aired on National Public Radio in August. Photo courtesy of StoryCorps.

The StoryCorps story of Erika and Kris Kalberer aired on National Public Radio in August. Photo courtesy of StoryCorps.

You might have heard the first story to come out of ourStoryCorps project. On Aug. 22, National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” aired the amazing StoryCorps piece about the Kalberer family, who had been living in their car in Seattle.

This story with Vince is different from the Kalberer family story, because we edited it ourselves. StoryCorps allows partner organizations to edit recordings, and encourages them to share the stories widely. This is the first of what we hope are many more recordings that you can hear on Firesteel in the months to come.


Storycorps recording - Vince Matulionis and Catherine Hinrichsen

Each StoryCorps participant receives a CD of their recording.

I haven’t met Vince yet, but I learned a lot about him by listening to him on the recording. Vince is determined; he’s determined to end homelessness, determined to build a movement and determined to change the way people see homeless families and individuals.

As a young man, Vince set his sights set on a medical degree. Read more on the Firesteel Blog →

Action Advocacy Ending Homelessness Faith and Family Homelessness Project on Family Homelessness Women

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

StoryCorps and Gates Foundation Launch “Finding Our Way” Project

By Catherine Hinrichsen, Program Manager for Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

Every Friday morning at around 7:30 a.m., millions of people around the country are entranced by a weekly public radio segment in which everyday Americans tell the stories of their lives.  It’s the beloved StoryCorps, and it’s coming to our region this summer to find stories about families who have experienced homelessness. StoryCorps Tierra Jackson John HoranCaption: One of the most memorable StoryCorps segments for the family homelessness community is the story of Tierra Jackson, who with her former principal John Horan reflected on what it was like to be homeless in high school.

While only about 50 of its stories per year make it onto National Public Radio, StoryCorps has actually recorded more than 50,000 stories in its 10 years. The stories are archived in the Library of Congress.

This July and August, people in Western Washington who have experienced family homelessness will be able to tell their own stories as part of the new StoryCorps project, “Finding Our Way: Puget Sound Stories about Family Homelessness.”

The project is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who asked our Project on Family Homelessness to serve as the local coordinator.  We’ll be working with local host partners to find stories from among their current and recent clients, and also reaching out to the public to find people who have experienced family homelessness in their past.

The stories will also be available for our advocacy efforts to end family homelessness in Washington state.  Find out how service providers can help us find the stories and use them to advocate.

How can stories help end family homelessness? Firesteel explains.

Program Kickoff June 3

Nearly 150 community members gathered at the Gates Foundation Visitor Center for the project launch Tuesday night, June 3, to find out how to become part of this new advocacy initiative.

The purpose of “Finding Our Way” is to develop a collection of up to 90 personal stories about families in our community who have experienced homelessness.  StoryCorps will work with local host partners YWCA Seattle ǀ King ǀ Snohomish and Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, along with Seattle University, to recruit participants for 40-minute recordings this summer.

In his welcome, senior program officer Kollin Min of the Gates Foundation mentioned a relevant quote from Bill Gates, Sr. on one of the walls of the Visitor Center: Though data drives results reporting, “These numbers are our neighbors.”

“These data points reflect the experiences of people like us through storytelling,” Kollin said.

084june 03, 2014_gatesfoundation_storycorp_hi_res

Caption: Kollin Min, a StoryCorps fan, said the moving stories are known to cause reactions ranging from sniffling to bawling. Some, however, are also good for a laugh.

Guests were able to meet the main project crew from StoryCorps — Michelle Bova, Abby Lesnick and producer Eve Claxton.  On her first visit to the region in late April, Eve began recording at United Way of King County‘s Community Resource Exchange April 30 and will lead the recording process this summer.

StoryCorps Launch SC with CCS

Caption: StoryCorps staff with the CCS team.  L-R: Michelle Bova and Eve Claxton of StoryCorps; Jonathan Ross, Denny Hunthausen, Tanya Mendenhall and Alan Brown of CCS. 

During the overview, Abby said the purpose of StoryCorps is to give voice to the voiceless and that its audio-only format is something that founder David Isay strongly believes in.

Continue reading on the SU Project on Family Homelessness blog→

Art for Social Change Citizen Ending Homelessness Events Faith and Family Homelessness Gates Foundation Homeless Families Homelessness Project on Family Homelessness Seattle U
%d bloggers like this: