Forums on homelessness spark community conversations

The homeless are not forgotten.

Jan. 10, Langley
Photos from the forum – Video from the forum – Audio from the forum
Jan. 26, Lake Stevens
Photos from the forum – Audio from the forum
Feb. 22, Arlington
Photos from the forum – Facebook live event video – Audio from the forum
Feb. 28, Mountlake Terrace
Photos from the forum – Facebook live event video – Audio recording of forum

Homelessness Resources 

If there is one takeaway from the four-part series “Homelessness Here” hosted by Sno-Isle Libraries, it is that communities are aware and yearning to help those who are homeless.

The second lesson: While every community is doing something, more is needed.

“I was surprised at the crowd,” said Elizabeth Kohl, director of social services for Housing Hope. “It was wonderful to see so many people and so engaged.”

Kohl was a panelist at the Mountlake Terrace Library event on Feb. 28, the final forum of the series. An overflow crowd of more than 100 people came to Mountlake Terrace, spilling out to the entryway where some watched the proceedings via Facebook Live on phones and laptop computers.

The community response was similar for the other forums.

On Jan. 10, more than 200 people filled Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley with some standing in the wings. On Jan. 26 at the Lake Stevens School District offices, a full house of more than 100 came to hear Lake Stevens Mayor John Spencer moderate the panel discussion. On Feb. 22, Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert took on the moderator role at Weston High School where again more than 100 community members and local officials gathered to share their concerns.

Many homeless students

At the Langley event, panelists spoke about the need and efforts on Whidbey Island.

“We push aside thoughts of homelessness because it's too hard,” said Faith Wilder, president of the South Whidbey Homeless Coalition. “We started the coalition with a goal of making homelessness brief and rare on the island.”

Vivian Rogers-Decker is the Student Support Specialist and Homeless Liaison for the Oak Harbor School District. “I have 212 homeless students,” Rogers-Decker told the crowd. She saw the need to do more and in 2012 founded SPIN Café as a way of delivering services outside the school setting. Since then, the effort has become a multi-purpose agency serving all of Whidbey Island.

Rogers-Decker said there are many triggers of homelessness, including disabilities, catastrophic illness, domestic violence, abuse, neglect, death, financial hardship as well as drug use.

“I hope everyone in this room makes a commitment to do something to help,” Rogers-Decker said.

In Lake Stevens, panelist Julio Cortes, of Cocoon House, spoke about the invisibility of some homelessness. “Youth homeless are harder to see and identify,” Cortes said. “When they are couch surfing, moving from friend to friend, you don’t see them.”

Making connections

The Lake Stevens event prompted subsequent action that resulted in a couple getting help.

Paul Ryan, a Lake Stevens Library Board member and sergeant with the Monroe Police, said he saw a neighbor at the Lake Stevens forum and connected on Facebook the next day. “As a result, I was put in touch with a woman and her fiancé living in their vehicle in Monroe,” Ryan said. “I was able to meet with the woman and put her in touch with some vital resources.

“I took a lot away from the forum, but the opportunity to help the friend of a friend was the most rewarding.”

Arlington Mayor Tolbert noted in her opening remarks on Feb. 22 that while resources are available, the need is greater. “There are 156 students who are homeless in Arlington School District,” Tolbert said. “That’s not acceptable!”

In the audience that evening was Snohomish County District Court Judge Kristen Olbrechts. “I get kids in the courtroom who don't have life skills,” Olbrechts said. “There are resources for them, but they can't follow up on phone calls.”

Hearing from those without homes

The forums drew those who want to help, but the homeless came, too.

One tearful woman told the Arlington audience that she had walked around all night at a local casino just to stay warm. “It is scary,” she said.

A young man at the Mountlake Terrace event recounted how he lives in his vehicle.

“I'm living in my RV with no stable place to park,” he said. “I have a full-time job, but lost my rental house when the owner decided to sell. The state only requires a 20-days’ notice to renters. I don’t have the money for first, last and deposit; how many of us are one or two paychecks from being homeless?”

And on Whidbey Island, one young man asked about the brutal impact of some rules.

“You ask us homeless to suffer thru temps as low as freezing before getting shelter,” he said. “Why?”

Wilder of the homeless coalition responded.

“We're working for year-round shelter in Oak Harbor,” she said. “The (United Nations) says shelter is a basic human right. We see you, we hear you.”

Calls to action

Wilder outlined what audience members could do: “We need a manifesto regarding basic human dignity for everyone. We need to show up at port, transit, city meetings.”

That call to action was reinforced at the final forum

“We need champions for homeless at every level of government,” Kristen Cane, Director of Development and Policy for Housing Authority of Snohomish County, told the audience at Mountlake Terrace.

“Here’s what you can do: Contact local, state, national officials to call attention to homelessness. Then, go volunteer in your community with nonprofit, churches, the groups that are out there doing the work.”

Other suggestions from audience members and panelists

  • Real estate agencies should talk with buyers, sellers, about not evicting renters quickly
  • Think about long-term solutions as well as short-term help
  • Give socks and cold weather gear those who are homeless, but don’t over-give because they have no place to store extras
  • Vote for initiatives that would help local government cope, and have money to match federal funds
  • Support the “housing first” approach, which helps stabilize people needing help with addiction and other problems
  • Spread the word about calling 211, a centralized number for social service resources
  • Serve as a mentor to youth at Cocoon House and other agencies helping the homeless

Issues That Matter events are sponsored by the Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation, which relies on contributions.