Asking for help is the hardest part | The Hidden Homeless

A sign found in the WSU Forest homeless camp.

Pat Williams has been working with the homeless population of East Pierce County for 11 years. He knows no one wants to be homeless, but also knows sometimes it can be hard to ask for help.

But as a program specialist for the Helping Hand House in Puyallup, Williams also has seen the difference that help can make and knows that the hardest part for families that suddenly find themselves without a reliable roof over their heads is sometimes just moving forward.

“It’s hard or folks that have become homeless to see the way out,” Williams said.  “And that’s why they need an agency like us.”

The Helping Hand House provides not only temporary housing for homeless families, but a case worker to help that family get back on their feet. The organization owns a number of homes throughout the county where they place folks going through rough times.

But unlike some temporary housing units, the Helping Hand House homes are tucked into residential neighborhoods, with no outward indications that anything other than a typical family is living there.

“Most neighbors just think we’re landlords with a high tenant turnover,” Williams said.

Helping Hand House residents stay either for a 90-day stabilizing visit or for as long as two years, in transitional housing.

Once that basic need is filled, other needs and services can begin to be met, but for hundreds of people living in the forest, hill sides, parking lots and couches of East Pierce County it is the most basic of needs that remain a top priority.

“We are in desperate need for housing,” said Marilee Hill-Anderson, director of the Sumner School District’s STARR project.

So far this year, the STARR program, which offers assistance to low-income and homeless families to ensure children receive an education and are fed during the school day has served 184 families, with an expectation of 200 before the school year ends.

“Our unending goal is to make sure we do everything we can to provide stability for students,” Hill-Anderson said.

STARR is responsible for the Sumner/Bonney Lake Family Support Center, located at Daffodil Elementary School in Sumner.

“Families come to us when they’re in need,” she said.

Both Williams and Hill-Anderson said the economy has forced many families to consolidate or become unable to pay rent, which is high in our part of the county. But even as people lose jobs, they don’t want to move too far away from what they – and their kids – know, even to an urban area such as Tacoma, where there is easier access to services for those in need.

“Parents and children want to stay in Sumner and Bonney Lake because of the quality community and quality schools we have in this area,” Hill-Anderson said.

Both Hill-Anderson and Williams said the starting point for anyone in need of help is the Pierce County Access Point 4 Housing. A joint project between the Associated Ministries and Pierce County, Access Point 4 Housing is a centralized intake and referral system for families or individuals at risk of or experiencing homelessness.

“That’s the easiest way for someone to enter the system,” Williams said.

Hill-Anderson said in 2011, Access Point 4 Housing processed 15,000 unduplicated requests for assistance.

Williams also pointed to local family centers, like the one in Sumner or the similar White River Family Center in Buckley as wealths of information.

“The family centers know pretty well where the local resources are,” he said, calling Sumner a “premier” district that does a great job in helping homeless families.

Hill-Anderson has been with the STARR program for 20 years. Her group works to create stable environments so kids can focus at school. Through the family center, families in need can gain access to a wealth of services, such as support groups, parenting classes and counseling, as well as meet with officials and nurses form the Tacoma-Pierce County Public Health Department and Community Services, as well as Good Samaritan behavioral healthcare.

The group also tries to make house calls when it is not possible for the families to make it to the center due to transportation issues, something only compounded by he recent loss of bus service through the region.

“We want to meet families where they are at,” Hill-Anderson said.

At the Helping Hand House, Williams and his co-workers also meet at the homes of their residents and work with them to try and alleviate the issues that led to their homelessness. For many, that means continuing education or working to get a GED.

Helping Hand House does checks and interviews of the families they help to make sure that those receiving the service are in the right frame of mind to make the best of the aid they are given,

“What we’re looking at in that is simply ‘Are you at a point in your life where you can do something to help yourself?'” Williams said, adding that Helping Hand House is looking for folks “willing and able to make a change right now.”

Both the family center and Helping Hand House can offer immediate financial assistance for qualifying families, such as car payments or child care or just food.

Counselors also make sure the parents in a family can work with a budget, a simple skill that too many people lack, and help those out of work find permanent employment.

“Every day I’m looking at jobs the families I am working with might qualify for,” Williams said.

But nothing comes cheap.

“The help people need costs money,” Williams said.

His organization is funded primarily through grants from the federal, state and county government.

The STARR Program and Family Center is a partnership between the school district, the cities of Bonney Lake and Sumner, the Health Department, Good Samaritan and grant funding from the state, county and federal government, as well as support from several local churches and businesses.

But the key for any organization or any assistance is finding the hidden homeless of Pierce County in the first place and convincing them that there are people who care and there is a way out of their struggles.

“We want to talk to you, we want to help you keep your kids in schools,” Hill-Anderson said. “And call us earlier than later.”