Center coordinating housing assistance for those in need

Eyeing a stack of files representing 121 clients, Island County Housing Support Center Housing Navigator Malissa Taylor remembers a lot of stories and many faces.

Few if any of the memories are warming to the heart, but that’s the nature of her work.

Taylor and the rest of the housing support center’s staff assist families and individuals at risk of becoming homeless or who are already homeless. The Coupeville-based office opened Aug. 8 and, in just two months, a total of 261 people have walked through its doors.

Stagnant wages, a hot housing market and skyrocketing rents are putting more people out of the homes.

According to Joanne Pelant, housing resource coordinator, the 2015 homeless point-in-time count indicated homelessness in Island County increased by about 34 percent since 2014. The increase is in line with homelessness figures across the state.

The goal for the center is to minimize the steps needed to obtain housing, Pelant said. Before the support center, a homeless person or someone at-risk of being homeless could visit a variety of different housing programs before finding the one that met their qualifications.

Having to retell their stories to the different program facilitators can be an emotionally distressing and, sometimes, discouraging to those in need, said Jackie Henderson, housing support center director.

The support center is changing that.

“It really is all about streamlining our services and how we deliver those services to folks struggling with homelessness,” Pelant said.

The center conducts screenings and assessments to determine which program or service provider best serves a client’s particular needs. It can connect people to six housing programs — the Opportunity Council, Compass Health, Sunrise Services, South Whidbey Homeless Coalition, Citizens Against Domestic & Sexual Abuse and Ryan’s House for Youth. Services offered range from prevention assistance and transitional housing to temporary shelter.

The prescreening process looks at income and housing status, Pelant said. The support center helps those who are at 50 percent of the area median income and below.

If housing is not readily available, the clients are put on a housing interest list. The support center’s work, however, doesn’t end there. They consistently check in with phone calls or meet in person and ask questions. The staff eventually develops a list of three to four steps that can help improve their situation.

The screening process also allows staff to hear their stories and build relationships.

“It’s really about making them comfortable,” Taylor said. “Their situation is terrible, but a lot of people are going through it. It doesn’t seem like anyone is validating the position they’re in.”

Helping clients become familiar and comfortable with the system is another task at times. Pelant said some of the folks can be distrustful of the system.

“Therefore, building a relationship and just connecting with them over a period of time is really important,” Pelant said.

Taylor often takes her work home with her.

“I go home thinking about these people, what can be done and what things are going to make their lives better,” Taylor said.

The process is not always quick. The need is greater than the availability of housing. Of the 121 client files, 72 are still awaiting referrals.

“We have so few houses available that we’re working as quickly as we possibly can,” Taylor said. “It’s really dependent on the housing programs.”

People are often paying up to 70 percent of their income on rent, which can be a debilitating amount. Pelant said about 30 percent of a person’s income should be going toward housing.

The support center is also working with landlords to help delay evictions and is assisting tenants with criminal backgrounds. Landlords sometimes hold people’s past eviction and criminal history against them, going back as much as 10 years.

There are success stories, however.

Pelant and Taylor said they helped a man with a criminal history who was unable to qualify for a housing program. With the support center’s help and communication with the landlord, the man now has a home and a steady job.

“At the end of the day, the big umbrella goal for all of us that work in homelessness is to reduce or end homelessness, or get to that functional zero,” Pelant said.