by msjones msjones

In our third installment of the Roadmap to Recovery Series, we were joined by Walter Washington, Senior Director of Housing Services at Wellspring Family Services. Wellspring’s  services are concentrated in four areas: mental health, family homelessness, early learning, and basic needs.  Each year, Wellspring helps thousands of children and families break the debilitating cycles of instability, homelessness, and adversity to achieve positive, permanent change in their lives. The organization is focused on building trusting relationships and long-term solutions in the communities it serves.

The conversation started with a brief explanation of the different ways people experience homelessness. Typically people think of living outside, whether on the street or in encampments, as the determining factor of whether someone is experiencing homelessness. Walter explained that Wellspring  primarily works with families with children (which often include multiple generations) and there is some diversity in the living situations that qualify as homelessness. He also touched on the unique barriers that youth and elders experiencing homelessness face. While different populations receive varying degrees of media coverage and public sympathy, and though solutions need to be tailored to different populations, all experiences of homelessness have underlying common trauma. This trauma transcends generations, having lasting effects that persist even after a family is housed if they remain economically unstable.

The number of people who are experiencing economic instability has surged during the COVID-19 crisis. People of color already experience homelessness at higher rates than white people. Historically marginalized populations are disproportionately burdened by both health and economic impacts of the pandemic. Walter worries that, despite the unprecedented rallying of resources from philanthropy and corporations, the demand for services will far outpace the capacity of the homelessness sector in the coming months. While the economy was booming, there was a general consensus in the sector that services should be prioritized for people living outside. Walter observed that, since the pandemic, there is renewed appetite to focus on prevention programs that help those who are precariously housed, stay housed.

The sector has learned some lessons from the pandemic. Social service providers are having to collaborate more closely and efficiently with each other. Some agencies have been able to reduce bureaucracy and streamline processes in line with safety precautions that reduce clients’ exposure to COVID-19. Additionally, service providers are leveraging technology and finding creative ways to build and maintain meaningful relationships while observing social distancing.

An audience member asked how the pandemic is affecting implementation of the new Regional Homelessness Authority. While roll out has slowed, Walter remains optimistic that combining City of Seattle and King County funding, processes and outcome goals, can be more effective in serving those experiencing homelessness in our region. Especially as we continue to deal with a housing crisis that pushes people to settle in housing outside Seattle city limits.

We also asked Walter about the emergent COVID-19 responses to homelessness, like temporary use of hotels to allow for social distancing of people living in shelters, will these types of interventions stick around? While the risk of contracting COVID-19 remains high in crowded indoor spaces, Walter explained he doesn’t anticipate the need for special interventions to go away. He also warned that many of these temporary programs are isolated from other social service infrastructure and their long-term success depends on filling critical service gaps for program participants.

Finally we asked Walter what actions an individual who cares about homelessness in our region can take. Here are his suggestions:

  • Engage people you care about in conversations about homelessness. These might be uncomfortable conversations, you may not have all the answers, but interpersonal relationships have the power to move others to action.
  • Diversify your giving and volunteering — people experiencing homelessness are not a monolith, different populations have different needs. Figure out what you care about and where your resources and talents can be most useful.
  • Consider taking a job in the sector — it takes more than social workers to solve homelessness. IT professionals, project managers, strategic planners are critical to moving the sector forward.
  • Think big — don’t settle for bare minimum solutions. Dare to imagine a region where all people are thriving and demand this vision from our leaders and service providers.

Watch the Lunch & Learn: