CCS housing is a piece of the homelessness solution

A volunteer and two residents — one toasting with a soda — enjoy the patio at the Francis Place apartments in downtown Bellingham. Photo: Courtesy Catholic Community Services A volunteer and two residents — one toasting with a soda — enjoy the patio at the Francis Place apartments in downtown Bellingham. Photo: Courtesy Catholic Community Services

BELLINGHAM – On a sunny August day, Bob welcomed a pair of visitors into his snug apartment at Francis Place, offering to vacate his chair because it was the only place to sit.

After more than 20 years of living on the streets of Bellingham — often sheltered only by a tree at night — the Marine Corps veteran was eager to express gratitude for the roof over his head.

“This is a gift,” Bob said, ticking off the benefits of his apartment: shower, bed, kitchen, and even a laundry room on the same floor.

“Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing Services is just wonderful,” Bob said. “You put out a lot of money for people in need.”

Bellingham’s 42-unit Francis Place, which opened in 2015, is among many supportive housing projects for the formerly homeless that CCS/CHS build and operate in the Seattle Archdiocese.

Typically, these CCS/CHS projects use a combination of financing, such as the Washington State Housing Trust Fund, local housing levy funds (in cities such as Seattle and Bellingham) and federal tax credits.

For instance, Sebastian Place, a 20-unit complex for homeless veterans that opened this summer, received $1.5 million from the Housing Trust Fund and nearly $2.6 million from Snohomish County.

More housing is in the works. A 50-unit building for homeless veterans in Olympia is slated to open in spring 2017, and places as diverse as Kent, Everett and Skagit County are talking with CCS/CHS about building similar supportive housing projects.

“All the communities are asking us to do something,” said Will Rice, regional chief of operations for Catholic Community Services Northwest. “It’s a blessing and a curse,” he said. “We’re so good at it, but there’s a limit on what we can apply for through the Housing Trust Fund.”

‘Housing first’

Under the CCS/CHS “housing first” philosophy, residents in these supportive housing projects have access to on-site case management and an array of other services. It’s all aimed at helping them stay housed and creating long-term stability in their lives.

“Housing first” puts into practice the belief that “you’re worthy of a home by the fact that you’re a human being,” Rice said.

Francis Place exterior
The Francis Place apartments, for those once chronically homeless, opened in downtown Bellingham in the summer of 2015. Photo: Courtesy Catholic Community Services

Instead of requiring people to have their substance abuse and mental-health issues resolved before they’re eligible for housing, “we’re more about meeting them where they’re at and walking with them and offering them some opportunities,” he said.

“First, we want to develop the skills to maintain housing, then we can talk about more healthy lifestyle choices,” Rice explained. “We sort of gently point the way.”

In Tacoma, the 50 supportive apartments at Nativity House have been a success, with just two evictions since opening nearly two years ago, according to Denny Hunthausen, agency director for CCS Southwest. (The Nativity House complex also houses a day shelter, overnight shelter and meal program.)

“We’re serving a very high-needs population,” clients with a history of rental problems, including evictions, Hunthausen said. “We’re intentionally reaching out to people …with all kinds of challenging histories.”

Supportive housing connects clients to case managers “who have really taken a motivational approach, to get them as functional in their lives as they can be,” he said.

Often when someone moves into stable housing, “without any remarkable intervention, many behaviors can move within the normal range,” Hunthausen said. For instance, “instead of drinking to excess and being belligerent … you can actually manage.”

The homeless are part of us

Advocating for the homeless and creating a more compassionate view of them is part of the CCS mission, Rice said. Part of that work is educating the public “that these folks that we call the homeless are members of our community,” he said.

If they’re not considered part of the community, then the community doesn’t have to respond, Rice said, “so there’s really a pushing them out on the fringes.” But when homeless people are viewed as fellow members of the community, “then really we have to answer that call to respond,” he explained.

There’s also a need to continue educating government leaders “to understand how deep the problem is and how big it is,” said Bill Hallerman, CCS agency director for King County.

Officials in Seattle and King County have some sense of the problem, Hallerman said: They declared a state of emergency and allocated $9 million more to homelessness initiatives in 2016. But more public funding for housing is needed, he said.

People ask Hallerman why CCS isn’t making a difference in homelessness. “Well we are,” he tells them. “As soon as I get one person housed and stable, there’s two more people in line. … I think we’re doing more now than ever before in terms of housing and shelters.”

Despite the challenges, CCS and CHS — in partnership with parishes around the archdiocese —are expanding their efforts.

“Especially as Catholic people, we’re really called to be faithful to the folks that are out there and to continue with this work,” Hallerman said.

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.
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Jean Parietti es editora local para el sitio web NWCatholic.org y destacada editora de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic. Pueden contactarle en: jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.