A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2017

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Second Chances for Homeless Families - Transitional Family Housing Program Changes Lives

By Candace Brown

 

 

Snapshots of smiling children cover a wall in Lisa Conklin’s office, but when she read a note, her own smile surpassed them all. “Thank you for looking out for our family,” it said. “Words don't truly express the immense appreciation I feel for you, your support, encouragement, and advice. You are one of our many blessings and families here are fortunate to have you.” She smiled because her job is all about helping families make fresh starts and permanent changes.
  

 

 

Conklin manages the Leland and Gloria Heemick Transitional Family Housing Program for Shared Housing Services in Tacoma, Washington. She has advice for anyone thinking of starting such a program; they had better have three things: passion, patience, and acceptance. When the phone rings it is often another homeless family with another story of despair. Conklin has heard them all. “There are multitudes of reasons why people are in need of a transitional house,” she said. But no matter what the reason, she listens with caring, remains non-judgmental, and responds with hope.

 

Conklin and others in Tacoma, including major supporters Leland and Gloria Heemick―for whom the program is named―have all embraced the vision of Stella Jones, Ph.D., the founder of Shared Housing Service’s referral match program in 1991. Originally, SHS focused entirely on matching homeowners who had some extra room, with home seekers, through a wide variety of arrangements including the exchange of services for rent. But there was a problem. It worked well for single people and couples, but what about displaced families of three or more? Jones saw children suffering from the effects of homelessness, along with their parents, and launched Transitional Family Housing in 2000. In an interview during the spring of 2010, before Jones retired in August, Conklin and Jones explained how it all works.

 

“It’s an 18-24 month program, meant to be used as a stepping stone for either education or a job,”  Conklin said, “to move families toward becoming self-sufficient.” Families connect with SHS through local social service agencies like United Way, churches, and other referrals.

 

Many of their participants lack basic life management skills. “Learn to budget your money,” Jones said. “Learn to pay your rent first and foremost. We’ve used volunteers, like from US BANK, to teach budgeting and how to get a bank account again.”

 

Conklin brought up the local WWEE program―Washington Women's Employment and Education―combining classroom time with on-the-job experience. “They have a wonderful educational employment program for women,” she said. “A lot of our clients are single moms. Goodwill also has a great program. If people attend classes on time and complete whatever work is asked of them, they get to walk out with a gift card for Goodwill.”

 

“Many of our parents didn’t complete high school and don’t have a GED,” Jones added. “So you have to start there and get into an educational program to make you employable.”

 

Highly structured, and clearly focused on creating a better future for families, Transitional Family Housing includes not only practical life skills education, but also counseling, mentoring, regular conferences between parents and case managers, parenting classes, and improvement of communication skills. Responsibility and accountability are stressed. Parents must have some kind of job or be seriously looking for one. At the end of their time in the program, families should be much more stable, so that future homelessness can be avoided. Parenting classes are taught by qualified volunteers. The main concern is the children. “This is the whole thing with the transitional program,” Jones said. “How are you going to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness? You have to work with the family in order to give these children a chance. Here they are going to the same school week after week, month after month.”

 

 

 

 

Before retiring, Jones had the satisfaction of seeing her dream of Transitional Family Housing evolve into the growing entity it is now. Conklin continues to manage this part of SHS and it will thrive under her care. At the present time they own twelve housing units and will soon have others, but it all started with a condemned piece of property in a run-down area of the city.

 

“Back in the day,” Conklin said, “it was a gas station, which later became a chop shop for cars and a heavy drug use area. Bob Mattson, one of our board members, was aware of the property and approached Stella Jones about it. To make a long story short, the board started a capital campaign along with some grant writing.” That was only the beginning. The combined costs of running both this program and the home sharing program amounted to over $400,000 in 2009. SHS succeeds in bringing in the needed funds but it is an ongoing challenge, toward which a great deal of time and energy must be dedicated. An annual Bowl-a-thon is a major fundraiser.

 

Then the hard physical work began. “I would say that 90% of all the renovations were done by volunteers,” Conklin said, “whether that was staff, board members, or a business that chose us for the Day of Caring. I’ve learned how to put up sheetrock!”

 

So once a family’s application is accepted, is this transitional housing free? No. In real life people cannot expect free housing, and fostering self-sufficiency in the real world is one of the main goals of the program.

 

“Our families do pay rent,” Conklin said. “They are also responsible for utilities and phone bills.  There is a minimum rent for each unit and the amount depends on how many bedrooms the unit has.” For example, a one bedroom apartment rents for $400.00 per month. “In some cases it will depend on the client’s income. Then rent may be 30% of their income.  However, rent will never fall below the minimum and will never exceed the fair market rate.”

 

Transitional Family Housing could not exist without volunteers. From individuals to corporations, the support received from the community shows optimism for the future, a wise investment of time, money, and energy into this positive and proactive program.

 

 

 

 

“Volunteers are a life line for our families . . . extremely important, especially around the holidays. Civic groups like Soroptimist and Altrusa, as well as Key Clubs and Circle K, provide holiday parties, gifts from Santa, or have adopted a family for Christmas. Altrusa has included us in food drives for our food closet and book drives for the children’s room.” In November of 2009 a local elementary school class “adopted” the program and supplied families with food baskets for Thanksgiving.

 

When asked to tell one of her most heartwarming stories, Conklin replied, “That would have to be the single mom with three children living in a van in the front of her foster mom’s home. When she applied with us she was working a community job at another shelter in the area.

 

“She moved into one of the two-bedroom cottages, working part-time, started school at Tacoma Community College.  After a year here she moved to a three-bedroom, continued school, and is now working for a social service agency, working with individuals and families in need of housing.”

 

The day Conklin read the thank you note was the kind of day that keeps her going. “You have enriched my life and I have learned from you,” it said. “The work you do is important, meaningful, and respected.” That particular family’s success brought her joy, but there are still others sleeping in cars, or worse. She hopes the next phone call will be from one of those.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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