A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2021


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Home Sweet Home Sharing – How Tacoma'sShared Housing Services Changes Lives

by Candace Brown





Nineteen years ago, Dr. Stella Jones made a choice, and that choice proved her to be as different from most people as an earthquake is from a heartbeat. She shook up and changed the local landscape, and thousands of lives. Jones is the Executive Director of an independent non-profit called Shared Housing Services, which began in 1991, serving people in the city of Tacoma and throughout Pierce County, Washington. Based on the idea of home sharing for mutual benefit, this social service agency provides creative, alternative solutions to housing needs, with an emphasis on low-income, elderly, and disabled clients. It helps individuals to maintain independence, avoiding costly institutional care, and helps families to become self-sufficient, through programs that match those needing a home with those with a home to share, and by providing transitional family housing. All this resulted from the difference between Jones and most of the rest of us. She chose action over mere concern.

Shared Housing Services profoundly impacts lives and communities. The housing provided utilizes existing buildings, preserves the character of neighborhood, and saves taxpayers incalculable amounts of money. This proves what can happen through creative problem solving initiated by private citizens. In 2009 alone the organization served 5,916 unduplicated clients, including referrals and crisis support, and matched up 1,106 people to create 502 households, at the cost of $53.00 per person. Of those matched, 302 had been homeless.

On a spring morning in 2010, I interviewed Jones and her Program Assistant and Case Manager for the Transitional Housing program, Lisa Conklin, in their modest offices on a hill above downtown Tacoma. I wanted to learn how Shared Housing Services came to exist, its victories and challenges, and how other private citizens can develop this type of program in their own communities. This article will focus on the Referral/ Match to Home Share program, to be followed by another on the Transitional Family Housing program, in the next issue of Neighborhood Life.

Brown: Can you tell me a little about how you implemented the concept of shared housing?

Jones: I was familiar with home sharing from having attended some conferences where it was discussed. And the other person who was involved in founding the program, the pastor of a local church, had read articles in the Wall Street Journal and the Seattle papers. So to do research, we simply gathered all the materials we could and also consulted with a couple of programs about their procedures, their forms, etc. The other major thing we did was a feasibility study here locally, to get input from many different social service organizations. Did they see a need for this kind of program in our community? And it was amazing, the interest and the felt need out there.

For instance, Senior Information and Assistance, at that time, said that they were averaging about seven calls a day from people wanting to know about the possibility of living in someone else’s home. And of course there was no program. We went ahead and started designing our program, putting together materials, developing the forms we would use, all that kind of thing.

Brown: How long did that take?

Jones: We worked on it from January of 1991 to July, and we set an opening date of October 1, 1991. We started out with office space provided by a church. We used their copier and their phone. We had no idea it was going to grow like it did.

Brown: Is there a national model for this type of program and what others are out there?

Jones: The concept is international. There were over 300 Shared Housing programs in the United States at one time. The number of programs has declined over the last three years, by about half. Within these programs there are two kinds. The “referral/match” is the model we use. The others are more like group homes. Now there are probably only about 75 referral match type programs in total, across the nation, so there are even entire states without any of these programs. They’ve had them, but financially they went down the tube.

Brown: What do you think caused them to fail? Lack of money?

Jones: Fundraising is a big thing. It has become more important, during the last three years particularly, that you have events and raise the money, rather than depend on individuals, churches, etc. Private contributions are down. Some of the contributors are now home sharing! That’s what the recession has done. And some are being very, very conservative, because in this economy they don’t know what’s going to happen. So we’re down about $16,000 from 2008 to 2009.

Shared Housing’s grass roots fund raising efforts have included everything from dinner auctions and bowl-a-thons to yard sales. They do not receive grants from the federal government and face tough competition with other organizations for block grant money that comes through city or county governments. During 2009, 35% of their revenue came from donations in-kind, 19% from foundations, 14% from the City of Tacoma, 13% from fund raisers, 6% each from corporate businesses and friends, 3% from SHS construction, and 2% each from Pierce County and from churches. For the year 2009, total expenses for both the home sharing and transitional housing programs exceeded $400,000.


Jones: When we first started out, we didn’t get any public money. We didn’t apply for any because there are tons and tons of paperwork. You have to do the outcomes evaluations. It’s very involved and time consuming. Your money comes on a reimbursement basis. Each month you submit the data, and your request for reimbursement.

It would seem much easier in the beginning, to be under the umbrella of another agency because they’re going to provide “X” amount of money, a person to run it, some support staff, office space, copiers, phones, whatever. And that can be very, very appealing. Most programs are under the umbrella of an agency, so we are different. We’re very unique in that we’re an independent non-profit.

Brown: But being independent means you have to raise your own money. Is it worth it?

Jones: Definitely. You decide as a group of people, that you want this in your community. You form a board. You incorporate, and get your own 501c3. You design your own program and your guidelines, your goals, how you’re going to operate, and your procedures. You can change things as you wish. You have that flexibility. You don’t have to get a much larger organization to go through all the hoops they may have, in order to do those things.

In addition, you’re going to need insurance, and a package of insurance for a non-profit is very expensive. We have a business license, and do quarterly reports on our income. We have a business license with the state too, of course. We’re registered as a charity through the Secretary of State’s office.

Brown: How would you describe it to other people who might be inspired to start a program like this?

Jones: This is a very flexible kind of program, in that you can serve people of all ages, all income levels, people who are very healthy and active, and people who have severe physical limitations or even some mental health issues or are developmentally disabled. It’s very flexible, and I think that’s one of the beauties. We serve people of all ages, except the primary applicant must be legally an adult.


People share their homes for a variety of reasons. Particularly now, there’s a need for income, in this economy, and it’s also companionship. Frequently that’s the major motivation, particularly for an older person. Or they trade for services of some kind, such as yard work, housework, meal preparation, shopping, taking them to medical appointments, all kinds of errands. Or maybe it’s going with them so they can get out to a movie. We’ve also had the situation where someone has purchased a house and is going to be remodeling it, and has had two or three guys move in.

Conklin: One guy would flip houses. He would have a couple of guys live with him, or live in the house, in exchange for remodeling it. Then he’d go do the next house. It worked out tremendously well.

Jones: Maybe someone has good skills but isn’t working, and someone else wants to finish their basement. Then there are people with disabilities. Over the years we’ve had four or five homeowners who were quadriplegics. With home sharing they have someone there doing all the management of the household, the shopping, preparing meals, doing housework, maintaining a schedule of all the medical people who come in to provide services. We’ve had a number of blind home seekers, and we have a lady currently matched who is blind. And it’s a very happy situation.


Conklin:Both of them have a disability where they offset each other. So they work really well together. I consider some of the matches to be made in Heaven, because you’d never think these two people would hit it off.

Brown: Lisa, what has been the most rewarding aspect of your job?

Conklin: I think just seeing the people, seeing really good things happen, like people going from not having a place to sharing a home. Now they’re home providers themselves. People have started out very reluctant to do the home sharing because it’s a stranger, and then they get to the point where they go, “I don’t’ know why I didn’t think of this before.” Relationships have come out of it, even a few marriages. I think it’s important for people who are thinking about this, to know that we do the criminal history background check, we ask the specific questions. We go into the house. So a lot of the guess work isn’t there. You are working with a stranger. But the majority of the time, living with a stranger is easier than with a family member, because expectations are totally different. You both come into it knowing you’re starting off fresh and you learn to accept different things.

Jones: I want to stress that we do not place people. We give referrals and keep it anonymous.
We give the home seeker two or three home providers. We give first names only, both ways, and phone numbers and the approximate area where the home is. We don’t give out the address. First contact is over the phone. They decide when they want to meet, and we recommend they meet in a neutral place. The people make their own decisions.

Partnering with other people in the community is vital. So are volunteers and in-kind donations. If they need to do an expensive out-of-state criminal history check, a local church pays for it. But Jones feels frustrated. “Many years ago the state legislature passed, but never funded, a home sharing bill,” she pointed out. She wishes everyone would realize how cost-effective a program like Shared Housing is.


Jones: It saves every tax payer in the state of Washington money. It is so much cheaper for a disabled or elderly person to remain in their own home, where they want to be, then to go into institutional care. For someone who is terminally ill, who has a home sharer looking after all the needs of the household, nurses coming in, bather coming in etc., it costs so very little out of state or federal money. And the person is where they want to be. It’s what they want most of all. If it’s 24 hours, 7 days a week, if they’re at that point, you may be paying $2000 a month, total, plus providing room and board. Whereas, if they were in a nursing home it would be an $8,000 a month bill.

Brown: Do you feel that you are unique in the nation?

Jones: Yes we are. There is home sharing all over the country, going by different names. One of the ways they are very different from us is that they can charge application fees and those can get large. They aren’t serving the low income people and we are. That’s our passion. We are matching up more people each year to home sharing than any other program in the United States, or even outside of the United States.

Stella Jones is retiring on August 1, 2010, but her legacy, a passion for caring and sharing, will continue to inspire and be carried forward by her new Executive Director, Byron Cregeur. Hopefully even more citizens will discover the varied definitions of “family,” and the universal need for a place to call “home.”



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© Candace J. Brown 2010 



















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