Click on image to view two videos about Sound Mental Health's programs

Project Homestead: “Housing first” for homeless families

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Housing First

Susie Winston

In order to get people to tackle the problems that have made them homeless, be it lack of education or marketable skills, mental health issues or chemical dependency, you first have to get them off the street, says Susie Winston, director of Counseling Services at Sound Mental Health, a non-profit that has provided mental and counseling services in the region for more than four decades .

People need a place where they feel safe and secure before they can be expected to take on such challenges, says Winston. “This is psychology 101.”

An example of this “housing first” approach to homelessness is Sound Mental Health’s Project Homestead.

The goal of the program is to get 15 “high-needs” homeless families into stable, permanent housing. The five-year program, which was launched in 2007, is funded with $562,000 grant from the Washington Families Fund, a public-private partnership led by anti-homelessness nonprofit Building Changes,

To be considered “high-needs”, in addition to being low-income, family must be facing such challenges as mental illness, chemical dependency or severe physical illnesses or disabilities.

Click on image to view two videos about Sound Mental Health's programs

Each family must include at least one parent with one or more children under 18 or a parent with the ability to regain custody of a child or children living in foster care. Women who are pregnant and have no other children are also eligible.

To date, homes for 15 families have been found, including 34 children.

Winning over landlords

Declan Wynne

Finding housing for these families wasn’t easy, says Declan Wynne, director of Integrated Services. Even when you have funds to pay the rent, he points out, it can be hard to find landlords willing to rent to the homeless, especially when they have bad credit or history of trouble with the law. “They do background checks,” he says.

Once, trying to find housing for a client who had recently been released from jail, Wynne had to try 70 landlords before finding one who would take him on.

An important part of the Project Homestead effort is convincing landlords that Sound Mental Health will not just walk away after a family is placed.

Winning over the families

Once clients has a “roof over their heads”, the Sound Mental Health team works to channel them into a broad array of services available.

But that’s not always an easy task, says Winston: these are people who have not had good experiences with the system, “so a lot of work needs to be done to build trust.”

Project Coordinator Rick Kenna tries to build that trust by spending time with families, especially with the kids.

Often these children have been “farmed out” to live with family and friends, in some cases situations where they may have been abused, Kenna says. “The families are fragmented; the kids don’t have a sense of family … or of being cared about.”

So even when they have a home to stay in, they’re still angry, Kenna says. “They act out, they don’t listen, they get into trouble.”

It’s important to help them find a sense of family again, Kenna says, to see that their situation is stable at last.

It’s difficult for the parents, too, he says. They often come from unstable family backgrounds as well, Kenna says. “Homelessness runs in families. It’s multigenerational. The dad was homeless, the mom was homeless, their brothers and sisters are homeless.

As a result many of the parents never had any structure or order in their daily life and often lack parenting skills, Kenna says. They also feel a “huge burden of guilt” for what they’ve put their children through, Kenna says.

Sound Mental Health offers coaching programs for parents, but most of the work is done “one-to-one,” says Kenna, with “some gentle guidance, some gentle prodding, and modeling.”

Once housed, the families are more likely to take advantages of other services, though it can be a slow process, says Winston. “They have a sense of honor and/or a sense of shame” she says, and the families often resist enrolling in counseling and other programs. “They spend an awful lot of time telling us they don’t need” those services, she says.

To engage their clients, Sound Mental Health workers employs a technique called motivational interviewing, Winston says. “We ask: ‘if you had the ability, what would you like to be?’”

From their answers, Winston says, it’s possible to identify their goals, their needs and we can identify resources, be it education, therapy or job training, that will meet those needs and help them move towards those goals.

Still it can be difficult to get their clients to be come “customers for those resources,” Winston says.

“Of our 34 kids only five are official mental health clients now, my guess is that almost half of them have diagnosable mental health problems, post-traumatic stress, ADD, conduct problems, depression. But their parents don’t want them to go to mental health services,” she says.

Despite the challenges, however, progress with Project Homestead has been good, says Winston, to date eight families have be  been “solid, stable” for a year or more and six more are about to reach the one-year mark.

Once these families are on their feet and no longer need services, they can leave the counseling program but still keep their housing, paying the rent with subsidy if they qualify for a voucher and taking over the rent when they earn enough to afford it.

Some families have done well, says Winston, with others progress has been slower. But it’s important to be patient and to respect the families’ decisions, she says. “We have to understand that our clients are going to live their lives their own way, and be honored when they share with us.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Photos of Winston and Wynne courtesy of Seattle Photography.

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