If you have an emergency, you call 911.
If you need emergency shelter or housing, you can call 211 – but be prepared to wait six months or more.
In the Seattle area, as throughout the United States, there aren’t enough beds.
But in King County, where homelessness is surging, the wait is made worse by a government bottleneck that keeps families homeless even when shelter is available.
On any given night, up to 20 percent of the apartment-like units at emergency shelters for homeless families in King County are empty.
In King County, 211 is the front door for a program called the Family Housing Connection. One of the centerpieces of the county’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, the Family Housing Connection is a sort of one-stop shopping resource for families trying to get off the streets. Instead of calling shelters or housing programs all over the county, families just dial 211, and the Family Housing Connection is supposed to help them get a roof over their heads.
Capricha Alfred and her 13-year-old son are among those still waiting to hear back. She said they've been waiting for more than a year.
“They put you in a database and they say, ‘Well, if someone is looking for you or someone like you, then we’ll call you,’” Alfred said. “And it’s like, ‘OK – so what do I do until then?’ The concept was probably meant well, but it doesn’t work.”
Alfred and her son have been staying at a night shelter called Bianca’s Place since July. On a recent afternoon, she was one of dozens of women at Mary’s Place, a day shelter where women and children can get meals, showers and other assistance.
Before getting into Bianca’s Place, Alfred and her son spent about nine months couch surfing and living in her car. She has had trouble finding work and qualifying for housing in part because she has a criminal record. She was convicted of felony mischief and harassment in 2008.
"Everyone makes mistakes in their lives, and sometimes they have longer or more detrimental consequences,” Alfred said.
Whatever the reasons a family become homeless, they often must overcome what housing officials call "barriers" to get housing – anything from a poor credit history to poor mental health. And each shelter or housing program has its own criteria for deciding who qualifies to live there.
"We don't have enough resources for every family," Vince Matulionis said. He is the director of ending homelessness at United Way of King County. "So what we have to do is triage, so we have to think about who's most vulnerable."
"You have so few programs that will serve families with the highest barriers," consultant Katharine Gale told King County's Committee To End Homelessness in January. In 2005, the committee came up with King County's plan to eradicate homelessness by 2015.
Matulionis said the shortage of shelter was at fault for the long delays, not the Family Housing Connection.
Gale's report on the Family Housing Connection spelled out the many hurdles families face when seeking to come in from the cold. She found a total of 77 different screening criteria concerning family histories with the criminal justice system. Some families endure five rounds of screening before landing a place to live.
"People can be lost anywhere throughout that process," Gale said.
Jennifer Cicardini and her kids have been homeless since June. "I'm on a lot of different wait lists throughout Washington,” she said. “Some of those wait lists are years long.”
At Mary's Place, Cicardini said she has been turned down for housing because she lost her kids' Social Security cards after she became homeless. She's trying to replace the cards.
"My kids so far have been pretty resilient," she said. The family spends nights at an emergency shelter in Belltown and days in school or at Mary's Place. "They make friends with the other kids, and they seem to enjoy all the activities."
Cicardini said she moved to Seattle from Everett because the wait for shelter was even longer in Snohomish County.
"It's a struggle, but there are places and resources out there that are willing to help,” Cicardini said. “You've just got to kind of go out there and find it."
Homeless families in King County typically wait more than six months before they land a spot in some kind of low-income housing. Even getting into an emergency shelter while they wait is tough. In November, 853 families were on the county's wait list for housing; 586 of the families were unsheltered.
More than 300 families had been on the wait list for more than 18 months.
“It’s incomprehensible, and I think it's immoral to have all these empty shelter beds,” said Sharon Lee, head of the Low Income Housing Institute in Seattle.
Given the long delays built into that family-housing system, Lee said it doesn't even make sense to call them 'emergency' shelters any more.
“There are still empty beds in the system. You have to go through this one doorway. You're waiting, waiting, waiting,” she said. “How is this an emergency, crisis response to homelessness?"
Most emergency shelters don’t let families just show up or make a phone call to get in that night, even if the shelter has empty beds. That’s unlike shelters for single people.
Family shelter managers say their apartment-like units often take a beating. It takes time to repair and clean them before another family can move in. So some vacancies are inevitable, not immoral. But they say the Family Housing Connection makes a longstanding problem worse.
The officials who created the Family Housing Connection acknowledge: It is not working well, and they are trying to fix it.
King County's Committee to End Homelessness includes government, nonprofit and business representatives from 21 cities around the county. So many players are involved, it's hard to say who's responsible when something goes wrong.
"None of us are really accountable, completely," Committee to End Homelessness director Mark Putnam said.
Among its three governing and advisory bodies, the committee has 70 board members.
Adrienne Quinn, head of King County's Department of Community and Human Services, spoke at a recent Committee to End Homelessness meeting that focused on the family housing system.
"We all have to take responsibility,” Quinn said. “We all have a desire to fix it. This is a smart group. We all need ideas because we all need to fix it together."
The committee is considering various ways to make it faster and easier for homeless families to find housing. Committee officials say reforms -- including reducing the number of screenings and criteria families face -- can help. But they say the county simply needs to address the shortage of affordable housing if it wants to come anywhere close to ending homelessness here.
This story was published originally on March 3.