It’s Monday, a little after 5 p.m., and Chelsea Lapointe and her 7-week-old baby walk into Bianca's Place shelter in Seattle's booming South Lake Union neighborhood.
It’s before dinner, and a few hours before staff will haul mattresses onto the floor to turn the common area from dining room into rough dormitory. Lapointe has just graduated from a six-month drug rehab program in Shoreline.
"I was addicted to heroin and meth," Lapointe says. "I was sober for the pregnancy, and I've been sober ever since."
Lapointe says she tried to arrange housing for when she got out of rehab, but it didn't come together.
"I just got out today. So this is, like, a big, huge change," she says. She starts to sob as she explains, "From going from having a room and [being] taken care of and counseling and everything, to having not so much stuff."
She doesn't know what to expect of her new life as a homeless mom.
"This is my first night, and I'm very scared," she says.
If Lapointe had shown up at Bianca's Place before March, she probably would have had to spend that first night on the street, not in a shelter.
That’s because King County has streamlined its system for connecting homeless families with shelter in recent weeks. A consultant’s report in December showed the county its program, Family Housing Connection, left hundreds of homeless families stuck on the streets.
"We would have said, ‘You'll need to call 211, Family Housing Connection, and get on the wait list for an appointment for a screening,’” said Marty Hartman, executive director of Mary's Place. Mary’s Place operates Bianca's Place and five other homeless shelters in Seattle. “‘And after the screening, you'll get a call back at some point to get into shelter.’"
The recent improvements should help some families find shelter sooner, according to county officials. Homeless families have typically faced a six-month wait before getting housed through Family Housing Connection.
Since 2012, the Family Housing Connection has tried to make it easier for families to get help. The program is a sort of clearinghouse for most of the homeless shelters and housing programs in King County.
But the wait list is long, and homeless families must sign up during business hours. Families seeking shelter after hours are out of luck, even if shelters have space.
Under the new policy, a dozen families have been able to come in after hours and take shelter at Bianca's Place in the past month.
"I want everybody who needs shelter to get it in real time," Hartman says. "If we have open beds, we should fill them."
"Oh my God," Lapointe says after she hears Hartman explain that families typically wait for months to get in. "I'm really glad to be here, thank you."
"We're glad you're here," Hartman says.
"Yeah, I couldn't handle being on the street," Lapointe says. "It's not something I should ever lose my daughter for, because I take really good care of her. There's nothing wrong with my parenting. It's just that I'm homeless. I don't have anywhere to go."
Bianca's Place is the only shelter affected by the county's new policy.
Most family shelters in King County don't have 24-hour staff like Bianca's does. They're more like apartment buildings; at Bianca's Place, families share big common rooms, with only curtains separating each family’s sleeping area.
County officials say there's no way most shelters could handle families arriving at night or on weekends.
King County's Committee to End Homelessness has put other fixes in place to help families get off the streets:
- County officials say they have reduced family wait time for initial screening interviews to a few days. Families still face multiple rounds of screenings and assessments before getting into housing.
- Domestic violence survivors who need shelter no longer have to go through the months-long Family Housing Connection process to find a safe place to stay. "You need an immediate place to go if you're facing domestic violence, not an appointment to get on a list," said Merril Cousin with the King County Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
- Homeless families are offered a chance to get a criminal-background check right away, to give them a chance to correct mistakes on their records and avoid surprises when they are eventually referred to a housing program.
The county is pushing shelters and housing providers to loosen rules that often block families with any kind of criminal records from getting housing. About one in four adults in America have some kind of criminal record, according to the National Employment Law Project.
King County has already made a similar change at shelters for homeless youth. Now, only a record of arson, methamphetamine production, sex offense or violent crime will exclude a homeless youth or young adult from staying in a shelter.
Mark Putnam, head of the Committee to End Homelessness, says an overhaul of the Family Housing Connection should be complete next year. But Putnam and others say that making a bigger dent in the region’s homelessness crisis would take more time and money.
"You're seeing providers, families themselves and local government and philanthropy really coming together and saying we've got to do this differently and do it better and really put families first," he says.
The committee also aims to expand the Family Housing Connection to serve all homeless people, individuals as well as families, next year. The bigger problem, according to Putnam, is that the need outpaces what government and charities have been able to get funding for.
"We have not enough shelter beds, not enough rental assistance slots, not enough units of housing that's affordable to families in our community," he says. "We see so many people in need."
According to the latest estimates, about 10,000 people are homeless in King County, with 3,772 living outside and the remainder in shelters or transitional housing. Their numbers are growing.