The stay-home orders meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 have thrown a wrench into most people’s daily lives, but the shutdown poses an especially harsh problem for families experiencing homelessness.
“When you have families that are unhoused and you have a stay-at-home order, what do you do?” asked Linda Winnett, director of Family Promise of Clark County.
Family Promise, a nonprofit that helps homeless children and their families find permanent and stable housing using a community-based approach, normally operates a day center at the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Camas and relies on a network of 13 Clark County host churches to help house and feed the Family Promise families overnight.
The coronavirus crisis, however, has completely upended the group’s normal routine.
“We basically had to move our families into motels. That was the biggest change we made,” Winnett said. “With the churches and the day center unable to do physical distancing, we chose to go with a motel. That’s what we do when we have any communicable thing — if a family member has the flu or if there’s a measles outbreak. It’s the best way we have to respond.”
But while periodic stays are a part of the Family Promise plan for communicable diseases, the cost of extended motel stays for up to 14 people during an unprecedented crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic are not built into the nonprofit’s budget.
“It costs about $8,500 a month for the motel,” Winnett said.
The group has relied on local grants — including a recent $9,000 emergency services grant from the Camas-Washougal Community Chest — donations and church volunteers from 25 different Clark County churches to help house and feed the families during the pandemic.
“This has ranged from daily food drop-offs to the motels and meal delivery (services) to giving gift cards for families to go into a nearby grocery store and purchase their own food,” Winnett said. “The (motel) has a kitchenette, which makes the grocery store card a good option.”
The families all have children under the age of 18 living with them, so Family Promise staff have tried to help coordinate remote school learning.
“One of the things we’ve done is make sure everyone had the ability to access the internet and provided either a phone or tablet or computer to families who didn’t have the means,” Winnett said. “The school districts have also supported the families. From the very beginning, they were providing (free) lunches.”
When the crisis began in late March, there were four families enrolled in the Family Promise program and 10 families that had graduated within the past year.
The pandemic has impacted nearly all of the families, including those who had moved on to stable employment and housing, Winnett said.
“We had two families working (of the four enrolled in the program when the crisis began) and one of them was laid off immediately,” Winnett said. “The family that graduated (during the shutdown) was the only one whose employment wasn’t impacted.”
The families who had graduated from Family Promise in 2019 and earlier this year also found themselves thrown into uncertainty again when the shutdown began.
“We keep in contact with our graduated families, but there was an increase in them reaching out to us in the beginning (of the crisis),” Winnett said. “The majority of the 10 graduated families were impacted by layoffs in the food service industry.”
Trying to help the families access unemployment benefits was “a nightmare,” Winnett added. “Just getting someone to answer the phone (from the unemployment office) was difficult.”
The graduated families also found themselves worrying once more about making ends meet.
“These families were just starting to stabilize,” Winnett said. “That’s why we stay with them for the first year. There’s a fine line when 50 percent of your income is going to housing.”
A lot of the graduated families found themselves coping with layoffs, unemployment disruptions or reduced hours.
Family Promise staff has been using Zoom to provide case management to the families in the program and help graduated families understand how to set up rent payment plans and balance utility and food bills on an even more reduced income.
There are spots of good news, lately.
“Since the beginning of May, employment seems more achievable for the families in the program,” she said. “The ones that have graduated, especially those who are in the food service industry, have had a harder time.”
The nonprofit saw a decrease in calls for assistance in April, which Winnett believes may have been due to unemployment benefits or the federal government’s stimulus money coming in, but has lately seen another uptick in needs among Clark County families experiencing homelessness.
“I think we’re starting to see an increase in calls from people who are in a situation where the unknown of the future is causing more needs,” she said.
And, although the state is slowly reopening, Winnett said she is unsure if or when Family Promise might be able to return to its day center in Camas or overnight host churches.
“We’re in survey mode with the churches right now,” she said. “We don’t know when our churches are going to be able to reopen. At the same time, we’re thinking about alternatives.”
If the rotational overnight program is not available in 2020, Family Promise could opt to open a static site inside a building where physical distancing is still possible, Winnett said.
“We’re thinking about how we can do things differently in light of (COVID-19),” she said. “If any landlords or property owners have a building that’s not being occupied right now, that might be an option. And it would be less expensive than a motel.”
Family Promise typically has a wish list for community members wishing to volunteer their time or donate needed goods, but with all volunteer opportunities currently on pause and no day center to staff or fill with supplies, the nonprofit is asking those who wish to assist local families experiencing homelessness to donate money.
“Giving financial support is the easiest and safest way to help,” Winnett said. “That way, we can direct the money based on which way our COVID response goes. We’re trying to plan for whatever the future holds and continue to serve our families.”
To make a financial contribution, learn more about Family Promise or gift one of the items on the group’s Amazon wish list, visit familypromiseofclarkco.org.