Area programs offering rapid re-rehousing (RRH) to address family homelessness were overwhelmed by the pandemic. The rental assistance they provide, a vital lifeline for families, was quickly drained. But a community-based advocacy effort featuring program participants successfully increased City and County funding for this critical resource.
Solid Ground’s JourneyHome/Rapid Re-Housing (JHRRH) helps families experiencing homelessness get housed as quickly as possible. “We know that once they get permanent housing, it makes it much easier for every other part of their lives,” explains Aquibalon Ruquiya, JHRRH Case Manager. “If you are homeless, it affects your health, it affects the safety of your children, it affects your being able to have permanent employment.”
“When the pandemic hit last year, everyone we were working with who had jobs basically lost their jobs,” Program Manager Laura Black says. “A lot of our folks work in service industry – retail, warehousing – and when everything shut down, people were really impacted financially.”
The program needed to do more to support families like LaTanya Cheatam’s, who explains, “I was homeless for two years because of an eviction on my record. I had gotten my kids into a place, but there was no room for me there. My kids were safe, which was all I was really focused on. Solid Ground helped me to finally get into a place. It was a godsend, because at the time, I had been sleeping in my car for almost six months. The day-to-day was taking its toll. I was an Uber and Lyft driver, and the pandemic for me was terrifying. I lost my car because of the pandemic, which meant I lost my employment.”
JHRRH provides short- to moderate-term income-based rental assistance – which means when folks lose income, they cannot contribute any resources toward rent. “We paid the remaining balances, which dramatically increased our rental assistance costs,” Laura says. “We saw increases of 50-75% in our rental assistance budget starting all the way back in April. It became evident pretty quickly that we were spending our funds at a rate that was going to be over budget to keep our families housed – and we didn’t have the funds to support other people. We had to effectively close our doors.”
LaTanya adds, “As a mother – to have the thought that ‘I might not be able to take care of my children’ – for me, I didn’t know if I was going to make it. And my case manager, Aquibalon, was there, like every time. I would call and she was answering that phone. If she didn’t answer she called me right back. And she held me down. She made sure I dug that strength up every single time.”
While rental assistance funds were available through other community sources, people getting RRH assistance were not eligible. Laura and Will Toaspern, Solid Ground’s Government Affairs and Contracts Coordinator, alerted the City and County contract monitors and then realized they needed to go to the councils. Will says, “We told them, ‘Look, we think there needs to be a legislative fix here. That is the only way we are going to be able to ensure stability for the families in our program.’”
The team called councilmembers and organized public testimony at budget hearings. “We knew this strategy needed to center the families in the program and that their participation would be the most impactful,” Will says. “There is a special power to hearing from the people most impacted by the decisions that the councilmembers are going to be making.”
When Laura asked her team who might speak to the elected officials, Aquibalon says she thought of LaTanya: “I knew that a lot of people could resonate with her story. She’s got her education; she had a very good job. But still she got laid off and found herself in this type of situation.”
LaTanya and another program participant agreed to tell their stories to the councils, which because of the pandemic were meeting virtually. “I gave my testimony and just told them the truth,” LaTanya says. “This program needs the funding because people need help. Not everybody who needs help is able to get it through some of the other programs out there. I went to programs where they told me, ‘Well, you make too much money.’”
“There is a special power to hearing from the people most impacted by the decisions that the councilmembers are going to be making. … LaTanya’s testimony definitely sealed the entire initiative.” ~Will Toaspern, Government Affairs & Contracts Coordinator
Before speaking she worried how she would be received: “I was a single, Black, homeless mother, and that meant I was ‘unreliable;’ that meant I was unwelcomed, and it meant I was rejected a lot. So going before that council was terrifying – because to stand up and say I was homeless for two years with my children, that sounds like the beginning of a bad mom story. If they could have seen me – I was literally shaking, but I would do it again in a heartbeat, because that program is so necessary,” LaTanya reflects. “It is so necessary for people like me who do work, who are educated, who just find themselves in a situation because of a series of unfortunate events.”
LaTanya told the King County Council, “A year ago, almost to the day, my daughters and I were homeless and living out of my car. I worked 14-18 hours a day just to pay for a hotel room so they had a safe place to do schoolwork, eat, sleep, and shower each day. I had no family here that could help and was truly at the end of my rope when I went to Solid Ground. I was exhausted, afraid, and I had no clue what to do.
“We had been homeless for almost a year at that point, because no one would rent to me because I owed a management company that had charged me fraudulently. Without the funding assistance, the emotional support, the hands-on consistency of Solid Ground and Aquibalon, I honestly don’t know where my family would be today.”
“LaTanya’s testimony definitely sealed the entire initiative,” says Will. King County Council granted an additional $150,000 for JHRRH rental and client assistance. Seattle City Council expanded on the initial request and supported all Seattle-based family RRH programs with an additional $750,000 in rental assistance funds.
And in a telling display of appreciation, King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci congratulated Solid Ground at a public meeting, saying, “Your work and those who joined you in testifying on behalf of additional rental assistance was very meaningful and it worked. It did some good, so good job!” Staff and participants were thrilled.
“I could dance right now! This program has helped me have a better life, not just go from one place of poverty to another. I now have a chance to have better, to be better, to do better.” ~LaTanya Cheatam, JHRRH participant
“Knowing that we can continue to support our folks who are struggling through this pandemic, just like a lot of us are – and now they don’t have to worry about losing a roof over their head and don’t have to worry about losing this support and this safety net – is huge,” Laura says. “Another huge impact is we have enough funds to be able to open our doors again and to take on new families who are continuing to experience homelessness right now.”
“When Aquibalon told me that they increased the funding and it went through, I was like YES!” exclaims LaTanya. “That was everything, because it can help more people – and there are too many people out here who need help. There are too many parents out here who are just trying to do what they have to do. They need that help. So I was ecstatic. I could dance right now!” she adds, laughing. “This program has helped me have a better life, not just go from one place of poverty to another. I now have a chance to have better, to be better, to do better.”