Real Change, September 22, 2010

Preventing Homelessness

©2011 Valerie Kreutzer

She was laid off three months ago. By now she has depleted her savings and won’t be able to pay next month’s rent. She’s sent out dozens of resumes. “I’m a graduate of the University of Washington and an experienced office manager. Shouldn’t I be able to get a job?” she wonders, choking back tears.

I offer her the tissue box and start taking down data from her picture ID. As a volunteer at the University Churches Emergency Fund (UCEF) I’ve glimpsed many stories of hardship and despair. Sometimes, as in this case, we can help. I call the young woman’s landlord and persuade him to accept our $100 towards rent. He likes his tenant and is confident that she will soon find work. Indeed, four weeks later she sends us a thank-you note with the good news of a job. We can retire her file.

“For a little organization with limited funds, we’ve helped a heck of a lot of people to stay off the streets,” says Jo Gustafson, UCEF’s executive director. The Fund, Gustafson explains, was started in 1986 by a group of churches when layoffs at Boeing sent thousands of workers to the financial brink. As they knocked on church doors in need of assistance, staffs were ill-prepared to help. Realizing the need for a coordinated program, churches in the university district pooled resources and set up an assistance program that can deal with clients one-by-one.

UCEF’s outreach extends over several zip codes in North Seattle; assistance is limited to emergencies. “We can’t help the chronically needy,” Gustafson explains, outlining what clients can expect: once a year assistance of $100 to help with rent, utility bills, or move-in costs; this help is limited to three times in a life-time. Over the phone, Gustafson advises clients on required documentation to prove eligibility. During week-day mornings, UCEF welcomes clients at its 4515 16th Ave. NE office, housed at the University Congregational United Church of Christ.

On this Wednesday morning the waiting room is crowded.  My first client is a father with two pre-schoolers in tow. He was laid off, and though his wife is still working, they are behind on utility payments. He hands me the shut-off notice. I make some phone calls. Yes, we can help.

Next comes the tall man who just arrived from Arkansas. He heard from a buddy that the fishing boats in Seattle hire for trips to Alaska. By next week, for sure, he’ll be out-a-here. Meanwhile he needs assistance to stay at the men’s downtown shelter. Yes, we can help.

Next is the woman who has found affordable housing but needs help to move into the apartment. We do the arithmetic, and yes, the numbers add up. We can help.

No, we can’t I tell another client who received our assistance less than a year ago. And no, we can’t get you a picture ID, but perhaps the Ballard Food Bank can help. And no, we can’t pay for a bus ticket to California, but here’s a telephone number you can call.

And so we write checks, make referrals, hand out metro bus passes, offer little packets of soap and shampoo, or a lunch pack to the hungry.

By noon the waiting room has emptied. “At this rate our funds will soon be depleted,” sighs Gustafson as she retires the sign-up sheet. During the past two years, the Fund has given out 29 percent more money than in previous years—a sign of the hard times. Several other assistance organizations have already closed their doors.

Meanwhile, UCEF continues to respond to emergencies, “providing hope with dignity and compassion,” in accordance to its mission statement.

(Contributions to the University Churches Emergency Fund are welcome.
Please send checks to UCEF, 4515 16th Ave. NE, Seattle, WA 98105)