Thursday, July 11, 2013

Letter from the Director: Creating a Community of Second Chances

When Jason sat down with our Housing Solutions Center Navigator, he told the kind of story that, when you hear it, you go home and hug your kids and say a prayer of thanks that your life is not like this.  Jason lost his parents, one when he was 13 and one when he was 14, after which he went to live with his elderly aunt.  Feeling he had become a burden to her at her age, he left when he was 18 and tried to live on his own.  Jason has mental health issues and is learning impaired, so finding work wasn't easy and taking care of himself often confusing.  Jason's sister was lost in a drug addiction and couldn't help him.

So he became homeless, living in his car and making choices that led him into trouble.  When he broke into a local home to get some shoes, he was arrested and faced jail time.  He was released on probation only after he promised the judge that he would try to find a place to live and any type of work.  Problem is, when you have anything on your record, most will not rent to you or employ you.  Fishline had few options for Jason.

For most of us, our histories are benign and ordered.  We don't have evictions or convictions that would impede our progress or require us to face unthinkable choices.  But for those who made a wrong decision or a grave mistake, the future can be a scary place.  Most housing options, including shelters, are out of the question for anyone with a recent record.  And that is completely understandable.  Like our housing navigator said, "If you were a landlord, would you want to take a chance and rent to someone who's been in trouble?  I wouldn't."  But the nagging question remains - if no one takes a chance to help someone like this, is it any surprise they end up on a corner with a sign?

Fishline has been noticing an increase in these types of hard-to-solve housing problems.  Ex-inmates released from prison with little possibility of work or a home.  Residents with mental health problems but with no available advocacy or guidance.  Homeowners or renters who have been evicted, which can drastically reduce the possibilities of a home in the future.  And the most common scenario, residents living on Social Security or Disability in an county that has a severe shortage of low-cost housing.

It may be a temptation to think that these are people chose their lot in life and should suffer the consequences.  But when we look back on our lives, most of us can recall when we made a mistake, but something happened to help us get back on track or we got a break or fate intervened in some way.   A fork in our road appeared, and we chose well or someone helped us choose well.  But for those who took a different road, whether it be because of ignorance or poor judgment or lack of proper examples, the punishment can sometimes last for many years.  It can be the start of a long dependency on social services, a costly proposition for any community.

There are no easy answers to these perplexing life situations.  But to ignore their existence invites more to occur.  Our community displays a compassion and care for each other that sets it apart - we invest in our troubled so they can live better lives.  The more troubled the life, the greater the imperative to do something.  Having local resources like Fishline and Coffee Oasis are a start, but we do not provide housing or jobs or adult mentoring.  And these are the resources most needed for a fresh start. 

When the economy improves, and most employable residents are working and secure, it will be these cases that will remain.  We are not alone in our concern for these vexing dilemmas -  new and creative programs throughout the country are meeting these issues head-on, offering work release and transitional housing solutions that hold residents accountable to constructive progress.  Tacoma Housing Authority is trying an innovative approach that assists at-risk families with housing costs if children stay in school and a parent stays employed.  The Housing Authority of Portland has relaxed its restrictions on renting to those with prior offenses, categorizing housing eligibility based on the type of offense and the parolee's danger to society.  Our Kitsap Community Resources is working on a landlord mitigation program, reducing the risk to landlords when renting to those with past difficulties.

These are all steps in the direction of a stable, forgiving community.  Though the reality in our world is that not all stories have a happy ending, more would end on a positive note if we take a chance and invest in those who want to better their lives.  Working together, even the hardest problems become opportunities to create a community of second chances.

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