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caption: Volunteers count the number of people experiencing homelessness during the annual King County count on January 25, 2018, in Pioneer Square.
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Volunteers count the number of people experiencing homelessness during the annual King County count on January 25, 2018, in Pioneer Square.

Seattle program aims to 'turn off spigot' to homelessness

In its first six months, a pilot program to help vulnerable families stay housed has kept more than 200 people from becoming homeless, according to a report from the Seattle Human Services Department.

The pilot was developed in response to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s first executive order aimed at curbing homelessness. In her first act as mayor Durkan prioritized the creation of various programs to assist rent-burdened, low-income households from losing their homes.

There are currently more than 12,000 people facing homelessness in the Seattle-King County area, according to a 2018 Count Us In report. This does not include people who are at risk for homelessness because of rising rents and housing instability.

The Seattle Rental Housing Assistance Program provides rent and utility assistance for families who are on the wait list to receive Section 8 housing vouchers. The goal of the program is to prevent vulnerable families from becoming homeless during the waiting process.

“Unless we really turn off the spigot of folks entering homelessness through projects like this, we are really not going to be able to tackle and solve the homelessness crisis that is happening here,” said Nathan Buck,the director for Education and Community Services at Neighborhood House one of program’s four partnering agencies.

There are challenges: Contact information for eligible households is often out of date. It has also taken time for landlords and clients to trust the program.

Critics of such prevention programs say it isn’t certain whether the people receiving assistance would have actually ended up on the streets. The report says that historically, 15 percent of those waiting for their vouchers became homeless while on the wait list in 2015.

The Housing Assistance Program specifically targeted renters with a Seattle address who made less than 50 percent of the area median income, or roughly $50,000 a year for a family of four.

Sarah Childs is a single mom with three children. She lives in market rate housing and her rent has gone up hundreds of dollars over the past few years. A chronic illness has disrupted her ability to work and to go to school. She has been waiting several years for her Section 8 voucher.

When she found out she qualified for the Seattle Rental Housing Assistance Program, she couldn’t believe such a program existed.

“I was literally in shock,” Childs said. “I just started crying. It was going to have such a huge impact on my life.”

She said the assistance has allowed her the stability to get ahead.

The pilot program hopes to reach more than 800 households who are waiting for their housing vouchers over its two-year run.