AmeriCorps Week: Providing Transitional Shelter through Tiny Houses

This AmeriCorps Week, we’re highlighting JV AmeriCorps service throughout the Northwest. In our latest AmeriCorps blog, JV AmeriCorps member Christina Estimé discusses her service providing transitional shelter for those experiencing homelessness as the Tiny House Village and Essential Needs Coordinator at the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) in Seattle, Wash.

“I’m with the tiny houses.” That is the elevator pitch I find myself giving these days, which is usually followed by an excited shriek of “Oh wow! How cool! I’ve always wanted to live in a tiny house!” I have practiced my response to this reaction over and over again and have finally boiled it down to a kind smile and a clarification that the tiny houses I work with are not of the HGTV variety but rather transitional shelter for those experiencing homelessness. Then, I patiently watch as their expression fades from eager interest to a fading look of guilt and sympathy.

I serve with the Low Income Housing Institute as the Tiny House and Essential Needs Coordinator. We provide transitional shelter for those experiencing homelessness, including single men, single women, couples, families, and those with pets. We are the step in between coming off the street and permanent housing. Many people have been experiencing homelessness chronically and for them, going from living outdoors for a long period of time is even more destabilizing than staying unhoused. Many people can’t get shelter – even overnight – because they are a couple, or they are in a family, and many shelters don’t allow pets. All of these scenarios represent the population that the Tiny House Program provides transitional housing for. We provide a stable, safe, and dignified community for those that need a home base.

Before the 2015 City of Seattle Sanctioned Encampment ordinance was passed, those that were experiencing homelessness and camping were setting up their tents and belongings all throughout the city of Seattle wherever there was a clear, dry spot. That included many areas not meant for human habitation. Many of the people experiencing homelessness just need a home base to either reintegrate into the system (including things such as getting an ID, getting their social security card, having an address so that they can apply for a job or housing, etc.). Some people are gainfully employed but can’t afford the current housing costs of Seattle. Some people just need to be stable long enough to reconnect with their families and move on.

Although our model is working, it can feel as though we are fighting an unwinnable battle at times. It will never be the case that we provide a tiny house to all those currently experiencing homelessness tonight. LIHI and our partners, Nickelsville and SHARE, currently operate six encampments providing shelter to over 300 people. The current number of those experiencing homelessness on any given night in Seattle is estimated to be around 11,000 people, according to the 2017 Point in Time Count. There is no speed at which we can realistically source and build tiny houses fast enough, nor can the city provide a place to build these villages fast enough. Although this will be a long road, we can continue to do our best and provide a community to those that cross our path.

Two of our camps’ “leases” were up in the fall and winter, and we have recently successfully moved one of them and we are currently in the process of moving the other. The fall was all about the Interbay move. The first sanctioned encampment LIHI partnered with was set up with only tents and one shed that served to house security. Part of the move required the transition from all tents to all tiny houses. Our team had about four work parties and went through a lot of stress trying to get everything up and running before the camp finally moved on November 16. This past week, we had to do a routine unit check on the fire safety of the tiny houses. We hadn’t had the chance to visit the camp since late December, and we had the chance to catch the residents on a regular Tuesday morning. The residents were incredibly proud and excited to show off their houses. As we walked up they were more than happy to let us check their units and show what they have done to make them their own. There was a sense of home and community at the camp, and that day it truly dawned on me what these encampments were all about.

I wish more people understood how familiar the stories of those experiencing homelessness are. Many people hold strong biases and opinions about those experiencing homelessness. Having had the incredible opportunity to be immersed in this cause as much as I have been, has not only granted me compassion for those that I serve, but an incredible lens through which I shall now and forever more deeply analyze this issue. Homelessness is a result of several different factors, none of which include laziness or lack of motivation. Those that are experiencing homelessness are some of the strongest, most hopeful, and bravest humans I have ever had the chance to encounter. A lot of them are broken, yes, but we are all broken. Some of us just have the privilege and opportunity to be held, to be safe, and warm in our brokenness. I wish everyone would see that we all deserve housing, yes, but also kindness. I have put faces and names to this city’s homelessness crisis and the message is loud and clear: those living in the outdoors are our neighbors and we should strive to be good to each other. Whether with a smile or volunteering your time, we should all extend the table a little more to our neighbors.

Providing Safe Space for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

JV AmeriCorps member Hannah Eby (Aloha, OR ’16-17) served with Community Action at the Hillsboro Family Shelter. In our latest AmeriCorps blog, Hannah reflects on her service year and her role in assisting children and teens experiencing homelessness.

The JVC Northwest AmeriCorps Program makes it possible for the Family Shelter in Hillsboro to have a Children’s Specialist, a role through which I helped make the shelter a safe space for children and teens to process their situation, get homework support, and have fun time to just be kids. There are a couple  stories that stick out in my mind which demonstrate the impact of this JV AmeriCorps placement.

Hannah created a sensory room for children as a Capacity Building Project

One three-year-old boy in particular showed signs of chronic stress and trauma upon his arrival to the shelter. Whenever staff would walk near his room, he would cry and ask if we were taking his room away. He didn’t know how to play with the other kids, avoided people, and became aggressive over even the smallest disturbance. Sometimes he would build houses and violently destroy them over and over, becoming very upset and clearly processing previous trauma. However, because the shelter had a Children’s Specialist, I was able to work with him specifically on processing his feelings and building safe relationships. Every day, we would start with a comforting routine, gradually introducing him to more interactive play with me and the other children during Toddler Time. Parent-Child Playtime was an opportunity for me to encourage new ways of bonding between him and his parents. By the end of his stay, the three-year-old was happier, knew how to control his aggressive behavior, and felt comfortable with staff and the other children. His parents often brought him back to visit me and other staff, and he was always very excited and happy to see us, demonstrating his growing ability to form healthy relationships.

Hannah (second from left) and her Aloha community mates

Another story that sticks with me is about a 17-year-old girl who loved music. She had grown up playing violin, but when she and her mom started living in a car, she was no longer able to play music. Over time, she forgot how to read music and therefore couldn’t join the orchestra at her school. However, when they moved into the shelter, I was able to set aside some time each day to play music with her and re-teach her how to read music. Not only did she improve enough to be able to join her school orchestra, but her confidence soared. Her mother, who also seemed to lack confidence and struggled with mental health issues, was inspired by her daughter’s improvement and asked to learn ukulele from me. I taught her ukulele, and she often told me that her half-hour ukulele sessions were the best part of her day and gave her something to look forward to. They worked together to learn a holiday song together on violin and ukulele, and this provided family bonding and pride. They eventually moved into housing and visited to say that they continued playing music and that it was an important part of their lives.

These are only two of countless stories that come to mind when reflecting over my AmeriCorps year. Without the JVC Northwest AmeriCorps Program, the Family Shelter would not have someone working specifically with the kids to provide for their needs and help them feel confident and connected to others. This JVC Northwest AmeriCorps role is absolutely vital for children and teens processing various traumatic experiences associated with homelessness.

Restoring Dignity through Open Mic Night

JV AmeriCorps member Scott Woodward (Spokane, WA ’16-17) serves as the Operations Specialist with Catholic Charities of Spokane in Washington. In our latest blog, Scott describes the Open Mic Night project he started, which provides patrons at the homeless shelter opportunities to express themselves creatively and allow their voices to be heard.

Creative expression: something most people don’t consider when they think of homelessness, but something I believe to be essential to the mission of House of Charity. House of Charity is a homeless shelter in Spokane, Washington that I have the privilege to serve as a JV AmeriCorps member this year.

One of the key tenets of House of Charity’s mission is restoring the dignity of those who are experiencing homelessness. To me, dignity is not just being able to walk through the doors and be treated like a person; dignity is also being able to show the world your voice and to have that voice be heard and validated. Because of this, I implemented the project Open Mic Night at House of Charity, which serves as a great way for our patrons to be heard. Think about it: if you don’t have any money, anywhere to sleep, and you live in a city that judges you for carrying everything you own on your back, where would you be able to sing your song? Where would you be able to hear your friends sing?

The House of Charity Open Mic provides a space for our clients to express their creative side. For a few hours every first Thursday of the month, the dining room of House of Charity transforms into a stage for patrons to show off their musical, artistic, poetic, comedic, or any other type of creative talent. By allowing our patrons to have a space to express themselves creatively, we give them an experience outside the typical one at a homeless shelter. Instead of our clients simply surviving, they will be allowed to be themselves, and most importantly, will be allowed to be heard.

The first night we had an Open Mic, I was a bit nervous, as it can be difficult to spread the word about programming events in the homeless community in Spokane. I was right to be nervous as it seemed like not too many people were expecting the event. Despite this, there were still people interested in performing. A few people performed their favorite songs, one patron performed an original piece  he wrote, and another patron performed stand-up comedy. Since the first event, there have been two other open mics, and I have been privileged to see some wonderful talent within the population of patrons at the House of Charity.

This month, the patrons of House of Charity were regaled with some guitar work by a patron, pictured below, as well as some acapella singing. My favorite part of the night was seeing a guest star jump up and start dancing along to the performers. It’s never a dull moment at the House of Charity. Another great moment at the most recent Open Mic event was a conversation I had with a patron who just ate dinner and watched the performers. She thanked me for the open mic, stating that “music is healing,” which is something I knew, but had a lot more impact coming from a person staying there.

Our clients feel like House of Charity not only gives them a place to survive, but a place to be themselves and to thrive. A space to be creative is essential in establishing a dignified environment, which is what House of Charity strives to be. The experience of running an open mic will stay with me: it’s been an honor and a privilege to give people an opportunity to have their voices heard.

AmeriCorps Week: Transforming Youth in Washington County, OR

This AmeriCorps Week we’re highlighting JV AmeriCorps members across the Northwest.  JV AmeriCorps member Kim Utschig serves with youth experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity in Washington County, OR. 

Washington County, Oregon is an odd place. Home of Intel and Nike headquarters, Portland suburbs, and pristine farmland, the demographic of Washington County is diverse and the need is dynamic.  Home to farm worker families, folks couch surfing, and the product of Portland’s poverty purge, there are many marginalized people in need of services in Washington County. However, there is only one non-profit provider of drop-in centers and street outreach for young people experiencing homelessness and instability, and that is HomePlate Youth Services. That is where I join the narrative.

In response to consistent feedback from youth who wanted additional ways to engage in the HomePlate community, 14-15_Hillsboro_HomePlate_KimUtschig_dreams1HomePlate seized the opportunity to bring on a full time Programming Coordinator. As a part of HomePlate’s team, it is my role to honor each youth that comes into our space by offering servant hospitality, open and honest communication, respect for the place they are on life’s journey, and compassion for the burdens they carry. In my role as Programming Coordinator, I get to engage in this mission through programming efforts are that are creative and fun, while also impactful and transferable to the lives of the youth I serve.

I encourage you all to think for a minute, about the some of the most transformative14-15_Hillsboro_HomePlate_KimUtschig_CoastTrip_4_2014 moments in your life.  Was it on a basketball court? An annual trip with your family? Creating an artistic masterpiece? Recreational opportunities can be transformative, but are often a luxury unattainable for so many youth at HomePlate.

14-15_Hillsboro_HomePlate_KimUtschig_ClimbingatPRG_9_2015Thus far, programming has looked many different ways. Whether it is watching the youth challenging each other to scale the wall at the Portland Rock Gym, making a juice carton wallet at weekly Wednesday crafts, or building community around climbing the giant sand dunes along 14-15_Hillsboro_HomePlate_KimUtschig_dreams2the Oregon coast, our programming encourages youth to find a sense of belonging amongst our HomePlate community and take ownership of their gifts and abilities.

Economic Empowerment in Anchorage, AK

JV AmeriCorps member David Quigley serves as the Workforce Development Youth Specialist at Covenant House Alaska in Anchorage. He tells his story of working with homeless youth to promote economic empowerment.


JV AmeriCorps member David Quigley along with Workforce Development team members Kim and Camille.

Covenant House Alaska provides shelter, food, immediate crisis care and a variety of other services for homeless youth ages 13-20. The ultimate goal is to direct them out of homelessness and into a sustainable, independent life. In my four short months at Covenant House, I have learned a myriad of things about homelessness, service, and myself. Among these are two essential principles. First, there is no cookie cutter blueprint or magical formula for ending homelessness. Each youth deserves respect, care and individualized attention to help him or her become a confident, capable and independent person. Second, economic empowerment is invaluable in aiding someone out of homelessness. Financial instability is a major underlying cause of homelessness. Without a steady source of income, how is someone supposed to pay rent, purchase food, buy clothes or perform any other tasks requiring money that are basic for living?


David leading a job readiness presentation for Covenant House youth.

At Covenant House Alaska, we tell the youth, “our job is to help you get a job.” We are the support that enables independence and a way out of homelessness through economic stability. We offer a multitude of resources, opportunities and support to the youth in a variety of ways. Each morning I co-facilitate a “Job Group” workshop to a group of youth, presenting on different job related skills. Topics include “Mock Interview Mondays” and the “Do’s and Don’ts of Resumes” (do-add relevant work experiences to the job you are applying to; don’t-use Comic Sans font). Workforce field trips allow the residents to get a hands on feel for different occupations and presenters from local businesses come in and discuss their career paths and the obstacles they overcame, such as the high school dropout who became one of the managers at Bear Tooth Theater Pub. We bring in companies that have entry level job openings, and they extend interviews to our residents. Schools present the different opportunities and programs they provide, such as attaining a GED through Nine Star or the different vocational certifications offered at AVTEC (Alaska’s Institute of Technology).

I often work individually with the residents. I sit down and discuss what the youth needs and assist from there, and no day is the same. One day, I’ll work with someone to create or update a resume and explain the importance of marketing oneself through past work experiences as well as the “soft skills” a homeless youth has, such as perseverance and the ability to adapt to difficult situations. The next day, I’ll help youth sift through job applications to separate scams and non-sustainable jobs from the legitimate opportunities. Any of these services can happen on any given day, but the constant from Covenant House Alaska is support and encouragement that the youth are smart, talented and capable individuals. The combination of these services is critical to economic independence and exiting homelessness.14-15_Anchorage_ChugachMountainsfromJVHouse

One of the unique opportunities Workforce Development offers is a 30 day internship with local businesses. The internship provides the youth with an opportunity to earn money and gain valuable work experience. It has enabled some of our youth to transition from homelessness to independent living. One youth, we’ll call Joe, came to Covenant House in the middle of September, frustrated and upset. He was placed on full time job search, and he worked tirelessly applying to any and every job opening he could find, but was discouraged at the lack of response or his acceptance to menial, low paying jobs. We worked with him to figure out his career goals and how to best attain them, and he expressed interest in the restaurant industry. We informed Joe that the owner of a local restaurant was going to give a presentation in an upcoming Job Group. When the owner came in, we encouraged Joe to introduce himself, and they stayed after the presentation to talk. After filling out an application, Joe was offered a 30 day internship as a prep cook in the restaurant. Three months later, Joe has a full time job at the restaurant and has been cross trained in food prep as well as cooking, warranting a promotion enabling him to move out of Covenant House. He currently resides at one of our affiliated agencies, where the residents pay a fixed rent to prepare them for the transition to completely independent living. Through his hard work and perseverance, and with the assistance of the services and programs provided at Covenant House, he is now on a path to true economic independence.

JV AmeriCorps community in Anchorage, AK.

JV AmeriCorps community in Anchorage, AK.

Miracle Runners

Sarah Brewster is currently serving as a second year Jesuit Volunteer/AmeriCorps member in Portland, Oregon, as the Recreation Coordinator at the Volunteers of America (VoA) Men’s Residential Center (MRC). 

Portland MRC Running 1

The first of many race medals for MRC client Mike.

When I first arrived at the Volunteers of America Men’s Residential Center, I could never have imagined what scheduling recreations like laser tag, pottery painting, and kayaking could hold for our clients. At the MRC, recreation is still considered treatment time; a time for clients to re-engage in activities, hobbies, and interests that they may have lost sight of in their addiction and/or never had the opportunity to explore because of life circumstances. Yet, to get a group of 20 or 30 people excited about the same thing can be a tough deal, especially when trying to get them to step into something new and unfamiliar. But I found solace and, at times, sanity in the recreation outings; they became rich opportunities to get to know the clients outside of a regular treatment setting.

In January, we had a small, but avid, group of runners in house. For these clients, running was becoming part of their treatment program and daily self-care. They started to log some serious miles, and one even took social passes to get in longer runs. I had started planning my own summer race schedule, and figured I would look into registering a few of the guys in some upcoming races. What began with a few hopeful emails has snowballed into an incredible story of resilience, inspiration, hope, and utter steadfastness.

At the end of January, I officially received confirmation from AA Sports that all the race entry fees would be waived for two of our clients and one of our staff members to compete in the Heartbreak Half and 10K races on February 9th. I had modest expectations for our two client runners, and, more than anything, was hoping for a positive first race experience.

Upon my return, the Monday after the race, I was greeted by absolute exuberance and glee as I received a minute by minute recounting of the race. I knew these guys could do it and do it well, but I was still captivated, moved, and awed by the embodiment of their success. For our two client runners, this race held great significance, measure, and accomplishment. And for one, this race was going to be the beginning of something truly spectacular. Ten months prior to the Heartbreaker Half, Mike was living on the streets, in despair, and in the depths of his heroin addiction. At mile 9 of the half, Mike paced out with his fellow miracle runner: a woman who had had surgery a year prior and was told she was never going to be able to run again. And yet, at mile 9, she was there. And so was he. Portland MRC Running

When Mike crossed the finish line, he had no idea how he had done. The important thing was that he had finished, and that he felt good about it. After a finish line reunion with his fellow miracle runner and her supporters, Mike awaited the reunion with his MRC running mates. He searched for his name and number to find his finish time, but it wasn’t posted yet. It wasn’t until the times were posted online that Mike was able to discover just how well he had done. What he found completely blew him (and all of us) away. He had run his first half marathon in 1:38:12, an average mile of 7:29. He placed third in his age group and his overall finish was 56th of 474 runners. Even more remarkable, Mike had quit smoking, a half pack a day habit, four days before the race.

Overflowing with appreciation, Mike contacted AA Sports to express his gratitude for the opportunity and experience. Lynne Sanders, the Director of Sales and Marketing at AA Sports and who had made the race registrations possible, was profoundly moved and inspired by Mike’s story, graciousness, and victory. She sent Mike his finisher’s medal for placing in his age group, and also informed him that, with his permission and willingness, she wanted to share his story with an editor at RaceCenter NW. She also notified Mike that AA Sports would like to offer him entry into a few of their upcoming races including the Spring Classic Duathlon, the My First Tri, and the PAC Crest Olympic Triathlon.

In addition to his treatment responsibilities, which at the time included finding a job, Mike drafted a letter asking for bike and equipment donations so that he could compete in the upcoming races. A taxing and emotional experience, he struggled to find a bike shop that would listen to his story. Unable to definitively secure his own bike, Mike rented a bike for the Duathlon the day before the race.

On March 30th, Mike completed the Spring Classic Duathlon, a 15 mile bike ride sandwiched by two 5K runs, in 1:28:32, and placed 12th of the 23 men in his age group. Again, Mike had impressive splits: his first 5K he completed in 18:42, the bike in 46:23, and the second 5K in 21:22. Even with the struggle and stress, Mike showed up, completed, and was victorious.

Big things were falling into place; Mike completed a half marathon, interviewed with RaceCenter NW magazine (his story is expected to be in a summer edition), reconnected with family estranged through his addiction, secured a good job, and completed a Duathlon. Overwhelmed and amazed, Mike remained grounded in grace and gratitude. Seeking opportunity to give back and show appreciation, Mike ran in a Boston Marathon solidarity run on April 15th with fellow Portland runners.

Portland MRC Running 2

Mike, and the owners of Athlete’s Lounge, with his new bike.

Today, Mike is working full-time, completing his aftercare, staying grounded in his recovery program, and training hard. He remains closely connected to Lynne, who has become one of his biggest champions and supporters. Through her, Mike was connected to Tri Pacific Coaching and a triathlon coach, and through that connection, Mike was donated a race bike from Athlete’s Lounge, a local triathlon shop.  And as if this hasn’t snowballed enough, Mike was just informed that he will be donated a brand new wetsuit, from ProMotion Wetsuits, for his upcoming triathlons.

One afternoon Mike came into my office and I expected to hear more excitement from training successes and new gear, but he greeted me with a longer, more emotional pause. He had been entrusted with keys to the restaurant where he works; his first keys to anything in years. For Mike, it symbolized a kind of rebirth into life.

For this moment and the daily moments at the MRC, I am honored to be the Recreation Coordinator; to witness the greatness of recovery and re-discovery and to be reminded of strength, spirit, and the human capacity for change and growth. And the greatest gift is not being able to witness it for myself, but the opportunity to observe the clients realize it in and for themselves; to watch them hold it, be inspired, motivated, and moved by who they are and have the potential to be.

AmeriCorps Assistant Visits New Avenues

This week, we have a post from Hilary Titus, the Administrative assistant for AmeriCorps for JVC Northwest.

In the fall, I had a chance to get out of the office and shadow JV AmeriCorps member Connie Humann at her placement New Avenues for Youth in Portland, OR. New Avenues provides homeless and at-risk youth a range of services aimed to transition youth to permanent housing and future stability. They engage, educate, and empower youth to see the hope and possibilities their lives hold for them. During my visit, I learned how New Avenues serves youth at every stage along the path, from those they describe as street-entrenched, to those enrolled in college courses and transitioning into permanent housing. At every level, New Avenues attempts to engage youth to take each individual step towards realizing their potential and achieving the stability necessary to reach that potential.

As the Education Day Services Assistant at New Avenues, Connie primarily serves with the youth during both drop-in hours and tutoring. We spent drop-in hours engaging street-entrenched youth. As Connie gets to know the youth and they seem ready, she points them towards goals in education and job training. Every day, she invites youth to join in the education programming, and when they do come to education hours, Connie serves as a tutor for a wide variety of education needs. That morning we helped a young man make a plan to finish his GED and a young woman study for her math placement exam at Portland Community College. Portland NAFY Connie HumannFrom GED prep, to college homework, and job-related reading and math skills, Connie is there to provide individualized attention and help the youth reach their goals.

As a reminder of all that has been accomplished by the youth, the walls of the tutoring room prominently display the names of those who have earned their GED this year, as well as boards charting the progress of youth as they pass tests on their way to earning their GED. Blank sticky notes denote which of the five subject tests each student has passed. One student has proudly written in his high and perfect scores onto his passing sticky notes.

As a “behind-the-scenes” player in the mission of JVC Northwest, it was so inspiring to see Connie’s passion and dedication to the progress of the youth she serves. The education team at New Avenues is determined to provide any youth desiring it the space, support, and the tools necessary to make positive steps towards stable and hopeful futures.