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.

MLK Day of Service 2018

On January 15, 2018, people across the country engaged in service to their communities to commemorate the 2018 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, our JV AmeriCorps members included! Below are just a few snapshots of our JV AmeriCorps members’ service activities on MLK Day of Service 2018.

Juneau JVs served up sandwiches and smiles at The Glory Hole shelter and care center

Alaska – JV AmeriCorps members in Juneau served at the Glory Hole shelter and care center where they handed out sandwiches in the soup kitchen. Our Bethel JV AmeriCorps members sorted, organized, and transported donations to Tundra Women’s Coalition’s new thrift shop location. In Anchorage, members participated in a range of activities within the community: members provided fire safety education and installed smoke detectors in a mobile home park, helped at the food pantry at Brother Francis Shelter, and organized donations and provided education in the RAIS (Refugee Assistance & Immigration Services) welcome center.

The wonder women of Hood River relax after an MLK Day spent cleaning and reorganizing the St. Francis House youth center in Odell

Oregon – The Gresham JV AmeriCorps community volunteered with SOLVE, where they cleared invasive blackberries, picked up trash along the campus, and posted signage. The Hood River members had a full day of volunteering: they spent the day cleaning and reorganizing at the St. Francis House youth center in Odell. In the evening, the group participated in an MLK Jr. celebration (which several JV members in their community helped plan) which included guest speakers, discussion groups, and a community potluck open to all. A few Portland JV AmeriCorps members served at the Albina Coop Garden where they prepared beds by mulching, weeding, raking, and laying bags on top of soil. While volunteering at the garden, they met other AmeriCorps members and volunteers throughout the Portland area!

Portland JVs Cat Weiss, Rachel Francis, Heidy Rivera, & Sara McLean volunteer at the Albina Coop Gardening and Farming Day

Idaho – In the Boise community, JV AmeriCorps members participated in a wide array of activities. Siobhan O’Carroll prepared materials and tabled with the Women’s & Children’s Alliance at the MLK Day Social Services fair. The rest of the Boise community participated in MLK Day at the Boise Capital Building, making t-shirts at Boise State University, participating in a rally, listening to speakers honoring MLK, and participating in a social services fair.

Washington – A few JV AmeriCorps members in Grays Harbor picked up trash at Stewart Memorial Park. In Omak, members helped out at the Paschal Sherman Indian School Dorm where they participated in outdoor activities with 15 dorm students including sledding, building snowmen, and hiking. Spokane Lavan members volunteered at House of Charity serving meals to patrons and organizing the resource room. Spokane Romero JV AmeriCorps members served at the MLK Jr. Family Outreach Center sorting donations for the Point-in-Time Count/Everybody Counts Campaign.

Seattle JV Connor Beck serving at at InterIm Community Development Association

Montana – JV AmeriCorps members in Ashland, Billings, and St. Xavier served at their placement agencies. Members in Missoula volunteered at the Poverello Center, read stories about Martin Luther King Jr. to elementary school children, participated in a drawing activity about a vision for a better world, and took part in a community dinner.

Thank you to all who participated in MLK Day of Service 2018!

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.

MLK Day of Service 2017

“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

To commemorate the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service 2017, AmeriCorps programs throughout the country participated in providing service in their communities. These are just a few of the stories of how our JV AmeriCorps members served!

JV AmeriCorps members located in Juneau walked from house to house installing smoke detectors and educating residents about house fires with the American Red Cross.

’16-17 JV AmeriCorps members in Juneau volunteering with the American Red Cross.

Alaska – JV AmeriCorps members in Juneau and Anchorage walked from house to house installing smoke detectors and educating residents on fire safety with the American Red Cross. Our Anchorage JV AmeriCorps members’ service activities were featured in the Alaska Dispatch News–  read the article here! In Bethel, JV AmeriCorps members hosted a showing of the documentary, For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska. Additionally, members created an “I have a dream” board for interested parties to disclose their dreams.

Oregon – Woodburn JV AmeriCorps members Marit Olson, Jared Harris, and Emily Curran spent the day weatherizing homes through the Community Energy Project with Hands On Greater Portland. Meanwhile, in Hood River, residents were blasted with snowy winter weather, so in response to the weather, our Hood River JV AmeriCorps members teamed up with Providence Hospital’s Volunteers in Action to shovel care receivers driveways.

In Hood River, residents were blasted with snowy winter weather! Our JV AmeriCorps members located in Hood River teamed up with Providence Hospital’s Volunteers in Action to shovel care receivers driveways!

’16-17 Hood River JV AmeriCorps members shoveling care receivers’ driveways.

Washington  The JV AmeriCorps members in Grays Harbor carried on the tradition set by last year’s JV AmeriCorps members by picking up garbage throughout the Aberdeen and Hoquiam neighborhoods. In Tacoma, a few of our JV AmeriCorps members spent their time getting their hands dirty in the garden! Blair Bellis and Benjamin Feiten volunteered at Hilltop Urban Gardens where they composted, painted signs, and prepared the gardens for spring. At L’Arche Farms, Elizabeth Nawrocki recruited and coordinated volunteers for completing tasks throughout the farm.

Idaho – In the Boise community, JV AmeriCorps members Mariah Ertel, Mary Franz, Mary Haggerty, and AnnaMarie Marsilio spent MLK Day volunteering at Big Brother Big Sister of Southwest Idaho. Our members tackled various responsibilities assigned to them, such as organizing a storage facility, taking inventory, and reorganizing t-shirts.

According to Mary Haggerty, “Serving on Martin Luther King Jr. Day with my community knowing that so many other communities, not only in JVC Northwest but across the country, were serving others filled me with peace and hope. Hearing about and seeing so many people spread light made the ideal of a bright future tangible.”

Jared Harris, Emily Curran, and Marit Olson, spent the day weatherizing homes through the Community Energy Project with Hands On Great Portland.

’16-17 JV AmeriCorps members Jared Harris and Emily Curran weatherizing a home in Portland.

Montana – School was still in session in Hays, Montana, so our JV AmeriCorps members spent time educating their students on the history of Martin Luther King, Jr.. JV AmeriCorps members located in Missoula volunteered at the Poverello Center where they focused their day on homeless outreach.

Thank you to all who participated in MLK Day of Service 2017!


Lessons in Love

Our latest blog post is written by FJV AmeriCorps member Heidi Hanson (Spokane, WA ’15-16) who served as the House Support/Care Giver with L’Arche Spokane in Spokane, Washington. Below, Heidi shares her experience forming relationships and growing in love and compassion with her Core Members and community of L’Arche Spokane.


Heidi and a Core Member cooking dinner together

The celebration of love and compassion was an ever-present aspect of my year of service with L’Arche Spokane, a community of individuals with and without developmental disabilities sharing life together.  Life in L’Arche provides a unique opportunity to celebrate authentic love, the love that encourages us to find the gifts in one another, provides the foundation for compassion, and enables mutual relationships to form.  Throughout my service year, I reflected on what I learned about the very real and human experience of love as we grew in relationship with one another.

Love is acceptance.  When I first walked into L’Arche, I knew I was somewhere special.  I was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of welcoming and compassion.  I observed the Core Members (as the individuals with developmental disabilities are known within L’Arche) and assistants engaging with one another, together as friends and completely comfortable, which was something I could not wait to be a part of.

At the end of my first day of service, one of the Core Members gave me a great big hug as we said goodbye.  I’ve received many hugs from this Core Member since then, but in that moment I felt truly welcomed into the L’Arche family!  Although he didn’t know much about me aside from being a new JV, his acceptance of me into his life and home was so genuine it made me feel like I already belonged.  He literally welcomed me with open arms!  In this small display of compassion, I realized that L’Arche is a place where everyone, no matter their role in our community, can come exactly as they are and be met with kindness and grace.  As we focus our efforts on the acceptance and appreciation of one another, without requiring them to be anything other than themselves, we are able to discover, value, and learn from their individual gifts.  The founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, once wrote, “To love someone is to show them their beauty, worth, and importance.” It is through an accepting love that we hope to do that for everyone in our community.


Spokane JV AmeriCorps members at Lake Wallowa

Love is forgiveness.  Although we do our best to be accepting of one another, it is inevitable that a community, or any relationship really, will experience times of tension and discord.  We are only human, after all.  The more difficult times at L’Arche have tested my patience, but it has also been a safe space to accept my own weaknesses and learn to openly communicate with those who think and understand differently than me.  Sharing life together includes many moments such as this, revealing that acceptance of others requires daily effort toward understanding and compassion so that we can forgive one another and continue to grow.

A few months into my service, there was a new pizza place having their grand opening where they gave away a free pizza to every person who waited in line.  That day only two Core Members were around, so the other assistant and I offered to take them out to get pizzas for lunch.  As we were about to leave, one of the Core Members refused to go, because he wanted to go to a different pizza place instead.  Even when we offered to go to both, he became very angry and said he wanted to go to his place or nowhere at all.  I asked if we could talk about it just the two of us, and we had a conversation about how community living means we can’t always get exactly what we want and sometimes we have to compromise.  He listened to what I said, but he still didn’t want to go.  I told him that was okay, but I asked him to think about how that decision impacted other people in the community.  The time spent on an outing with Core Members is something all assistants enjoy, so it was unfortunate that one would have to stay behind.  A while later, the Core Member came to the table, put his hand on my shoulder, and said “I’m sorry.  Next time I go with you, okay?  I’m sorry.”  I was touched by his apology, because normally he cools off and moves on but doesn’t often ask forgiveness outright.  Sharing life together includes many moments such as this, revealing that acceptance of others requires daily effort towards understanding and compassion so that we can forgive one another and continue to grow.


Quality girl time on retreat

Love is in the little things.  One of the best aspects of L’Arche is that it is rooted in community and fosters the development of mutual relationships.  By experiencing life together, we have the continuous opportunity to share in the celebration and joy that can be found in the little things of everyday life.  It demonstrates what Jean Vanier meant when he said, “Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things.  It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.”  I feel like most of my L’Arche stories demonstrate this lesson in love, but I will share a few that really stand out.

About a month into my JV AmeriCorps year, there was a weekend where all but one of the Core Members were gone spending time with their families.  I spent that Saturday one-on-one with the remaining Core Member.  We watched an episode of her favorite TV show, went out to lunch, and spent the afternoon making chocolate chip cookies while dancing and singing along to the Hairspray soundtrack in the kitchen.  Going into that day I was nervous because she is one of the Core Members who takes the longest to warm up to new assistants, and she still hadn’t quite warmed up to me.  As we sat together eating our freshly baked cookies, she looked up at me, smiled, and said “thanks!” Now, I consider her one of my closest friends, and I’m thankful for the many moments we have shared that have brought us closer together!

One night, as I was preparing to go home at 9:20 pm after an evening shift that ran a little late, one of the Core Members suddenly ran upstairs to his room.  He came back down with a concerned look on his face and a large flashlight in his hand.  He handed me the flashlight and told me to take it with me so I wouldn’t have to walk home in the dark.  I was touched that he was worried about me and was willing to give me his own flashlight just to make sure I would be safe.

Pure joy at a L’Arche event

One of my absolute favorite times in L’Arche is when we are all sitting around the table sharing a meal together.  Whether it is for breakfast or dinner, taking the time to sit with one another, to come together to eat and pray, is a little thing I look forward to every day!  Joining hands with my L’Arche family around the table provides a tangible sense of the support and compassion I feel in our community!  These are just a few examples of the many little moments and simple acts of love that have made my L’Arche experience so amazing and have truly transformed my heart!

I have learned and grown tremendously in my time with L’Arche. I have experienced a love I never imagined I would find in a single place. It’s amazing what you find in an organization based on the common humanity of different people, celebrating and sharing life together.  Despite whatever ups and downs may occur, the many meaningful moments we share foster mutual relationships based in authentic love.  This love is accepting another person for who they are, looking beyond the surface to see and appreciate their gifts, forgiving them, laughing and crying with them, and an offer of friendship.  This is the experience of life and love that I have found in L’Arche, where my friends have shown me a level of trust, compassion, vulnerability, and joy that has challenged me to grow.  Is there any greater gift than to be truly cared for, to have people in your life who accept you, forgive you, and show their love for you in the little things every day?  I think not.  After all, “we are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time” (Jean Vanier).  I have been blessed to serve my year with my L’Arche family, celebrating the love we share!  They have truly changed my heart and my world with their love!


Shattering Mental Health Biases

In our latest blog post, JV AmeriCorps member Karilynn Cooper (Spokane, WA ’14-15, Seattle, WA ’15-16) shares her experience identifying and overcoming her mental health biases through her service with Community House Mental Health Agency.  

Before beginning my service to adults with severe mental illness, encountering an individual on the streets who appeared to be talking to someone who wasn’t there probably would have driven me to turn around and walk in the opposite direction. In my second year of serving through the JVC Northwest AmeriCorps program, I have had the pleasure of joining the staff at Community House Mental Health Agency (Community House) in Seattle in embracing and welcoming those who are used to having backs turned on them.

Karilynn serving at Community House

This mindset that I was once guilty of possessing reflects the general thought processes and biases of a society that walks away from the growing issue of mental illness, forming a greater divide between those with a diagnosis and those without. Community House, which was founded in 1976 in Seattle, is a small out-patient mental health organization. Community House provides treatment services in the way of case management, psychiatry, and medication management. There is a weekday treatment program consisting of hobby and support groups, peer support, snacks, and a hot lunch. Most importantly, Community House is a safe haven in the Seattle community for clients to come, connect, and receive support from peers and staff.

My role at this placement as a case manager (three days a week) and a day treatment staff member (two days a week) is a hybrid position that mixes two important aspects of Community House. Serving in these two roles provides me with two different lenses in which to view and assess the needs at this organization, leading to many opportunities to facilitate changes in different areas. As a case manager, I provide support, service coordination, and assistance with articulating goals for treatment to a case load of individuals. As a day treatment staff member, I wear many hats: serving as a cook, medication distributor, group facilitator, or house chores supervisor to Community House attendees.

Often, the attendees are “regulars” who show up frequently to socialize, partake in a chore, attend appointments, or eat lunch. The best part of day treatment by far is the time I get to spend simply engaging with these attendees, which is a part of my service that feels the least like “work” and more of a leisure activity. Even after having served in many different settings since becoming interested in social work, I have not once had the opportunity or been encouraged to spend leisure time with clients in order to get to know them as people instead of consumers in need of assistance until I started serving here.

Karilynn Cooper Community

Karilynn (bottom left) with her ’14-15 JV community mates

What I witness on a daily basis in my interactions with Community House clients is an overabundance of unique personalities, abilities, hopes, dreams, and talents. I especially notice a longing for connection, a defining characteristic of the human condition that is not always easily recognizable among many in this population. Look a little bit closer and you will see painters, drawers, writers, poets, comedians, beautiful toothless or dentured grins, hard-workers, the brave, the wise, and the generous. You will find those with a wealth of knowledge and  intelligence, those who endure the torment of inner voices, or those constantly trying to keep their heads above the deep dark waters of depression.

These are individuals who should not to be ignored but included and celebrated within a society which claims diversity and freedom of expression to be of the utmost importance. We can approach those who are challenged with a mental illness with patience, kindness, humility, and with the purpose of learning from them rather than molding them into what we believe to be “normal.” As I have already begun to have my own biases shattered, I fail to name all of the ways in which I have improved as a person just by spending time with Community House clients. It fills my heart with joy to have the opportunity to assist in maintaining a positive and safe environment for these friends of mine.

AmeriCorps Week: Cultivating Roots in Grays Harbor, WA

This AmeriCorps Week, we’re highlighting JV AmeriCorps service throughout the Northwest. JV AmeriCorps member Megan Norris (Grays Harbor, WA ’15-16) describes how participation in the Cultivating Roots garden has strengthened the feeling of community with youth and economically disadvantaged community members in Grays Harbor, WA. We thank Megan for sharing her story of service and would like to acknowledge all current and former members who have so graciously served in our program.  

Community gardens are so much more than plants or produce. They have a social and community aspect rather unique to the culture of a shared outside space. They are a space which many people invest love and want to see succeed. The Cultivating Roots garden, where I serve through the agency Grays Harbor Public Health and Social Service Department,  is located within Pacific Court Housing Development. Pacific Court is low income housing under ownership of the Housing Authority of Grays Harbor.


Megan excited to ‘get things done!’

The residents who live among and around the garden, if involved in it, have grown not only produce in the beds, but also affinity for the space. The neighborhood children are especially keen of the garden. Some of my favorite days of service are the ones where I arrive at the garden with the intention of tending to the beds only to be met with enthusiastic children ready to harvest, learn, and help.

One October afternoon I was met with a different emotion from one of the dedicated garden volunteers. At 8 years old, she is a fantastic helper and quick learner, but on this day, she had come to the garden as a place of solace. In tears, this garden volunteer choked out a simple question, “May I help you today? I had a rough day and really just want to be in the garden.” Over the next two hours, we chatted about her day and why she was crying; we talked about ways tomorrow could be a better day; and we got our hands messy in the garden beds.

Cultivating Roots Garden

Other children came and went from the garden that day, sharing smiles and well wishes. When the garden chores were finished, not only were there 14 lbs. of harvest to be distributed, but a strong sense of community filled the air. A day was bettered by spending time in the garden, and the garden gained a reputation as a safe place to come when one has a crummy day. I was reminded that day of how my time in the garden is service and that the garden being located in the Pacific Court development, a neighborhood where parents often have to work two shifts and is full of hard working and earnest people, is a great fit.