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Local News: Wednesday, November 18, 1998

Everett shelter must find new building

by Diane Brooks
Seattle Times Snohomish County bureau

EVERETT - The warm, dormitorylike corridor feels like home to the children of Rachael and Jose Rodriguez.

Eight-year-old Mercedes pads barefoot up and down the hall, carrying her homework notebook, looking like a lost princess in a worn, satiny nightgown.

Four-year-old Martin, in a black Power Ranger jumpsuit astride a donated bike, talks about colors with an overnight volunteer. Ben, 10, is quiet. He's glad to be at the shelter, he says, because he's reunited with baby brother Mario.

For the first time since May, Rachael Rodriguez has lived in the same place for more than two weeks.

Her family is spending its third week at the Everett emergency shelter for families, operated since 1991 by the Interfaith Association of Snohomish County.

But after Jan. 22, homeless families no longer will have that option. The shelter is losing its building; new guests won't be accepted after Christmas Eve.

That likely means more children and parents will join the growing ranks of families and individuals turned away from the county's remaining dozen shelters.

By the end of this year, about 3,435 people are expected to use those shelters, with average stays of 25 days. A record 13,460 people are expected to be turned away.

The county's housing crunch is to blame, says Carolyn Spector, a housing specialist with the county Department of Human Services. When vacancy rates drop, rents rise too high for many families, she said.

Organization without a shelter

The Interfaith Association, an alliance of 18 religious groups devoted to social-justice issues, operates its homeless shelter in the basement of Bethany of the Northwest's retirement home on Broadway.

Bethany is selling the building and plans to relocate to Providence Pacific Clinic in the summer.

For 18 months, Interfaith leaders have searched for a new shelter site. They applied for grants, probed the creative minds of other social-service providers, proposed joint ventures. But no solution has emerged.

"When I've gone to ask for capital dollars (to buy a new building), they say, `You don't have enough operating money.' When I go to get operating money, they say, `You don't even have a building, in six months you'll be out of business, we're not going to give you operating money,' " said Pamela Wessel-Estes, the Interfaith Association's executive director.

The shelter operates on a $30,000 annual budget, with grants from Everett and the state, plus some donations. But without volunteer labor, donated supplies and help from Bethany - which provides free rent, electricity and some maintenance - the shelter would cost $180,000 a year, she said. Last year the shelter served 182 children and parents. This year it's expected to shelter 167 people.

About 85 percent of the residents find a new place to live during their stay, Wessel-Estes said. The others find another shelter, choose to live on the streets or else disappear without saying where they plan to go, she said.

Each night, families from member congregations bring dinner, while other hosts spend the night. Local Presbyterian, Unitarian Universalist, Jewish, Catholic, Methodist, Bahai, Lutheran and Congregational groups take turns providing volunteers.

With five rooms outfitted with bunk beds and portable cribs, the shelter can house up to 18 people. Some large families need two rooms.

High rents squeeze families out

The Rodriguez family is squeezed into one room. Like many shelter residents, both parents have jobs, but their wages aren't high enough to obtain housing. Jose is a bricklayer, while Rachael just started a $5-an-hour waitress job at a Denny's Restaurant.

"A lot of places want you to have three times the rent (to move in), or you can't have more than two kids in a room," Rachael Rodriguez said.

She and her husband could afford a two-bedroom apartment at $500 to $600 a month, but three-bedroom units usually run $735 to $750 a month, she said.

The family's last permanent home was in Marysville. Then in January the parents split up. Rachael Rodriguez and the children moved to Oregon. They started out in a women's shelter, moved to an apartment when she found work, then began cycling among friends' homes when she lost her job in May.

The couple reconciled when Mario was born two months ago. The family reunited in Snohomish County. They first sought housing help from Volunteers of America, which referred them to the Red Cross. The Red Cross arranged their stay at the Interfaith shelter.

"If we weren't here, we wouldn't have any other place to stay," said Mercedes, now enrolled in a neighborhood elementary school.

The Interfaith shelter is unusual because its residents live together in community, sharing meals and a communal area outfitted with couches, children's toys, and a somewhat antiquated VCR and television.

"We have found that many families that are homeless experience many of the same emotions as victims of domestic violence," said Wessel-Estes. "They feel really guilty, isolated and embarrassed. By sitting down and sharing meals, those families can really build a network for each other."

Volunteers learn and grow, too, she said.

"It gives volunteers in faith communities all over the county an opportunity eat a meal with a family that, except for the fact they are homeless, is just like themselves. We do a lot of work breaking down stereotypes and class barriers they often aren't even aware they have. That's a wonderful thing that happens there," she said.

©Copyright 1998, Seattle Times

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