Walk in the Shoes – Othello Encampment

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to join Walk in the Shoes of a County Employee winners Mary Dunbar and Della Lorenzen from Public Health – Seattle and King County for an afternoon on the job. Mary has been a social worker with the Kids Plus program in our Downtown Public Health Center for the past three and a half years. Della is a Personal Health Services Supervisor there.

As part of the Health Care for the Homeless Network, their team of three social workers and two Public Health nurses are specialists in housing, chemical dependency, and early childhood mental health. They use this knowledge to provide outreach and intensive medical case management to homeless families living on the street, in cars, in encampments, or in shelters in King County, and help them move from homelessness to more stable housing.

Each team member is trained in motivational interviewing techniques to help them better understand a patient’s history. They are also trained in trauma-informed care, which is an approach to treatment that takes into account that people often have different types of trauma in their lives that may affect them physically, mentally, behaviorally, and socially.

As I watched Mary, Della, and their team working with families at the Othello Village encampment in South Seattle’s Rainier Valley, they explained that the work can be both challenging because of the multiple barriers families face, but also satisfying when they are able to help people improve their living situations or health outcomes.

It was a great opportunity to hear directly from residents about some of the difficulties they face in getting back on their feet. They also shared worries they have for their family’s safety, the emotional pain of being unable to provide better living conditions in an increasingly expensive city, as well as the physical pain of sleeping in cold, cramped conditions during one of the coldest winters in recent memory, before they were able to get a small house in the encampment.

The Public Health team provides families with shelter and housing resources, and helps them apply for services including medical insurance, transportation assistance, drug treatment, and visits to the mobile medical van or medical clinics. They also help coordinate care for medical, mental health, and educational, or childcare needs. These types of activities may seem mundane, but even a task as simple as keeping track of important medical and personal paperwork is more challenging for people without a stable home.

The hopes that the residents had for their children were simple and familiar to most families: clean and safe housing, good schools, and healthcare when they’re sick. Mary and Della help them turn these hopes into reality by working with other regional partners, and in some cases, providing tangible things like emergency clothing, food, diapers, hygiene items, and bus tickets to get to medical appointments or emergency shelters. And they continue providing intensive case management support up to six months after families are permanently housed, which provides another level of stability as parents learn to access and manage resources on their own.

During the visit we met with a mother and her teenage daughter working with the team to start an application and review criteria to qualify for permanent supportive housing. They discussed the challenges the mom faced, such as difficulty getting verification of homelessness letters from various shelters and service providers.

They also talked about her current stresses, including worries about parenting alone since her husband had been barred from the encampment for not following rules, and the recent trauma of having witnessed a shooting in downtown Seattle. These types of stress affect every member of families facing homelessness and make their road to stability that much tougher as they navigate systems, and get help gathering and organizing paperwork, and sticking with a process that can take days, weeks, or months.

We also met with another family with young children that Mary and Della had helped to figure out a plan for housing. The mother was happy to report that since they’d last talked, her family had qualified for transitional housing and were starting to figure out next steps for moving and how it might impact the kids’ schooling. It was a major victory for this family, though just one of thousands in our region hoping for their own fresh start in a home of their own.

Mary explained that compared to when she started three years ago, there are many more homeless families, and the severity of their medical and mental health needs has increased. But by building relationships with housing and shelter providers to help families with high medical needs navigate homeless resources and get into housing as quickly as possible, they reduce adverse childhood experiences in the children, and ultimately make a long-term difference in people’s lives.

I was honored to have parents and children trust us with their most personal stories, and grateful for the hospitality they extended to us. The entire afternoon reaffirmed the importance of the work we do to help improve the quality of life for King County residents, and I was inspired by Mary and Della’s seemingly tireless commitment.

If you are doing a job that you think I should experience, I look forward to receiving your invitation.

Dow Constantine
King County Executive