EVERETT — Melinda Parke doesn’t know who else to call.
After nearly five months of staying in an Everett motel, Parke and her 8-year-old son, who has severe autism spectrum disorder, are still searching for help.
“I literally thought it couldn’t get any worse,” Parke said. “But then people stop paying attention. People stop answering their phones because they feel bad or don’t have any new answers.”
Parke is paying for their motel room. She received some assistance from Compass Health, but only enough to pay for 14 days at the motel. After The Daily Herald published a story that featured Parke and her son, Elijah, they received more than $4,000 in community donations. ChildStrive, an Everett-based nonprofit, also paid for a six-day motel stay.
The family is on multiple wait lists for permanent housing, but until a spot opens — which could take more than a year — no one seems to know how to help them. Elijah’s disability makes staying in an emergency shelter difficult and, she recently learned, nearly impossible. Many of Parke’s initial questions remain unanswered.
Where is she supposed to go while they wait for housing? Who qualifies for subsidized motel stays, if not her family? And why is finding help so difficult?
Snohomish County’s motel shelter program pays for about 173 motel rooms. The county doesn’t have vouchers, per se, but it funds programs that pay for motels. Nonprofits typically oversee the programs and run day-to-day operations.
Nearly all of the funding for motel stays comes from the county. The city of Everett is increasing its emergency housing capacity with more small-shelter sites, said Community Development Director Julie Willie.
The Hand Up Project is one of the nonprofits that manages an emergency motel program. It provides case management, “wrap-around” care and security through the program. A caseworker helps people get an ID, medical and dental care and sign up for programs that pay for long-term housing.
The Hand Up Project oversees 15 motel rooms for the city of Everett, which receives them from the county. Referrals come from the city’s team of social workers and police officers who do outreach in encampments. The Hand Up Project manages some rooms for the county, too. Most go to older adults with disabilities.
“People want help and the help is there,” said Robert Smiley, executive director of The Hand Up Project. “They just don’t know what number to call, what the process is and how they’re going to get to their appointment. And usually somewhere in between they’ve lost their phone.”
When Parke and Elijah became homeless, they didn’t have many options. Parke called the 211 social service line, but they said her only immediate option was to search for space at a congregate emergency shelter. Parke didn’t think Elijah would cope well.
In a shelter, they would most likely share their room with another family. Parke worried the stress and constant interaction may cause Elijah to attack another child — or another child to attack Elijah. Parke also worried about Elijah’s tendency to wander, a common trait in children with autism spectrum disorder.
About six weeks ago, though, Parke started calling. The instability of homelessness was taking a toll on Elijah. He was regressing, and Parke was desperate for help.
Most of the shelters didn’t return Parke’s calls. The ones that did had concerns.
“The response I got is that it’s not safe for Elijah, because of the wandering thing,” Parke said. “They can’t be responsible for every door being shut. They can’t be responsible for a kid coming into his bubble. And I understood that completely, but it’s like even when I went that route — nothing.”
Over the past year, the 211 social service line has received more than 26,000 housing and shelter requests from Snohomish County callers. It was the highest rate of any county in Washington.
Parke first called 211 about a year before she became homeless. The referral specialist said they couldn’t help her, until Parke and Elijah were already homeless or days away from that point.
Parke remembers the specialist telling her the county houses families like Parke’s in motels with emergency vouchers. The specialist explained it’s a temporary solution, until they find the person permanent housing.
Amy Perusse, Kids in Transition coordinator for the Everett Public Schools, said it’s a common experience for the district’s families. Most callers don’t pass the initial 211 screening unless they are “literally homeless” and sleeping in a car or on the street.
The schools use a different definition, though. Students who lack a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” have protections under the federal McKinney-Vento Act. The Everett Public Schools recently opened a Family Resource Center to help those families access programs.
The center’s staff can view cases in Coordinated Entry — a system that tracks homeless people and the services they receive — through a countywide database. People in Coordinated Entry are staying in shelters or “places not meant for human habitation.” Perusse said in March she noticed an increasing number of parents who believed they were on a waiting list, but no longer had an active case in the system.
“Maybe they’ve had a phone number change or the housing navigator tried to contact them three times or more and they haven’t had any luck,” Perusse said. “So they’ve exited them from the Coordinated Entry system.”
Parke’s case is still active, but she recently learned it isn’t in the “priority pool.” Her new housing navigator said the previous one must have made a mistake. Parke isn’t sure what this means for her and Elijah. The priority pool cases are the only ones referred to permanent housing.
“I just wept,” Parke said. “I was sobbing.”
Recently, Snohomish County Human Services has begun spending nearly $5.7 million it received from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. The money is for homelessness prevention and emergency shelters, including motel stays. It was announced as part of the CARES Act in 2020, and it’s meant for communities with high homeless populations.
The county subcontracted with three organizations, which recently began spending the money, wrote Director Mary Jane Brell Vujovic in an email. The organizations must spend it before September 2023.
After the Herald published Parke’s story in February, she received a couple messages through an online fundraiser from parents of children with autism.
Tyler Larsen, an offensive lineman for the Washington Commanders, donated $250. Larsen also has a son with autism. Parke said they talked about her situation through Twitter.
Sarah Pulliam, the director of community and family services for ChildStrive, contacted The Herald about helping Parke and another family in the story. Pulliam recently said ChildStrive can pay for another six days at the motel.
Parke said a few social workers told her to “keep screaming, no matter how anybody makes you feel.” She started telling her story through social media because she doesn’t know what else to do. She hopes other people waiting for permanent housing will tell their stories, too.
“They make you feel like you’re the bad one,” Parke said. “How much worse can it get? It doesn’t get worse than this. I just want more people in this situation to reach out and say this is going on and that they need help. And people who can help, please do.”
Katie Hayes: [email protected]; Twitter: @misskatiehayes.
Katie Hayes is a Report for America corps member and writes about issues that affect the working class for The Daily Herald.