One of the most frustrating and possibly frightening phrases in the world of social service is “Wait List,” partly because the process of getting onto a wait list and then how to get served is confusing or misunderstood. There are many wait lists out there for just about any service, but the common factor is that the person on the wait list is in desperate need for something that is vital for that person’s safety and/or security.
If you are desperate for something, it is extremely hard—if not impossible–to be patient, and a wait list by definition means you have to…wait.
Stable housing is the bedrock for providing an individual or family security. I think all of us can agree that there are far too many people who need help in getting housing, especially as we see tents lining boulevards and parks in our community. It’s heartbreaking for ShelterCare staff who come to work every day, committed to helping people find and then KEEP safe housing to know that for every person served, another five names are added to the wait list.
ShelterCare is part of a group of agencies that work together with Lane County, drawing referrals from a coordinated wait list of individuals and families that have been identified as in need of permanent supportive housing. This list is not ranked by first come, first served, but rather by vulnerability and risk which is why individuals must go through an assessment every six months. While no system is perfect, it is a method we use to try to work together to avoid duplicating our services. Each agency has its strengths: for example, St. Vincent de Paul excels at serving our veteran population, and 15th Night does amazing work for homeless youth.
ShelterCare focuses on permanent supported housing for our most vulnerable populations who have mental health and medical health challenges. These consumers have very specific needs in finding housing that our housing specialists and case workers address in partnership with their clients.
In a perfect world, when we receive a referral, that person can immediately be matched with an available housing unit that fits their needs and budget. We do not have a perfect world. Available, affordable apartment units are scarce—and yes, most of our housing programs do require our consumers to pay at least a portion of the rent based upon their income—housing isn’t “free.” Additionally, our clients may have physical needs that require accommodation such as a person with a walker would need a first-floor unit.
It can take weeks if not months for an appropriate apartment unit to become available, and then our consumer must go through the landlord’s competitive application process and ensure that all documents are in order. Meanwhile, the wait list grows and people become disheartened, frustrated and even more afraid.
So what can we do? What’s the solution?
We all agree that it’s going to require our whole community to be part of it: nonprofits, governments, business leaders, landlords, neighbors, community members AND our unhoused community. Some of it has already started as we sit down together and talk about misconceptions, barriers and challenges. I’m impressed by how many groups are communicating and searching for ways to work together!
Additional affordable housing, not just for those facing poverty but for families finding themselves outpriced in an expensive housing market and seniors who are the fastest growing population of unhoused, is vital. Community education around how businesses and churches can be part of the solution and match up with agencies who need their support is crucial. And that’s just a portion of what needs to be in place.
Let’s be clear: this isn’t going to be easy—in fact, it’s going to be extremely difficult. This issue is not going to be “fixed” overnight or even in several months, but every journey starts with a first, brave step.