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Originally published Thursday, March 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Gates Foundation joins others in goal to cut homelessness

A partnership of governments, businesses and nonprofits is pledging today to redouble its efforts to help the growing number of homeless families in Washington state. The pledge includes up to $60 million over 10 years by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A partnership of governments, businesses and nonprofits is pledging today to redouble its efforts to help the growing number of homeless families in Washington state. The pledge includes up to $60 million over 10 years by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Partners in the Washington Families Fund vowed to reduce the number of homeless families by 50 percent over the next decade.

"I feel this is an opportunity right now, as much as I'm a realist about the economy," said Alice Shobe, deputy director of Building Changes, which administers the fund. "It is ambitious, but we have a vision about how to do it. We have the creativity and broad partnership to make it happen."

As the recession throws more people into poverty, "we must do more to help families achieve and maintain stability," said Gov. Chris Gregoire, who signed an agreement with King, Snohomish and Pierce counties and the cities of Seattle, Everett and Tacoma to collaborate with the private partners.

Created by the state Legislature in 2004, the Washington Families Fund has received contributions of more than $20 million — $12 million from the state and $8.3 million from 18 other partners, including the Gates Foundation, Boeing, Microsoft, the Campion Foundation, the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, the Ben B. Cheney Foundation and United Way. It has awarded $13 million in grants so far.

The Washington Families Fund has not yet revealed any new financial commitments other than the Gates Foundation's pledge.

Governments and private groups together spend about $200 million a year to address the problem in Washington state, but as economic conditions worsen, the number of homeless families keeps going up. About half of the state's estimated 22,000 homeless households are families with children.

Winter nights

The family of Jackilin Abiem, 25, was one of them. She arrived in 2001 as an orphan from Sudan after fleeing civil war and walking for three months across the country and eventually to a refugee camp. Once in Washington, she lived with two foster families, graduated from Garfield High School and landed her first job at McDonald's.

Abiem then worked for two years as a cook at a retirement home, but she never earned quite enough money to afford her own apartment. She became homeless after the youth housing where she was staying made her leave when she became pregnant.

She then bounced around, staying with four different friends and her foster mom through the birth of her son, Nassir. She remembers "window shopping" outside on winter nights as she waited for friends to get off work.

"When I was pregnant, I didn't have a place to live, so I was just running around between friends," she said. "It was hard for me to go house to house and to old friends. I keep them worried ... that I may give birth [at] their house."

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Spending some nights with her foster mom in Mount Vernon and other nights with friends in South King County made it tough to be in West Seattle consistently for her job, and she lost that, too.

Abiem is now at Katharine's Place, in a transitional apartment for homeless families in Rainier Valley, but her two-year term ends in December. She is about to give birth to her second son. Katharine's Place had so many people on its two-year waiting list that it closed the list to new applicants in January.

Prevention

That reflects a rise in the number of homeless families in 2008 over 2007, especially in South King County.

"The trend lines have gone in the wrong direction, period," said David Bley, director of the Pacific Northwest Initiative at the Gates Foundation. "We need to go about tackling the problem differently than we have in the past."

For one thing, there's not enough emphasis on preventing homelessness by keeping people in affordable housing. Only 3 percent of the $200 million is used for prevention, he said.

"It feels totally out of whack from what we know works — it's easier to keep people in a home than put them back once they've lost one," Bley said.

Bley said other needed changes include providing permanent housing as soon as possible, rather than "transitional housing," and standardizing the fragmented systems used to determine what families need, so they get access to the same services no matter where they go for help.

"Some people will need a lot of services and some people will need nothing more than a rent subsidy," he said.

The program also will focus on improving the economic prospects of people with low incomes or no income, connecting them with work-force development and job training. And more money will be invested in getting better data on homeless families to understand the problem.

"It is difficult to assess progress if you don't have good numbers," Bley said, "and it is very difficult to serve individual parents and children well if no one is tracking their needs, the support they get and the progress they are making."

"Gains being lost"

The Gates Foundation has previously given $40 million in grants to help homeless families and learn how to better tackle the problem. Grants to help homeless families are part of the foundation's Pacific Northwest giving, which totaled $33 million in 2009.

While that money is only a fraction of the billions the foundation gives away globally, it does make it the largest private human-service grantmaker in the state, said T.J. Bucholz, Gates Foundation senior program officer.

Washington is studying the practices of other communities that have managed to reduce homelessness by 40 to 50 percent. But even the most effective programs are seeing some erosion of progress.

"That's what was really frightening about the current economic climate," Bley said. "We see a lot of those gains being lost in those communities that were very innovative."

However, he added, "there would be a lot more homeless families if we weren't doing this work."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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