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Originally published Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 4:00 PM

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Shining a compassionate light on 'Invisible Families'

Families are the fastest-growing sector of the Puget Sound region's homeless population. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spurs solutions through a partnership with Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.

PARENTS with kids are the fastest-growing sector of the Puget Sound region's homeless population, underscoring the tremendous value of a Seattle Times multiday exploration on family homelessness.

The number of people suddenly finding themselves without a roof over their heads has steadied in the wake of government and nonprofit efforts creating more shelter space and affordable housing. But homeless families face unique challenges. They're often invisible to social-service agencies because they prefer to double up on a friend's couch than to sleep on the street. Shelters are often already full, space taken by those on the long wait list for public housing and subsidized Section 8 housing.

There are no quick public-policy solutions. King County is in its fifth year of a plan to end homelessness in a decade. The effort so far is mixed, with a steadily growing supply of affordable housing but not enough to meet demand.

Homelessness is a byproduct of poverty. But not every person who is poor will become homeless. Mental illnesses, substance abuse, domestic violence or joblessness often provide the push into homelessness.

The challenge for lawmakers concerned with sustaining a credible safety net, and for homeless advocates looking to get ahead of the problem, is addressing problems that can lead to homelessness.

Efforts by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to encourage the network of agencies that help the homeless — each with its own set of rules — to streamline and cooperate are promising. This one-front-door approach helps families negotiate the labyrinth they often face when they look for shelter, food and other kinds of public assistance. King, Pierce and Snohomish counties have all signed on to the Gates Foundation goals and will share $60 million from the foundation to carry them out.

A private-public partnership is critical. Government alone cannot resolve homelessness. A public willing to step forward and lend a hand also helps. After The Times' series, "Invisible Families," ran last month, employers called or e-mailed the reporters with offers of household furniture, cash and employment.

More can be done in broader ways. Many agencies, churches and organizations assist the homeless and accept cash or material donations, and many use volunteers. Many also are supported through United Way — donors can direct their United Way donation to a specific agency serving the homeless.

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