Most people consider Mercer Island to be an enclave of rich, waterfront-living people. In reality it’s a place with some affluent families, many working families and yes, the occasional homeless.
I spoke to Cindy Goodwin, Director for Mercer Island’s Department of Youth and Family Services about what homelessness looks like on Mercer Island. “Homelessness is a little different here,” she said. “Often someone identified as homeless is couch-surfing. They don’t have a permanent place to stay.”
Mercer Island food bank at Youth and Family Services in Luther Burbank Park.
The homeless person may be a youth, or a homeless family with kids in school. They stay with someone on the Island but it’s not permanent housing. By definition they are homeless because they’ve overtaxed the housing where they’re staying: they are doubling up on bedrooms or staying on couches.
Ten to twelve people self-identify to the city as homeless every year. In the past year five people came in because they were facing foreclosure. Many times the City never sees people in this situation: if they’re really facing tough times, they often sell their home and move someplace where it’s less expensive.
“In the recession we saw people move off the Island a lot more,” said Cindy. If they don’t have deep roots here or don’t have friend they can stay with, it’s harder to serve them here.
There are several kinds of homeless here, according to Cheryl Menrickes, also at Youth and Family Services.
- Most often it’s Mercer Island families or individuals whose housing becomes unstable through divorce, loss of job, or foreclosure. They are staying with friends and looking to figure out how to transition to whatever comes next.
- Some are youth in conflict with parents, who are trying to stay in the school district or near their college. They’re usually couchsurfing. They have little work history or skills and want to work but have trouble getting a job. Following the recession the teen unemployment rate remains very high.
- A small group every year will seek refuge from domestic violence and they’ll usually move in with someone or share a place.
- Some homeless people do come to the Island and stay in a car because it’s relatively safe, or come to St. Monica’s all-night chapel. Transient homeless people are only about 10% of the total.
Typically if someone’s homeless and not from Mercer Island, they don’t stay very long because it’s hard to be here and be homeless. Homelessness on the Island is more commonly people who have deep roots here.
Most have kids
How often do homeless families have kids? At least 75%, of the time, according to Cheryl.
“There is a federal law that says that a homeless child comes to your school, you must enroll them and they can stay for the whole school year.” A lot of times Cheryl is helping the family look for transitional housing. If they do find that housing, the child can stay in school the rest of the year.
But because there is no low income housing on Mercer Island except one building for seniors, the new housing is almost always off-Island. If a family stays for a year then moves to transitional housing, they can apply to stay in the schools thru Mercer Island’s new open enrollment policy. But usually the child eventually will move out of district.
But the vast majority live here and are facing unemployment or other economic shocks. Often those in need won’t talk about the homelessness directly. “Usually how we know someone is homeless is they ask for help with food, or financial assistance. And that went up 100% in the last year,” said Cindy.
“If someone is homeless, my role is to make sure their basic needs are met,” said Cheryl.
“We can get them food stamps or help with job hunting, or finding another place to live. If they need more help, we can hook them up with a shelter so they can get more assistance,” said Cindy. The City offers some financial assistance for rent and can also direct people to other sources that can help with rent. “If someone needs gas money to get to work, we can help with gas money.”
“People who have been here for a while, they often use our food bank. They may have housing they can afford, and are using unemployment to get by. If they have kids, we help with scholarships, school supplies, clothes and covering expenses for teams.” Cindy says the city has had a lot more people requesting help with paying sports fees in the last year.
How to help
The food bank is at the Youth and Family Services office at Luther Burbank Park. It typically gets 500-700 visits per year. “We have a high school youth who has arranges with the farmers market on Sunday to get produce that hasn’t sold. The Presbyterian church puts the food in the fridge over night. Then we send out an email saying we have fresh lettuce and raspberries, and a lot of people come to get them.”
The high school student, Isabel Jamerson, did this for her 8th or 9th grade project. Cheryl nominated her for a hometown hero award.
If you want to help you can donate food cards to the M.I. Food Bank or give money, which goes directly to families.