EVERETT — In a three-month period this summer, more than 2,000 messages were left on the call line for the Interfaith Family Shelter from those looking for housing.
But with only one spot available most of the messages would go unanswered, leaving families to continue their search as rising rents threaten to evict many from their homes.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Jackie Rasco, a case manager at the Interfaith Association of Northwest Washington. “Last year had been the most people I’ve seen sleeping in cars.”
One Snohomish County family has found a way to expand the shelter’s reach by opening up their home to one family at a time experiencing homelessness. After three years of hosting families, many headed by single moms with children, Christa Johnson is urging others to do the same.
“It’s worked out great — giving a family a stable place to live and not have to live out of a car with a baby,” said Johnson, who has worked at several shelters in the area including Interfaith’s. “It’s another space the shelter can use to house people.”
While working at Interfaith, Johnson saw families who had fallen into a “terrible cycle of poverty.”
“They don’t know how to get out of it,” Johnson said.
Her frustration built as she watched one of the only family shelters in the county constantly being forced to turn people away. The nonprofit lacked the capacity and funds to house all the families looking for help.
Sitting in a cozy living room as sunlight streamed in from a picture window, Johnson recalled thinking about all the unused bedrooms and spaces in the county.
“What if people who have a mother-in-law unit or a daylight basement hosted families?” Johnson said. “But I knew I couldn’t ask others to do that if I haven’t done it myself.”
Enlisting her family, Johnson got to work on her big idea.
When the family purchased their current house, they envisioned a place for a second family. After they moved in, the Johnsons remodeled an existing building on their property into a studio apartment. The Edmonds-based Church of the Beloved helped raise money to build the space. In the tidy, small unit a bunk bed lines one wall and a short hallway leads to a bathroom.
Families are vetted and placed in the home by Interfaith. The group also provides case management services.
Johnson said each family brings their own story — one was sleeping under a church’s stairs, another was living with two teenagers in a truck. For many, living in the apartment, just steps away from the Johnson’s back door, has allowed them to save for their own place. The Johnsons have hosted nine families in the last three years. They have stayed anywhere between two weeks and eight months.
In the beginning, she worried how the family dog would interact with strangers and wondered how to set boundaries to ensure both households had privacy.
After years of shared meals and conversation, Johnson said all the tenants have been considerate.
“I’ve had no problems at all,” she said.
Johnson wants to pass that message along, she says, to challenge the stigma of homelessness.
She has heard others describe people living on the street as addicted to drugs or lazy, which is not what she has seen.
Johnson hopes her story will inspire others to act. Closer to home, she has seen the impact the experience has already made on her own daughters. Anna, a junior in high school who’s beginning to think about her future, told her recently, “Whatever I do, I want to help people.”
Lizz Giordano: 425-374-4165; email@example.com; Twitter: @lizzgior.