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Advocates stress needs at housing forum

Vashon’s housing needs are clear, but the funding required to meet them either doesn’t exist or is difficult for our small community to access, said Chris Szala, executive director of Vashon HouseHold at last week’s housing forum.

His sentiments were echoed by representatives from a number of different social service organizations, who spoke of their troubles securing funding for affordable housing and related programs at Friday’s housing forum, which was attended by Reps. Sharon Nelson, Eileen Cody and Sen. Joe McDermott, as well as an official with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Susan Tuller, director of Vashon Community Care, said the center struggles to determine how it can meet the multitude of requirements attached to government funding. “Larger places have entire departments for that. … It’s a roadblock that prevents us already from going down certain paths,” she said.

Ken Maaz, executive director of Vashon Youth & Family Services, said that even when the organization secures government grants, the attached regulations make them difficult to administer in a community with small numbers of people with a wide variety issues.

“There needs to be a lot more flexibility. … In our community there’s not a great number of any one thing, but a lot of (different) things,” he said.

Emma Amiad, a leader of Vashon’s Interfaith Council on Homelessness, said she also feels overwhelmed by regulations when trying to attain funding, and her organization has been forced to bend the law to help individuals in need.

“They can’t fit into the system to access the housing that we do have,” she said.

Where funding isn’t possible, Szala said, groups must get creative and better utilize the resources they have. “There isn’t going to be more magically out of nowhere,” he added. “We’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do.”

Mary McBride, director of HUD’s Northwest region, which includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska, commended those at the forum, held at Vashon Community Care, for taking steps to collaborate around shared issues. She also encouraged those who expressed their frustrations, saying HUD is a department with a wealth of resources and connections available to those who are willing to put in the work to access them.

“Oftentimes the challenges seem insurmountable,” she said. “For those who are prepared and positioned, the window is open for you to step through.”

McBride was positive about HUD’s place on Vashon, saying that while many who are unfamiliar with the Island don’t understand why HUD would provide assistance to a seemingly affluent community, she understood the diversity that exists on the Island and believed the department would be willing to work with individuals to meet more of the Island’s specific needs.

“I think there’s a way for HUD to play a role in most communities. … I think that’s the new vision of HUD,” she said.

In addition to learning about specific organizations’ struggles, the approximately 40 Islanders in attendance heard creative ideas that could work to minimize homelessness on Vashon. Nelson, a Democrat from Maury Island, said she especially liked two innovative ideas mentioned at the forum.

Nancy Foster-Moss of the Interfaith Council on Homelessness said many homeless individuals are willing to do work for housing or assistance. However, most need hands-on training before they can properly complete the odd jobs they are so willing to do.

“It would be helpful for them to not only make some money, but it gives them some dignity,” she said.

Sue Gardner, president of Vashon HouseHold’s board of directors, said that if people who could not afford to stay in their homes on the Island were able to rent spare rooms to others who couldn’t afford housing, it could solve two problems at once. However, she realized that even a program such as this wouldn’t be without cost. “How do you fund the organization that program takes?” she asked.

Nelson, as well as the other legislators at the forum, encouraged those in the room to try to integrate new ideas into already existing programs, to continue being creative and to continue seeking funding.

“If you’re running into roadblocks, let us know,” Nelson said.

Szala, who has played a role in bringing Vashon’s social service organizations together, was pleased with how the forum went, saying McBride as well as the lawmakers seemed very positive about working with each organization to fill gaps in funding.

“It seemed that they were hearing things for the first time from each other,” he said. “It seems there are some possibilities they are willing to explore.”

Tuller was also encouraged by the dialogue at the forum, saying it seemed that McBride and the legislators understood the difficulties Vashon faces and are willing to do what they can to help.

“It’s really on us to get organized and be focused on what we want to achieve,” she said.

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