Home for the Holidays: Successful campaign to help families out of shelter shows power of partnerships

January 18, 2018

Rafaela Ngirngesang, a single mom of five kids, choked up as she described her journey from homelessness back to housing through the Home for the Holidays campaign.
Rafaela Ngirngesang said it was the hardest time in her life. In April 2016, the single mom with five kids learned she was losing her housing, and she struggled for months to find something else.

Some nights, she and her five kids fit into motel rooms. They also had her car. But they landed on the street. She tried going from shelter to shelter, and looked for help from churches.

“But there was nothing there,” Ngirngesang told the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Thursday.

Not until she found Human Solutions, which the county contracts with to provide shelter for families as well as housing placement services. After months in Human Solutions’ family shelter and then in motel rooms offered by the provider, Ngirngesang and her family finally moved into a home of their own on Dec. 5, 2017.

They were among 42 families housed over the past two months as part of the Home for the Holidays campaign -- a push from Nov. 15 to Jan. 15 that asked landlords to step up and help at least 40 families leave shelter for permanent homes.

Ngirngesang shared her story during a hearing that celebrated the campaign’s success, shed light on the work that went into it -- and, crucially, called on that spirit of collaboration to continue all year long.

“She helped me out so much,” Ngirngesang said, looking at the housing advocate from Human Solutions sitting next to her, Fida Awad. “Thank you very much for saving me.”

Record numbers of families seeking shelter

The campaign launched at a time when the number of children and parents seeking shelter in Multnomah County had surged to levels the community had never seen before. On the day the campaign launched, more than 400 people in families were counted in the family shelter system. That number has fallen by nearly 40 percent.

Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, and Andy Miller, director of Human Solutions.
Overall, the campaign helped 146 people, including 79 children, whose average stay in shelter had been roughly five months. One family spent more than a year in shelter waiting to get back into housing, 391 days.

Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, said shelter plays a vital role in keeping children and families safe, by giving them a place out of the elements where they can connect with services.

“But it doesn’t end someone’s homelessness on its own,” he said. “And in many cases, it’s also more expensive than providing the support it takes to help a family stay rooted. We asked our community to think about this work during the holidays. But we also know we need this kind of coordinated response all year long.”

Surge of support from landlords

In all, 27 landlords or property management companies participated in the campaign. Multifamily NW, an organization that represents landlords and property owners, helped spread the word through its networks.

Those landlords worked with advocates from Human Solutions and two other providers, Portland Homeless Family Solutions and Community of Hope, to match vacant units to families in need.

Landlords and property companies that have participated in Home for the Holidays.
In return, those landlords received a promise of support from providers as well as the Joint Office of Homeless Services. That includes rent assistance, move-in and move-out assistance, a damages mitigation fund, and other problem-solving help.

“These owners and management companies deserve our thanks,” said Andy Miller, executive director of Human Solutions. “They chose to be part of a solution to our housing crisis, and came forward in true partnership.”

Jessie Dhillon, vice president at Carla Properties, said she was watching news coverage of the campaign on TV when she decided to see if her company could help. They’d already done work at the family shelter, providing a clothing annex and handing out jackets, among other activities.

By the end of Home for the Holidays, they had helped three families into permanent homes.

“As a company, we try to give back,” she said. “I’m hopeful, as a society, that we can pull together to offer one another compassion and kindness, caring and support. And through partnerships like this, we can help those without homes in the Portland metro area.”

Families with incomes waiting longer for units

Because of the region’s increasingly unaffordable housing market, more families are coming to shelter, and more families are staying there for months despite their best efforts to return to permanent housing. Three years ago, families averaged 23 nights in a Human Solutions shelter.

Jessie Dhillon, center, vice president of Carla Properties.
Last fall, it was nearly three times as long, at 65 days.

Many families seeking shelter are working and have the incomes, or housing subsidies, they need to make successful transitions into homes of their own. It’s just that they can’t find units they can afford or that will take them.

“The most difficult part in my job is housing homeless families,” said Awad, Ngirngesang’s family advocate, a job she describes as part counselor, part housing specialist, part case manager and part employment specialist.

Awad and other advocates work closely with families both to find homes in a scarce market and lift them up over some of the barriers that might be in their way, from a bad credit report to a bad rental history to challenges around income.

“But at the same time, I really appreciate this job,” she said. “When I can get a single mom into her permanent house, the happiness in her eyes makes me keep motivated. And I want to do more and more.”

Chair Deborah Kafoury said neighbors naturally want to help people out of homelessness, but sometimes don’t know how.

Home for the Holidays, she said, shows what can happen when community members are offered that outlet. It meant providers could provide housing, which is “really what our goal is,” instead of stopping at shelter.

“There are lots and lots of landlords who want to help,” she said. “By us shouting out that we need your help, that we need everyone in our community to step up and do their part, we can have these successes, and kids can have a place to sleep at night.”