Mobile Housing Team pushes to house homeless families

July 30, 2015

Ellon Manly of Self Enhancement, Inc. (right) hugs a mother of four who has been living in her car, without a stable place to stay.

Ellon Manly pulls into the parking lot of a grocery store in Southeast Portland for an appointment. A woman in her mid-20s hops off a bike to meet her. The woman, who has dropped her three children at school, is experiencing homelessness and escaping from a domestic violence situation. It’s 8 a.m. and she’s hungry.

Manly greets her and asks the woman if she wants to eat. The woman avoids the question, but Manly pushes her gently. “Well, I’m hungry, and I’d like you to come eat with me,” she says.

Manly is a mobile housing coordinator for Self Enhancement, Inc. She’s one of six agency workers that belong to the Multnomah County Department of County Human Services-headed Mobile Housing Team. The Mobile Housing Team has been in operation for one year. Yet in that short span of time, it’s already housed 328 families. The program brings together people from different social service agencies to work with families on a variety of housing-related issues, ranging from finding a place to live and getting furniture to working with a landlord and avoiding eviction.

When it comes to community resources, Manly knows plenty. She rattles off a list of services to the woman at the grocery store: an organization that can offer her behavioral health counseling, a co-worker who can help her build a résumé and find a job, and a referral for a safe place to stay. She even offers to go with her.

“Every family is unique,” Manly says. “There’s often success in the end. I just need to do whatever it takes to get them there.”

The Mobile Housing Team is fully equipped to help solve any situation families might be having.

Most of the families that found housing -- 91 percent -- were still housed after six months. Each team member handles about 50 families on their caseload. The idea? To make sure the building blocks are in place so families can avoid falling backward.

Rose Bak is a senior program specialist for the Department of County Human Services’ Community Services Division. She’s been working in social services for more than 20 years and was part of a group that helped develop the mobile team. “People who are experiencing homelessness are traumatized and they are in crisis,” she says. “It’s a high level of uncertainty.”

Day-to-day stress makes it difficult for families to access services, she says. Having to get to a certain place at a certain time to get help can be difficult. Add children to the mix, along with finding a meal, and the process can be next to impossible.

These efforts tie into a larger, community-wide effort to house individuals and families experiencing homelessness.  It’s called  “A Home for Everyone” and the objective is to make smart investments in the areas of housing, income, survival, emergency services, health, and systems coordination in order to support some of the area’s most vulnerable citizens. Multnomah County is a key player.

This approach to housing families in Multnomah County is fairly new. A few years ago, the process of getting housing assistance was much less accessible. Back then, many families had trouble navigating the system. They couldn’t figure it out alone, and the county's resources at the time weren’t enough to accommodate the large need.

Carl Knudson, a mobile housing worker from Portland Homeless Family Solutions at a meeting with a client seeking permanent, stable housing.

After a successful pilot and securing funds from the county last year, the Mobile Housing Team was ready to officially launch. Members from JOIN, Human Solutions, Portland Homeless Family Solutions and culturally-specific agencies Self Enhancement, Inc., Catholic Charities and NAYA (Native American Youth and Family Center) joined together to create the team.

Today, the program is in full swing. Workers spend most of their time out in the community, meeting with families where they are rather than forcing them to go out of their way. When workers meet with folks, they determine their needs and guide them through the steps to access help.

The team works with landlords to come up with payment plans and to ensure a stable living situation. They go with families to see apartments, help them collect furniture and built strong, trusting relationships with them.

Bill Boyd is a family services manager for JOIN and is the team lead of the Mobile Housing Unit. He says the team’s work is uniquely personal.

“This program is based on relationships,” Boyd says. “Each worker’s goal is to build an authentic connection with a family. That is a very critical component of doing this work.”

For Manly, the relationship between her and the family is collaborative. She tries to break down the authority barrier with the families to create a stronger relationship. “When I work with families, I always tell them, ‘I’m one step away from being where you are,’” Manly says. “If I lose my job or my house, I could end up homeless, too.’”

That approach, according to Manly, helps clients feel less isolated. It also helps them trust their housing coordinator. Trust is crucial to finding success, Manly says.

The team has been successful so far. But they’ve also faced their fair share of challenges. Chiefly among them is a brutal housing market.

Rent is expensive and apartments are hard to come by. Many people don’t want to rent to families who have been homeless or  evicted in the past. To combat that challenge, Manly and the team work with landlords one-on-one and act as a resource to them in the process of working with the families.

“Without the help of the landlords, our program is nothing,” Boyd says.

Going forward, Manly wants to see the program grow in order to house more families. “There’s always homeless families to help,” she says. “This is a very stressful time for clients, and we want to do anything we can to get them the support they need.”

If your family or a family you know needs help from the Mobile Housing Team, call 211 for assistance.