Friday, July 21, 2017 This Week's Paper

Changes for former Phoenix Housing Network

The former Phoenix Housing Network is settling into a new location, a refined mission and a new name: Catholic Community Services Family Housing Network. Staff, led by director Alan Brown, have moved into the building Family Housing Network (FHN) bought and refurbished at 5050 South Tacoma Way, in the heart of the diverse historic business district.

Outside, the three-story brick building has fresh red and green paint. Inside, it is developing new connections to get homeless families and veterans resettled and hooked up with the services they need to stabilize their lives.

The program was founded on the Stone Soup model in the 1980s. Then, as now, Pierce County's shelters for homeless families fell short of the need.

People of faith and purpose looked at what they had – their own churches and schools and people who can cook for a crowd – and came up with a way to turn them into emergency housing: They hosted the families in their community rooms and classrooms. Once a week, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints hauled the program's cots to a new host site. Members of that community prepared and served dinner and breakfast for the guest families and stayed overnight to chaperone them.

In the daytime, kids went to school. Parents who had jobs went to work, and those who did not took part in training that covered parenting, work readiness and financial literacy at a day center.

Then, when members of one host church objected to hosting a family with same-sex parents, the original program crashed, burned and was reborn as Phoenix Housing Network. Coordinated through Catholic Community Services, it found a home on the St. Ann Catholic Church campus, which includes a building that was once an elementary school. It was a great fit, and St. Ann's asked only a modest rent.

Trouble was, St. Ann has been growing its own programs for its diverse congregation so well that it needed the space. It asked Phoenix to relocate.

The site at South Tacoma Way was next to perfect. It's on a bus line. There's a library nearby, and a park, a grocery store – even one of the 27 host sites, Visitation Catholic Church.

“We took out a mortgage to pay for the $500,000 building,” Brown said. “Remodeling cost about that much as well.”

The City of Tacoma put $300,000 toward that, paying for roof repairs and the elevator that makes the building accessible to all.

“A family made a significant donation to Catholic Community Services for this as well,” Brown said.

The building has a roomy open space on the ground floor for the families' day room, and nearby offices for case managers. Those case managers connect families to the resources throughout the county that they need to become independent. In the meantime, families have that comfortable day room to get their bearings.

“There's frosting on the windows to allow light in, but privacy for our families as well,” Brown noted.

There are toys for children, games for all, and, just around the corner, two bathrooms, one with a shower and one with a bath.

“The tub is especially nice for kids,” Brown said.

The laundry room is just up the hall.

Most offices are upstairs, as is FHN's business-attire clothing bank.

“The hardest thing we had to accommodate was Suited for Success, which had two huge classrooms,” he said.

Now it's more to boutique scale.

With less space, director Mary Butschky said she must be more selective.

“We have to be careful about the donations we take in,” she said. “We take business-appropriate clothes. That's the only kind of donation we can accept, unless we put out a specific ask.”

She appreciates donors' generosity, but Suited for Success cannot use jeans, sweatshirts, sneakers, swimsuits or ball gowns.

If you would not wear something to a job interview, best to take it to one of the organizations that can use it, Butschky said. “Call me at (253) 471-5340 if you have any questions.”

Come October, FHN will be adding emphasis to finding jobs for veterans, working with the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs. Over the next three years, FHN and Metropolitan Development Council will split $3 million to do the work. There's office space for new staff, and outreach and benefits expert Jean Perkins.

“We put her right off the elevator because she frequently meets with disabled veterans,” Brown said.

“Pierce County was identified as an area of priority to serve vets.” Brown said. “With the draw-down, they anticipate a lot of vets will be coming to Pierce County. A certain percentage of veterans struggle with housing and become homeless.”

As Phoenix Housing Network stepped up its work with other veterans' programs, and as area codes become less meaningful, it became clear that its name was a problem.

'”We were getting an increasing number of calls from Arizona,” Brown said.

Getting Phoenix out of the name, attaching the program to Catholic Community Services and clarifying the mission to serve families made sense.

There's still a need for the original model, and at any time about five families are spending the night in classrooms and church halls on their way to getting into housing. That can take 90 days.

“We aim to shorten that to 30 days,” Brown said. “We feel we can accomplish that through rapid rehousing. Getting families into permanent housing with only the services they need for only the time they need them, we can help more people.”

In a perfect world, there would be enough of that housing. Until that happens, there's still a need here for that old Stone Soup model, and the hundreds of people every year who make it work.

“That's the smallest part of what we do,” Brown said. “But it's a big part of our identity in the community.”