In Issaquah, the pandemic raised awareness around the city’s homeless population and revealed gaps in data regarding the number of people unhoused, available resources and specific needs.
“As everything shut down, people did not have a place to go,” said Monica Negrila, Issaquah’s Human Services Manager. “I think the community started noticing more unhoused community members.”
The growing awareness of the unhoused population in 2020 was the seed that took root in 2021 with the implementation of the Homeless Outreach Program and the execution of the Homeless Outreach data dashboard.
“The goal of that program initially was to discover and let the community and the city know of what homelessness looked like in Issaquah,” Negrila said.
In the first six months, the program reached 52 people experiencing homelessness. Out of those people, 60% resided in camps or streets, 21% in vehicles and 9.5% in temporary shelters and/or couch surfing, according to the 2022 Human Services Strategic Plan.
The data collected provided greater understanding of the unhoused population and became vital information in the winter months, as the city learned the regional shelters they funded were at capacity.
Negrila said the unhoused population in Issaquah are longtime residents and unwilling to leave, even if other regional shelters were available.
The need for winter housing began a partnership between the city and a local Motel 6, providing emergency weather shelter.
Inspired by the short-term winter program, the motel was met with another proposal in the summer of 2023, entailing a long-term pilot Emergency Housing Program.
According to the proposal, the program assists individuals experiencing homelessness in the city, transitioning them toward becoming housed and self-sufficient members of the community.
The program includes 12 single and double occupancy rooms within the motel and free meals. Guests can stay for weeks or months.
Negrila said it is a stretch for people to conceptualize how to reintegrate into society when their usual concerns are finding the next meal or where to sleep that night.
The program includes an additional room dedicated to the police department.
“Let’s say, the police department responds to calls in the middle of the night, they might encounter a person who’s on the street, and they don’t have a resource,” Negrila said. “They might bring them in for the standby room that we have available. Then in the morning, when staff come in, they can help connect a person to services.”
Unlike many shelters, this program allows guests to have privacy in their rooms and — with the help of the city staff assigned to the program — curate an individualized plan to get back on their feet.
At the beginning of the program, guests are introduced to the rules and presented with a pie chart called the wellness wheel. Negrila said the wheel encourages guests to think about a goal within each slice.
“The idea of the wellness wheel model is that we as human beings, are more than just work, more than just our finances, more than our mental health or our drug use,” she said.
Negrila added the program prioritizes immediate safety and health concerns, then employment and housing, before moving on to other slices of the pie chart.
After establishing the groundwork, every individual is provided with a tailored plan.
Negrila said the process often begins with the basics, such as getting or renewing an ID or activating health insurance to make a doctor’s appointment.
Although the program is currently gathering data on its progress, Negrila highlighted out of the 20 guests participating in the pilot program, a significant number have taken substantial strides.
“Two people have transitioned into permanent housing so far; we had two others who received employment; we had a few others who completed vocational certificates, like for forklift; and we had a person who enrolled in community college,” Negrila said.
The pilot program is scheduled for a two-year duration, yet discussions about its long-term options and planning with the city council could start as soon as the first quarter of 2024.
She emphasized the importance of building trust and providing transparency with the city council and community, which is a reason for the pilot program.
“Starting with a pilot gives us the flexibility to have…lessons learned, have more information on what’s working, what’s not and then we can scale it,” she said. “We felt like it’s such a better approach for the community as well.”
Although the program is still in the pilot stage, Negrila said the support of the community, local nonprofits and businesses and the on-site staff have made the program successful.
“Ultimately, having the staff there, you know, having the consistency and the motivation from staff and the staff having the compassion and believing in every participant makes a huge huge difference,” she said.