Debbie Christian, executive director of the Auburn Food Bank, distributes fruit and other offerings to families during the United Way of King County’s Family Resource Exchange at Green River College last Saturday.

Debbie Christian, executive director of the Auburn Food Bank, distributes fruit and other offerings to families during the United Way of King County’s Family Resource Exchange at Green River College last Saturday.

Responding to a call for help

United Way of King County’s Family Resource Exchange serves hundreds of homeless at Green River College

A family of five with its belongings packed into a car arrives in the parking lot.

A woman in a tattered coat, clutching an apple, maneuvers in line to shop for donated shoes. A man in a weathered, heavy jacket, carrying a bag of new-found necessities, mumbles as he sips a cup of coffee, waiting to seek advice for shelter services.

Just a sample of scenes last Saturday from Green River College’s Mel Lindbloom Student Union Building, a hub of activity and hope for the many of the area’s homeless who came by car, bus and foot to find help.

The United Way Family Resource Exchange on the Auburn campus provided respite and answers to those who are homeless or on the cusp of it. Like three other resource events before it, the stop at the college was an opportunity for United Way of King County to reach farther into other neighborhoods to help the homeless, with an emphasis on families.

The need is great. It is a growing, community crisis. According to King County’s 2018 count, more than 12,000 people are homeless in the county.

United Way expected to help between 500 and 600 people at the Auburn event. With the college’s support, the event was made possible through a partnership with Wellspring Family Services, Mary’s Place and Starbucks, and facilitated by corporate volunteers.

“We work with them to say, ‘These people coming in today are our guests,’ ” said Jared Erlandson, director of communications at United Way of King County. “They feel isolated and invisible … and our role is to help them feel (wanted), be heard and to make a personal connection.”

Lauren McGowan, senior director of ending homelessness and poverty for United Way of King County, estimates that of the 2,000 people the organization saw at the three resource exchanges last year, 130 households found homes. The effort is a result of United Way’s Streets to Home program, which assesses each individual’s situation and provides discretionary dollars to get them back on their feet.

“The program helps move people really quickly from living on the streets, in a car or in a shelter into housing,” McGowan said. “At every one of these events, we’ve been able to talk to people and break the barriers they may have into getting into housing.”

Hundreds of agencies — from food banks to youth and family services, clothing to child care — took stage at the college. The event provided families with critical housing resources, much-needed legal and financial services and access to public benefits. There also were educational, employment, health and other community resources.

Making the connection is important, McGowan said, as families try to find their way in challenging times.

“Most people experiencing homelessness want to work and can work,” she said. “We connect them to employment opportunities and help to break down barriers they might have to getting in the work force.”

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