Changing Face of Homelessness

The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance is gearing up for its annual conference to be held in Yakima from May 16th – 18th.  This year’s theme, “The Changing Face of Homelessness,” started me thinking about some of the changes that folks working on the frontline have been seeing.  I have had the opportunity to work at the Legal Action Center, a non-profit that provides free legal aid to low-income tenants, and over the last 3+ years that I was there it was amazing the differences that we started to see.

Perhaps one of the most noticeable changes during my time there was the shift in the population that came in seeking help.  Three years ago when I started, a majority of the clients we saw were those who were chronically homeless and individuals who were struggling in many areas of their lives.  But about a year into my time at LAC, around 2009, there was a change in the variety of clients that started to come through the doors.  We were seeing architects, social workers, and other individuals whose unemployment has run out.  Working with these clients can be a completely different experience.  For individuals who are facing the prospect of homelessness for the first time, I frequently encountered reluctance to access services and assistance.  This required a different set of skills.

Another change that I observed first hand while working at the Legal Action Center was an increased reluctance by landlords to refund deposits or negotiate about outstanding debts.  In the past many landlords were not interested in pursuing potential damages, but with many of them also facing hard times, it seemed as if landlords were less willing to let items go.

So what does this mean for advocates?  One of the biggest takeaways is to not make assumptions about who your client is and what knowledge they may or may not be bringing to the table.  It will also be important if you are negotiating with landlords to recognize that they may be less willing to negotiate.  When looking at negotiating strategies, it may be effective to offer a lump sum up front (if this is realistic) in the hopes that the chance at money up front will be a motivator for a landlord who is potentially tight on money.  With the economy likely to be rough for awhile longer, be sure to think of how your strategy might change.

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