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But First, a Home: An Interview with Kelli Larsen, Chief Program Officer of Plymouth Housing

This quarter (Q3, 2019), YP Impact is partnering with Plymouth Housing, a King County-based nonprofit that works to address and eliminate homelessness by developing and operating permanent housing for the county’s neediest and providing them with opportunities to stabilize and improve their lives. I spoke with Kelli Larsen, Plymouth Housing’s Chief Program Officer, who has been with the organization since 2013. She previously worked as a program manager in the King County Housing and Community Development Program, with a focus on funding coordination, policy and planning, and oversight of dozens of countywide permanent housing contracts.

Clarissa Marzán: You worked for the county’s housing and community development program prior to joining Plymouth Housing. What drew you back into the non-profit world and to this organization?

Kelli Larsen: I was lucky enough to get the chance to work in government. I had a great six years there and I learned a lot about the work going on across the county, including work done by Plymouth and other agencies. I came to understand that Plymouth is one of the most competent and exciting organizations doing this work in our community. I really liked Plymouth’s focused mission, and I said to myself that if I ever left government, I’d like to end up at Plymouth. The reason that I started to be more interested in moving back to nonprofit work is that the work is closer to its beneficiaries. Government is a critical partner, and it’s extremely important, but it’s one step away from the people who are actually receiving the services. It’s really nice to be a lot closer to the folks we are providing housing to. It just gives you a different depth of experience

L to R: Myrtle (Resident) with Michelle Wise-Bailey (staff) and Kelli Larsen (staff) (Photo Credit: Plymouth Housing)
L to R: Myrtle (Resident) with Michelle Wise-Bailey (staff) and Kelli Larsen (staff) (Photo Credit: Plymouth Housing)

CM: What is the mission and vision of Plymouth Housing?

KL: We’ve stayed focused on serving single adults who are experiencing long-term homelessness in Seattle. King County residents need to work more than 80 hours a week at minimum wage to afford a one-bedroom rental home at fair market rent, and we need about 244,000 affordable homes by 2040. People cannot hold on forever when they’ve got rent burdens. It doesn’t take much for a lot of normal, working folks—anyone who’s just trying to get by—to not be able to afford their rent. The highest need per capita in the county is single adults who are extremely low-income and lack resources more than any other population.

We have two sides to our work. We build the housing that we operate in and then we operate it long-term. I’m very proud of the work we do to develop housing and keep it in public hands so that it’s permanently affordable, and so we can start to chip away at the huge gap in our community. And we only provide permanent supportive housing to single adults. We don’t do shelters or transitional housing or any other type of homeless service, and we don’t serve other populations. I think it’s benefited Plymouth to stay in this particular lane and become experts at serving this population and utilizing all these fund sources.

CM: Tell me more about the “Housing First” philosophy. Why is this priority #1?

KL: Without the basic need of shelter met, it’s really hard to work on some of these other aspects of your life. Over 11,000 people are experiencing literal homelessness, and up to 30,000 individuals are entering the homeless system over the course of a year. The numbers are pretty staggering. But we learned this “Housing First” philosophy over time. We had based our program on a long history of other programs that all sorts of rules that people have to meet. And as a result of that, there was a lot of failure. People would not comply with rules and end up back on the street. What very smart people before me thought, “Well, maybe we need to rethink the rules.” Rather than asking how do these people change, it’s more how we can change our system to better serve folks because clearly it was not working. One of the hardest compliance-based requirements that comes to mind is that for some people to move into certain programs, there was a requirement for people to check in every month and confirm they’re still looking for a chance at housing. People who are having medical or behavioral health crises are probably not going to be able to keep up with a monthly check-in, so they are going to fall off the list. What you end up doing is losing your most vulnerable.

Housing First is about meeting people wherever they are; we want to have as little barrier as possible for people to move in as quickly as possible and retain their housing. Our tenants have a lease agreement just like any tenant in the market, so they have the rights and the responsibilities of a leaseholder, but you can still hold folks accountable to a lease while maintaining flexibility. For somebody in a program that’s not housing-first, if they’re having a bad day and lash out at neighbor, they’d be kicked out or moved out of housing. We ask our staff and our other tenants to give folks multiple chances in tough times like that. We expect that’s part of the transition for folks moving from long-term homelessness to permanent housing. There are going to be some bumps in the road, but we’ll ride through those bumps with you as much as we can.

Infographic provided by Plymouth Housing
Infographic provided by Plymouth Housing

CM: What are some of the biggest housing and homelessness misconceptions that Plymouth Housing is working to correct?

KL: I’ve heard the term before that people are “service-resistant,” and I think it’s really important to shift that frame from the person back on the system. It’s our job to be innovative, creative, and engaging and find a way to offer something meaningful to that person who’s highly vulnerable and suffering outside. Our most skilled outreach workers who have been doing this forever would tell you that they’ve never met somebody they couldn’t move into an apartment. When we have a true offer of permanent housing for folks, it’s pretty rare to find someone who will say no to that. Oftentimes they will say no to a less than desirable shelter, a mat on the floor, or a service that doesn’t come with housing. A lot of folks will meet different service workers throughout the community, and you’d probably get tired if they’re offering you a toothbrush and socks and you’re freezing, and really struggling outside. What you really want is a roof.

A question we often get is “What is more important, treatment or housing?” And every single day I would answer “housing” without a doubt. But I also acknowledge that even though housing is paramount, we do rely on an extensive network of services, all of that needs to come together for the folks we serve who have been suffering for a long period outside and have a lot of complicated issues.

CM: What do you think drives Plymouth’s strong success rate? Can you share some success stories?

KL: Every day there are many amazing stories happening at Plymouth, even small successes, like the first time someone says “Hi” to their case manager; that can be a huge leap for somebody to have that trust and be able to open up in that way. We’ve also seen amazing successes for some folks who have been able to move from situations where they were some of the most costly patients in Acute Care to moving through Plymouth Housing and out onto better housing, having their own job and a more independent life, reconnecting with their family. There’s been a lot of great stories of people who’ve managed to reconnect with family after long periods of being disconnected. Once they gain some stability and recover from all the trauma that they’ve been through, they can regain the courage to reach back out to the family. We also have two tenants who serve on our board of directors, and I would consider them pretty amazing success stories from what they’ve experienced in their lives to now representing all tenants in our governing structure.

Infographic provided by Plymouth Housing
Infographic provided by Plymouth Housing

CM: Does Plymouth Housing have a sort of “alumni network” to tap for mentorship and networking?

KL: We don’t do that in a formal way, a lot of that happens naturally in the building communities, where people who have been housed for a long time become the leaders in their buildings and take care of others: help out by picking up extra food at a food bank, cooking a big meal to share with all their neighbors, going to Goodwill to pick up extra clothes. We also have people who work at Plymouth who have experienced homelessness themselves; they can often serve as that peer connection and say to people, “I’ve walked in your shoes…I know how hard it is but I know you can do this and I’m here for you.”  And that can be very beneficial to people. We aim for our staff to reflect the people that we serve, that’s definitely one of our goals and we do achieve that right now, which is great.

CM: Plymouth Housing announced a $75M PROOF Campaign back in June. What is the aim of that project?

KL: The hope is that PROOF will enable us to build eight more buildings, to help the most vulnerable people struggling with chronic homelessness. We don’t have all the sites identified at this point; the next four sites identified are Rainier, Queen Anne, Capitol Hill/First Hill, Central District. One is in construction right now, and we’re exploring other locations at this point. We’ve done very creative and proactive work to get out in communities and identify leaders in those communities and educate them about what we do. We bring them around to our buildings, conduct tours, talk to them about what we can do for them. We try to enter neighborhoods as gracefully and strategically as we can, we want to be good neighbors to these communities as well. Our most recent building, Plymouth on First Hill, the First Hill Improvement Association was so welcoming, and it was just incredible. The local church does a lot of the first furnishings for the folks who move in, people were so excited to have this project in their neighborhood, and it was overall a great example of how community engagement can work well.

Breakfast for Plymouth Residents (Photo Credit: Plymouth Housing)
Breakfast for Plymouth Residents (Photo Credit: Plymouth Housing)

CM: What are your goals for Plymouth Housing in the coming year?

KL: PROOF campaign is huge and ongoing. For Plymouth internally, we’re also working on how to prepare for all of that growth. Always ongoing is advocacy, to try to address this huge housing shortage; that’s always on our mind: advocacy at the county, state, and, of course, federal level to try to bring more resources to bear for this issue. One number that I’ve heard quoted is that in today’s dollars, three decades ago we were spending triple the amount federally on housing that we are now. There’s just been a massive disinvestment at the federal level that has contributed to some of this crisis that we’re in right now, so we need to shore up our efforts to bring in more resources. This [crisis] didn’t used to be a thing. It used to not exist, and there are ways to fix it.

CM: How can members of YP Impact contribute to the mission and vision of Plymouth Housing?

KL: In addition to our volunteer opportunities and donating to support our operations and campaigns, we always talk about civic advocacy. We have enough resources to end homelessness in this community, they’re just not in the right place. We need to do a lot of work in this community to build support and in order to get there, people need to show empathy for others suffering outside rather than hate and fear. I ask people to spread the message of empathy and compassion as much as they can in their personal lives and conversations to help others realize that these people are our brothers and sisters. We should be a community that can bring all its resources to help people in situations as bad as these. So it’s building a case, person by person, with small stories to make big changes to how communities are allocating resources. Let’s start tackling this issue because we can do it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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