We’ve all heard “a man’s house is his castle.” Lesser known is the end of that quote, which reads, “and each man’s home is his safest refuge.” It would seem then, that a safe and secure place to live lies at the heart of a stable, happy society. Certainly, that is one of the premises that drove the Vancouver Housing Authority in 2003 to found Bridgeview Housing, a local nonprofit serving low-income families in Clark County.
But according to Jan Wichert, Bridgeview Housing executive director, “stable housing is important to families, but isn’t enough by itself to get them to really prosper – they also need employment, education, job skills, parenting support, good health – and hope.”
Therefore, a few years ago Bridgeview Housing’s mission was expanded to connect low-income county residents with 90+ agencies and businesses that can provide what they need to work their way out of poverty and become self-reliant. In 2014, this mission coalesced into a determination to build an Education and Employment Resource Center.
$2.2 million of the requisite $3.9 million has already been raised for the Resource Center project, and Wichert said the organization has “applied for a couple of hefty grants” and has established a steering committee. She hopes to see construction begin in spring 2017; the site is shovel ready and the adjacent Boys and Girls Club is up and running. The 8,500-square-foot facility will be located in the VHA’s Skyline Campus of Learners community.
Approximately ten percent of Clark County’s population lives in poverty (defined as a family of four with an income of less than $24,000/year). And from 2010 to 2013, the number of families living in poverty grew three times faster than the county’s general population. Over half the students at Vancouver Public Schools receive free or reduced lunch; at Evergreen Schools, it’s 46 percent.
“This level of poverty puts a strain on our businesses, service providers and the overall well-being of our community,” said Wichert.
The VHA and Bridgeview Housing are working together to help meet both short-term and long-term hurdles for local low-income families. First, said Wichert, the VHA plans to construct 25 new low-income housing units in 2017.
“There is an immediate problem of affordable housing in Vancouver,” said Wichert. “There are not enough places for people to live and rents are increasing faster than the national average.”
The Resource Center is an effort to go beyond the immediate housing shortage.
“If we really want to do something about poverty, we need to do more than just housing. Until we do that, it’s not realistic to think the problem is going to change,” Wichert stated.
“There are a lot of terrific agencies available that are passionate and dedicated,” she added. “The challenge is the physical structure of the service model – it currently limits our ability to reach those who need the services. We have to work together.”
With services scattered around the county, Wichert explained, people who work irregular hours without reliable transportation or childcare have difficulty navigating the system. The current system, she said, essentially says, “you figure out if what you need exists, and figure out how to get it.’ We shouldn’t make it that hard.”
The vision for the Resource Center, Wichert said, is to provide “one place” where people who need assistance can go and find all the tools and resources they need. Anyone who enters the center will leave with concrete advice about available services – and most importantly, the name of an actual person to talk to – and most will be encouraged to return for an activity, such as training or counseling.
The center will house classrooms, meeting spaces, a computer lab, teaching kitchen, office space and more. Worksource will operate from the location full-time, while other service providers will bring employment readiness classes, job referrals, college classes, health and wellness classes, parenting classes, support groups, job fairs, health fairs, book clubs, financial counseling, etc.
The increased collaboration, Wichert explained, will enhance service providers’ ability to connect with those who need their services, and will “remove the intimidation” associated with seeking those services.
Wichert encourages the business community to get involved with the resource center, because the business community will benefit from better trained, healthier, happier and more stable employees.
“We’d love to give businesses a tour of the site – it’s smack-dab in a low-income neighborhood that is getting a $25 million renovation. This is really exciting,” enthused Wichert. “You will be able to see very clearly that this is going to have a big impact.”
She stressed that although the VHA has pledged $1 million, and the project is officially under the auspices of Bridgeview Housing, the resource center is really a community effort that has “tremendous support” from the Washington Legislature, partner agencies and the families Bridgeview serves.
“As incomes improve and housing stabilizes, that’s when kids graduate and break the cycle,” Wichert said. “This is good for local businesses and good for Clark County as a whole.”
Businesses can help empower Bridgeview Housing’s vision, said Wichert, through financially supporting the resource center’s fundraising campaign. Beyond that, she said, businesses can do even more by giving people who are looking for a new start a chance, through internships, a first job and volunteer opportunities. She said she was more than willing to help connect businesses “with the right people for that” and encouraged business owners to contact her.
The bottom line, said Wichert, is that enabling stable housing and self-reliance creates strong families, and “strong families make a strong community.”
Established 2003 www.bridgeviewhousing.org