[Hpn] seattletimes.com: A new home, a new beginning: Eastside group helps homeless

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A new home, a new beginning: Eastside group helps homeless
Full story: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2001971436_mansfield03e.html

By Leslie Fulbright
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Mansfield Armstead awoke with a jolt, looked around startled, and then slowly drank in the newness. 

It was 5:45 a.m. on his first morning in a newly built house, waking up in a brand-new bed, upstairs from a shiny kitchen with a four-burner stove and a modern living room with a contemporary blue couch. 

The 54-year-old single father made himself a cup of coffee and relaxed under a sign on the wall that sums it all up — "Home Sweet Home." 

It's a long way from the life he had before: the damp, cockroach-filled motels, the parking-lot tents and the homeless shelter. He now has space for his bags of belongings, a table where his 10-year-old son can eat, and walls where he can hang photos of his late wife.

Armstead and his son Malcolm are two of the newest residents at Avondale Park, a 50-unit transitional housing facility in Redmond run by the Eastside Housing Association — a consortium of Hopelink, Friends of Youth and Catholic Community Services. It's the first homeless program of its kind on the Eastside: an all-inclusive center that incorporates housing with a full range of the services people need to change their lives.

If the concept is going to work for anyone, it should work for the Armsteads, the project's managers say. 

"We referred him because he was demonstrating good follow-through," said Denise Burns, a housing case manager with Hopelink who worked with Armstead in Kenmore. "He struck me as someone who, with support, could move forward with getting his life on track."

The first week has been filled with possibility — and struggle — but Armstead's optimism hasn't faded. After all, he is living in the kind of place a Microsoft guy might buy. And he can stay up to two years, enough time to get everything together.

Armstead is an orderly man, an Army veteran who demands respect and knows exactly what it will take to get him where he needs to be. His first priority is finding child care so he can get a job. The Armsteads currently are surviving on the $440 they get monthly from the state. Take away $120 for rent, money for clothes and the utility bills, and that doesn't leave much. 

Armstead says he wants to provide his son some sort of structured activity this summer, more than watching TV. He is looking into summer camps sponsored by local parks departments, though many already are full. And he will be looking for work for himself. 

Eventually, Avondale Park will have a child-development center. But the Eastside Housing Association still needs $2.7 million to complete the whole project, including $1.8 million for the child-care program.

Official estimates say there are several hundred homeless people living on the Eastside. There are no firm statistics, but experts say a growing number of turnaways at shelters signals the problem is getting worse. 

But by the end of July, 50 adults and 100 children will be living at Avondale Park.

"It is critical that we get this completed," said Sarah Perry, the project's director. "People are already struggling with what to do with their kids."

Avondale Park stands on four acres at the base of Novelty Hill, with 14 two-story, wood-frame buildings ringed with courtyards and grassy play areas. No alcohol or overnight guests are allowed, and residents must spend 32 hours a week working to improve their lives — through school, work or personal development such as treatment or job training. 

Armstead's transition from homelessness is going to take some work. But he is determined. He remains connected to friends in Shoreline, so he hopes to become self-sufficient within year so he can move back there. 

Monday, Armstead and his son took a nearly two-hour bus ride to pick up a scooter and borrow a basketball. They went to the bank, where Armstead withdrew $9 of the $12 left in his savings account. He bought some chicken to cook for dinner, and then they took the long ride home. 

"It's a little inconvenient, but I will deal, to have an environment like this for my child," Armstead said. "Later, I can get a car."

Though Armstead enjoys writing and has worked as a juvenile counselor, he is trying to get a job as a cook. He says he is willing to do anything.

"I would clean toilets for a decent wage," he says. "I just want a job."

For now, father and son are budgeting. Thursday, when he got his welfare check, Armstead bought laundry soap, pancake mix, bacon and cereal, among other things. He had his money order for rent ready by 9:30 a.m., and his laundry in the coin-operated machine by 10.

Poverty is no stranger to Armstead. He grew up in the projects of Brooklyn, N.Y., and lived there most of his life. Malcolm is his fifth child. The others are grown.

His wife, Ren'ee, who struggled with addiction, died of a heart attack when Malcolm was a toddler. Armstead decided to get his son away from drug dealing and violence. He saw what the projects did to people. 

"Malcolm forced me out of a difficult situation," he said. "I had to get my child out of the ghetto." 

Armstead's brother in Anchorage paid for them to come there. They stayed for five years before going to New York for the funeral of Armstead's mother. They then stayed with family in the South for a time. 

Eventually, Armstead was accepted into the Interfaith Hospitality Network in Tennessee. The national program uses established community resources to help the homeless. Armstead looked at a map of all the facilities and chose Washington state, figuring it was on the way to Alaska.

It took three days to get to Seattle on a bus in the summer of 2002. They stayed in low-rent motels until they found a one-bedroom apartment in Shoreline and Armstead got a job.

 He worked as a cook, but he quit after an argument with a co-worker. He says he was going through a rough time then. Weeks earlier, four of his relatives were stabbed to death in their apartment back in Queens, N.Y. 

He got a job in maintenance, but was injured on the job four months later. Six months after that, he was evicted. He and his son were homeless.

Armstead called a crisis line and got in touch with Hopelink. The agency put him up in a Kenmore motel and then a shelter, where the father and son lived for three months before getting accepted into Avondale Park. 

"It took tons of paperwork, but I got no complaints," Armstead said. "The opportunity is here, and Malcolm is happy. That's the main thing."

The Armsteads moved to Avondale Park on June 25 and had the place decorated the next day. Though Armstead liked his son's school in Shoreline, Malcolm will relocate to a Redmond school so he doesn't have to ride the bus far.

"Hopefully he will have made friends by the time it starts," Armstead said.

Malcolm says he likes the Seattle area. "New York has graffiti and is a bad gang place," says the 10-year-old. "It's kind of like that one (Seattle) street, near the Pike Place Market."

Armstead, who seems to find lessons in everything, laughs with his son. The visit to Pike Place turned into a reminder of street life and drugs. He sees violent video games as another reminder of what not to do.

"You can't shelter a kid from everything," Armstead said.

The father and son often cook together, especially on Sundays, when the buses don't run. "Cooking has always been a part of my life," Armstead said. "If I have a problem, I prepare a meal and work it out."

He dreams of one day opening a little soul-food restaurant, maybe in Redmond, because he figures the city could use a little soul. Until then, he looks forward to getting the most out of Avondale Park.

"This place is a godsend, if you want to do something for yourself and your family," he says. "You just can't come here and blow it."

Leslie Fulbright: 206-515-5637 or lfulbright@seattletimes.com


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