RISE Lewis County Seeks Mentors to Lift Locals Out of Poverty

Meeting: Pilot Focuses on ‘ALICE’ Sliver of Impoverished Population


RISE Lewis County has a vision to get locals into stable housing. The anti-poverty organization wants middle-class residents to volunteer as mentors for those living on the poverty line, with the hope being they can inspire and help teach a list of life skills.

It’s a departure from the peer model touted by some housing groups, including Gather Church, which works to get high-risk residents shelter and runs a substance use disorder clinic. The idea is that people with lived experience are integral to helping folks navigate into stability.

“Peer to peer is fine,” RISE’s Al Soderquist told a small audience Thursday. “But it’s not showing people how to make that big jump.”

On a whiteboard, Soderquist illustrated the jump from homelessness to subsidized or permanent supportive housing as a gully.

The jump to stable housing or home ownership, he said, is more like a “grand canyon.”

The focus of the program, then, will be on what’s known as the ALICE population — asset limited, income constrained, and employed. That includes people working multiple jobs, Soderquist noted, living paycheck-to-paycheck, where a single unexpected bill could push them over the edge.

In some ways, Soderquist said, the population is “low hanging fruit.”

Individuals still struggling in active addiction, or grappling with major mental health issues? The program isn’t designed for them, Soderquist told The Chronicle.

According to Gather Church’s Pastor Cole Meckle, there’s definitely a need to serve that population.

Gather Church’s work to get individuals housed — a daunting task given the hundreds of locals in need and the handful of housing options available, noted Associate Pastor Patty Howard — mainly focuses on less stable people, including those living unsheltered or in active addiction.

Once those clients are secured with some sort of shetler, “it’s difficult to continue, because there are so many people that are struggling more,” Meckle said.

Those folks propelled to a more stable situation, or closer to the poverty line, could be referred to the new RISE program, Meckle suggested.

Even still, Meckle said he has concerns with bringing in mentors who may have no lived experience, and whose advice therefore “may not be very meaningful, or even accurate.”

“Which is part of the wisdom of what a peer counselor can do, right? So some balance in between,” he said.

Mentors will be trained to span what Soderquist described as a communication barrier between mentors and mentees living vastly different lives.

For Centralia’s state Rep. Peter Abbarno, RISE’s idea is a refreshing focus on the ALICE population — a sliver of homelessness not talked about enough, in his opinion.

“We don’t hear enough about addressing homelessness in the sense of it’s not just taking folks who are struggling with mental illness or addiction,” he said. “It’s keeping people housed. People who have made it also need support and mentorship.”

Abbarno also argued that the road out of poverty should end in the goal of home ownership.

“If we’re not going down the road of home ownership, if we’re not going down the road of trying to get folks to be self-sufficient, then it’s not transitional housing,” he said.

But that mindset may make participants disconnect, Meckle contended, especially for folks living paycheck to paycheck where a realistic goal may be moving out of their car, not buying a house.

“One of my biggest concerns with this kind of thing is the disconnect, and the struggle people have faced in life. Peter, as much as I love home ownership — I’m a homeowner, I think that’s a great way to go — for some in our community, that’s probably not a reality,” Meckle said.

“An apartment is a good goal,” added Max Vogt, owner of Windermere Real Estate and recently-appointed mayor of Centralia.

There was consensus that investing in infrastructure to increase housing supply in Lewis County — one of Abbarno’s priorities in the legislature — is vital to addressing homelessness locally.

Leaning on grant funding from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, RISE is still looking for mentors who can donate a few hours of their time each week. Interested community members should email info@RISELewisCounty.org.