Ep. 026 – West Seattle Helpline – Chris Langeler

Ep. 026 – West Seattle Helpline – Chris Langeler




This week’s guest is Chris Langeler, the Executive Director of The West Seattle Helpline, a community-based organization that provides emergency services to local families and individuals to prevent homelessness and other detrimental poverty-related outcomes.  He is also the Vice President of the Board of Directors for the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association, one of the largest affordable housing providers in West Seattle.


Highlights From This Episode:

  • Chris’ road to serving the community where he is now started back with influence from both his parents, with their complimentary perspectives.
    • His mom did lots of compassionate work with young people (small picture focused on individuals)
    • His dad was a bit of an entrepreneur, having founded a tech company in Portland, OR and very systemically &, logically (big picture focused on why things are the way they are).
  • Early on, he developed an interest in homelessness and housing and other racial and social justice aspects of non profit and public policy work.
  • Chris came to Seattle for the graduate program at the University of Washington (Evans School of Public Policy and Governance), focusing on non-profit management and public policy.
  • Worked on political campaigns while at UW, working in Senior Patty Murray’s office as part of undergraduate intern program.
  • The W.S. Helpline is designed to be a little further “up stream” in peoples lives, to help them make a small “diversion” along their path, before life situations thrusts them into poverty or if they need help but don’t qualify for the more conventional low-income or government programs.
    • This additionally is more cost effective and efficient to help an individual or family make a small diversion to get back to a healthy place of self-sufficiency, rather than waiting until they are overwhelmed with catastrophic events or fall into poverty… when the cost, effort and likelihood of getting them back to a good place is much harder and much more taxing on an already strained social ‘safety-net’ system.
  •  Chris was the first full-time staff member when he started nearly 2 years ago.
    • Now they have 3 full-time staff and 1 part time.
      • Program Manager – Teresa
      • Operations Coordinator – Joan
      • Development and Communications Coordinator – Lala
  • They have become a more effective and visible organization by picking the ‘low hanging fruit’ and leveraging resources that are readily available.
    • Created a social media strategy.
    • Tuning up the website so its easy for people to find out more about WS Helpline.
    • Partnering with organizations that have larger “megaphones”.
    • Being present in community events like the West Seattle Summer Fest and Harvest Festivals.
  • What they love most about working for the organization – The relationships built with the volunteers, people they serve, staff and community members.
  • The thing that gets Chris most excited is the potential for what can be done.
  • Their serves and programs are the main way they help the community but giving people the opportunity to volunteer and serve and have an impact in their own community is good for them too.
  • The future of the WS Helpline:
    • In next couple years, grow out the core of the programs, focus on outreach to gain greatest visibility to everyone in West Seattle, so everyone who may need their services, know about them.
    • Maintain 100% ability to help all eligible people who ask for assistance.
    • Increase funding, bus ticket numbers and expand clothing distribution center.
      • In next 2-3 years, the goal is to be able to help 3-4 times as many people as they are now… people who may not know about them now.
  • Their biggest challenges when he started and biggest challenges now – So many hats to wear and so much to do to keep the organization running, serve the needs of the clients, while also building relationships with other non-profits in the area to make everyones efforts more effective.
  • Some of Chris’s mentors (they have really taken their organizations to the next level in the last few years):
    • Nancy Woodland, the Executive Director of West Side Baby (check out her interview on episode #025).
    • Fran Yeats, the Executive Director of the West Seattle Food Bank.
    • Steve Daschle, the Executive Director of SW Youth and Family Services.
  • When Chris started at the WS Helpline (not quite 2 years ago), they were having to turn 2 out of 3 eligible people away… but in 2016, they had the funds to not have to turn down any eligible requests for help.
  • Specific story of how they helped a particular family:
    • WS Helpline is one of the few organizations equipped to handle unusual situations that fall outside the realm of what most non-proft and gov. organizations are setup to handle.
    • Usually clients that need help are due to a combination of bad circumstances all coming together at one time (not just an isolated bad decision or circumstance). Situations in which most people are not equipped to handle and would take most of us out (medial emergency + loosing a job + family crisis… all happen at once).
    • This family needed the funding to get their life’s possessions out of storage, as they were getting back on their feet… being on the brink of loosing everything they own, except for the clothes on their back – which would have really set this family back and make it much harder for them to get on their feet and move forward.
  • The best advice they have ever received – Consider the best practices but at some point, you just have to rely on what you know, make a decision and go with it. Trust your instincts… there is never going to be 100% certainty or a “right answer” in every situation or task to be completed.
  • A defining moment or experience – After completing his undergraduate degree, Chris spent some time in Costa Rica, working with South American Refugees. So many of these families living on the brink of survival had to make the life and death choices between spending money on food or required life-saving medicine for one of their kids.
    • While the government provided universal health care at no cost, you had to be a citizen to qualify for it, so didn’t have access to the medical care they needed. Not being a citizen also made it very difficult to find employment.
    • This family and 15,000 other refugees were in a situation where they were struggling just to get their basic needs met on a daily basis.
    • The emotional impact of those families being in such dire circumstances, at no fault of their own left a profound impact on Chris and had him asking the question, “How do we set the system up so that this never happens to anybody?”.
      • This question plays out in the USA regarding our immigration laws, access to health care needs and a basic social safety net as well as the ability to get a job.
    • This experience really drove Chris’ pursuit of what kind of work can he do and policies to influence to make a difference in the lives of people facing similar hardship.
    • These issues need to be addressed at both the human level and the system level.
  • Chris is a really big fan of and encourages people to give and get involved locally; Get to know the people in your neighborhood and find ways to be there for them, connect with them and build the community that your in.
    • For the WS Helpline, that includes signing up to volunteer at their clothing bank, helping sort or hand out clothes to people in the community who need them or volunteering to answer the phone at the hotline to help put them in touch with the resources to help them.
    • Especially for their rent and utility assistance programs, funding the organization by becoming a monthly donor are huge in making sure people don’t have to be turned away when they are in need.
      • The average assistance given per family for the program is $325… that is $325 difference between a family on the streets or a family safely in their house and moving on to better things.
        • That is a small price in the grand scheme of things, especially when studies on homelessness say that there is $15,000 to $25,000 in public costs for one person being homeless for a year.
  • West Seattle Helpline fund raising events throughout the year:

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Thanks for joining me again this week. If you have any tips, suggestions, or comments about this episode – email me at christianharris@sea-town.com. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it using the social media buttons you see at the bottom of the post. Thank you! And finally, please leave an honest review for The Sea-Town Podcast on iTunes! Ratings and reviews are extremely helpful and greatly appreciated! They do matter in the rankings of the show and I read each and every one of them.

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