Sharing ups and downs with the homeless and hungry

Share faces growing need, shrinking resources in its mission to help the hungry, homeless

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

On the web:

http://www.sharevancouver.org.

IN 2010, SHARE:

Sheltered 1,415 individuals, including 277 children.

Subsidized rentals and provided case management for approximately 120 families a month through its Aspire program.

Helped 1,226 individuals through street-level outreach.

Served 103,000 hot meals.

Fed 630 children through a summer breakfast-and-lunch program and fed 900 children through a school-year backpack program.

Distributed 12,000 holiday gifts and helped 608 families through the holiday season.

Operated individual matching-fund savings accounts; 14 people have used the accounts to buy first homes.

There’s good news and bad news for Share, Clark County’s leading provider of services to the homeless and hungry.

Good news: A million bucks from local businesses to renovate a former bowling alley on Andresen Road into Share’s new headquarters and warehouse.

Bad news: That million replaces a federal earmark of $900,000 that was promised but then vanished as “earmarks” became a naughty word in Congress last year.

Good news: A busy calendar of Share fundraisers, such as the annual Hoops on the River celebrity basketball tournament, is on track to match last year’s $125,000 take.

Bad news: Share outreach trailers that provided homeless people a daily base of operations went away last year as city funding dried up. Also lost for lack of dollars was a two-building women’s shelter.

Good news: Share is beloved and admired locally. It won an award last week from the local Nonprofit Network for its overall effectiveness. Thousands of volunteers help out every year with everything from hot meal service to cleaning house. When state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, was looking to donate a symbolic (3 percent) chunk of his salary to charity, Share was the obvious choice.

More good news: Despite the recession, homelessness didn’t increase significantly in recent years. In fact, locally it appears to have diminished.

Bad news: Stimulus dollars exhausted and public budgets withering, homelessness is expected to accelerate again.

“We are expecting to face some serious problems in 2012,” said Share’s executive director, Diane McWithey.

Newer, fewer

The nation may technically no longer be in recession but, as everyone knows, the “Great Recession” grinds on and on. Just last week the Census Bureau announced that more Americans are living in poverty than ever before. People who work to alleviate poverty in Clark County and across the nation report a wave of “new homeless” in recent years, as layoffs lead to foreclosures and foreclosures lead to families hitting the streets.

Add them to the people considered chronically homeless — unable to hold a job or keep a home because they’re beset by mental illness, addiction or both.

Because of the nature of the problem — people who disappear almost completely from mainstream society — it’s hard to quantify homelessness in America. Service providers have started doing “point-in-time” counts — single-day sweeps of shelters, streets, food banks, urban campsites and other places homeless people are likely to congregate — but the results are rough estimates only, affected by everything from available volunteers to nasty weather.

Based on these point-in-time counts, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that approximately 1.6 million Americans used an emergency shelter or transitional housing program during 2007, “suggesting that about one in every 200 persons in the U.S. was in a homeless residential facility” at some point during the year.

That’s only the folks who are easy to count. HUD itself refers to the website of the National Coalition for the Homeless, which figures the real size of homelessness in America must be between 2.3 million and 3.5 million people per year.

Those are all pre-recession numbers. Up-to-date numbers aren’t available from leading national sources. What is up to date is information gathered in Clark County — and it provides a surprisingly hopeful perspective.

According to fresh data from Clark County’s Council for the Homeless, 2,535 requests for housing assistance were logged by local service providers in the fiscal year that ended June 2011. That’s down from 3,378 requests the year before. And it’s in keeping with the latest local point-in-time counts, which found a drop from 1,041 the year before to 837 homeless people on Jan. 24 of this year.

Craig Lyons, executive director of the Council for the Homeless, said he’s learned to be skeptical about numbers — but he knows this data was collected more thoroughly and carefully than ever before.

Homelessness “went down by 25 percent. That’s amazing. I hate to say it, but I think we might just be effective,” he concluded.

What’s been effective? Using public subsidies to get the newly homeless into apartments quickly. That’s a philosophy called “housing first,” and it’s caught on nationwide, Lyons said — based on the idea that the essential building block of a stable life is a stable place to live.

“Let’s get them into a place to live, then we’ll start working through all the issues and barriers that got them onto the street to begin with,” Lyons said. Providing housing vouchers, case management and other support is far less expensive to taxpayers than the services required by street people, he said — from police patrols to shelter beds to emergency room treatment.

There are several such housing initiatives in Clark County, the biggest being Share’s Aspire program, which houses approximately 120 households per month. At $1.44 million in 2010, Aspire is the greatest single chunk of Share’s budget, accounting for about one-third of the agency’s total expenditures. Private landlords in the local community accept the vouchers — so there’s that fringe benefit of pumping up the local economy, Lyons said.

Stimulus, surfing

The National Alliance to End Homelessness reported in June that homelessness “did not increase significantly during the height of the recession.” That’s thanks to the housing-first approach or, as the NAEH said, “improved homeless assistance systems and the adoption of housing-based strategies to end homelessness.”

NAEH emphasized that federal economic stimulus money totaling $1.5 billion went a long way toward stemming the problem by offering “significant new resources to curb homelessness resulting from the recession.” An estimated 690,000 people avoided homelessness or were rescued from it because of that money, NAEH said.

“The three-year stimulus program … will leave a considerable hole in the budgets of many local homeless assistance programs,” NAEH concluded in its June statement. “Coupled with cuts to mainstream poverty programs, local and state services, and the relentless rise in need, experts predict that homelessness may rise in the coming years.”

“The stimulus was huge,” said Lyons. “And it’s almost gone now.” Stimulus funds will dry up completely next June, he said.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that local points-in-time counts show that even while homelessness fell, “couch surfing” (sheltering temporarily with family or friends) rose even more.

“They’re doubling up,” said Share’s McWithey. “People who are brand new at this don’t necessarily come to us first. They try their siblings, their cousins, their friends.”

Local losses

Suggest to McWithey that statistics show a drop in local homelessness, and she looks bemused — and frustrated.

“We’re still getting more applications than we know what to do with,” she said. “We are still getting many more applicants than we can house.”

And government money is dwindling on all fronts, she said. Share used to get well over half its $4 million-plus budget from government grants; now it’s down to less than half.

This summer, Seattle and Portland both lost emergency funds that paid for bus vouchers for poor people; without the vouchers, various church-based shelters are essentially out of reach to the people who need them. Share in Vancouver was in danger of losing that same funding stream — but it only lost about a third.

In the current economic climate, McWithey considers that a blessing. “We budgeted for a cut of 25 percent and we got a cut of 32 percent,” she said. “We got off easy, I guess.”

For a few years the city of Vancouver found general-fund money to pay for a couple of outreach trailers that were anchored across West 13th Street from Share House. The trailers were a great base of operations for homeless people — providing lockers, showers, mail delivery, bus tickets and the opportunity to connect with social workers — and they were credited with drawing transients away from Esther Short Park and the downtown business core.

The city stopped paying for the trailers and they disappeared last fall. There’s been a corresponding rise in complaints about panhandling and trespassing since then.

“We do hear it from downtown businesses and the library. What we predicted would happen has been happening,” said Share spokeswoman Jessica Lightheart.

Share used to operate a women’s emergency shelter — a pair of residential homes — in the Minnehaha area. That facility also closed at the end of last year. McWithey said she had an office visit from a desperately concerned donor willing to ante up as much as $100,000 to keep the women’s shelter open — and McWithey had to say thanks but no thanks, since the one-time gift wasn’t enough to operate the place for long.

Share still operates three shelters, in west Vancouver, Hazel Dell and Orchards; at $1.2 million in 2010, shelters are the second-largest chunk of Share’s budget.

And then there’s the promised $900,000 earmark for the former Timber Lanes bowling alley on Andresen that went away — because of Congress’ newfound discipline on earmarks — after Share had already been promised the money.

When that happened Share did some quick rethinking, breaking its project into manageable phases, and Lightheart got on the phone to local donors. “It was hard but this community has been fantastic,” she said. An impressive $1 million was raised and ground was broken on phase one last month.

The immediate goal is 9,000 square feet of food warehouse space for Share’s Backpack Program, which discreetly sends weekend food home from school with needy children. The program has grown rapidly in recent years and expects to feed 1,500 children this year. Share also serves three free hot meals on weekdays and two on Saturdays and Sundays at its Share House in west Vancouver.

At $843,540 in 2010, hunger response is the third-biggest item in the Share budget.

Future phases of the Andresen building will house offices and meeting rooms, freeing up space in Share House on West 13th Street for more shelter beds. “We would be done with it now if that earmark had come through,” McWithey said. “As it is, we still don’t have enough money to finish the project.”

Diversion and debate

“It used to be that government grant funding was pretty consistent. We’d renew and they were reliable,” said McWithey.

Not anymore. Social service agencies throughout the county — and the nation — are struggling with dwindling grants and tighter budgets.

“We budgeted for cuts. The handwriting was on the wall. We could see all sources were going to be cut. We’ve been working on Plans A, B and C,” McWithey said. “We’re not the only agency that’s going through this, but we’re the largest. We operate the most shelters. But we can’t get much leaner and still keep our doors open.”

Lyons said the era of automatically steering people toward shelters is winding down. The federal emphasis is shifting to permanent housing — putting more into construction and vouchers and less into shelters and emergency services. Caseworkers and emergency hot line staffers will be required to scrutinize each applicant and subsidized individual much more carefully than before, Lyons said.

“It’s a harsh reality but that’s how it’s going to be,” he said. “When you call for shelter we’re going to try hard to divert you. Is Mom about to throw you out? If not, I think you need to spend another night with Mom. Are you a veteran? We’ve got other resources for you. Has there been domestic violence? We’ve got other resources for you.

“The last place I want to put anybody is in emergency shelter,” he said.

McWithey is skeptical. Permanent housing and subsidies are great, she said, but some people can’t be diverted as they face genuine emergencies and need shelter in a hurry.

“There’s not enough housing and there’s not enough money for subsidies,” she said. “We can’t just close the shelters.”

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt//www.twitter.com/col_nonprofits.