Homeless: Placement thwarted by tight rental market

Comprehensive clearinghouse still leads nowhere for many, officials say

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter



Life on the wait list: fear and hope

Texas native Irma Villarreal, 56, declares herself “a survivor” with a smile.

She has survived domestic violence that left her with a broken hip, jaw and collarbone. She has moved back and forth across the country in search of work and to gain legal custody of her 11-year-old granddaughter, Leila.

Villarreal has lived in druggy, dead-end neighborhoods and in a van parked in a Portland parking lot, which was “terrifying,” she said. And she has put her bilingualism to work for students as a staffer at Jason Lee Middle School — until fibromyalgia and other health problems kept her from working.

These days, she’s keeping her body fit by constantly walking her neighborhood with a cane.

This survivor refuses to end up in a wheelchair, she said.

But her proud smile shrinks, and tears start forming in the corners of her eyes, as she considers her cash flow.

“I don’t want to end up homeless again. I will not let my granddaughter be homeless,” Villarreal vowed from the cramped yet costly comfort of the two-bedroom unit in Hazel Dell’s Maple Knoll Apartments that she shares with her fiancé and her granddaughter, who loves to dance, sing and write original poetry on her Smith-Corona typewriter.

Leila is “a survivor too,” Villarreal said.

Villarreal used to have a housing subsidy, but it hit its two-year time limit. She’s back on the waiting list now, she said, but the rent at Maple Knoll is due to rise soon, and she’s not sure what happens next.

She’s already paying full price for her apartment, $635 a month, and can barely afford that on her income of Social Security Disability payments, she said. Her fiance, Dmitri, has seasonal work operating a forklift but ultimately may be forced to join his brother in South Carolina, selling produce in a 24-hour outdoor market. It’s hard work for low pay, she said, but it’s something.

Villarreal has been through the full assessment at the Housing Solutions Center, where she learned that she’d qualify for help via several different programs — if there was any actual help to be had.

For the time being, she’s taking a little comfort in knowing that the housing center’s staff has its eye on her and her situation.

If she does wind up homeless, she said, she believes the organization will scramble to help. “If we lose this, they’ll be there for us. I know they will,” she said.

— Scott Hewitt

Help the homeless

Donations to the Navigation fund, helping homeless people surmount small but significant obstacles, are always welcome. Visit www.councilforthehomeless.org

Even better, you can buy a $5 beaded bracelet through St. Andrew Lutheran Church's "good deeds with beads" ministry, which supports the program. Learn more at www.councilforthehomeless.org/good-deeds-with-beads or at www.salcvan.org/gooddeedswithbeads

Housing Solution Center

Housing hotline: 360-695-9677

Administrative office: 360-993-9561

Related story

Subsidized renters prove challenging, local landlords say

Getting seriously systematic about attacking homelessness has helped Clark County’s Council for the Homeless solve a lot of problems — and brought it face to face with another big one.

Something like 300 households in Clark County, including 90 families with children, qualified for private-market rental vouchers in the year after the new Housing Solutions Center opened its doors in March 2013 — but then couldn’t find a landlord who’d accept them.

And many others never even get that far, executive director Andy Silver said. After an extensive intake assessment and a careful examination of the half-dozen local agencies that operate approximately 40 discrete housing programs for needy people, too many clients are told: Here are the programs and supports you technically qualify for — except right now those programs are full. You’ll just have to wait.

“Resources for people who are literally homeless are tight, and resources for people who are doubled up are even tighter,” Silver said.

The Housing Solutions Center, the council’s coordinated system for connecting programs and services to the people who need them, has been a boon to many, officials said. There’s clearer, easier and more individualized access to a central database full of possible assistance, depending on your problems; clients who call the hotline or walk in the door with low expectations often walk out with new connections and high hopes.

The Housing Solutions Center received 13,428 hotline calls in its first year of business; it performed assessments of 1,292 households or individuals; and it determined that 498 of those households qualified for local housing programs — that is, they received assistance or offers of assistance.

But even with vouchers in hand, only 56 percent of those households found a landlord willing to rent to them. The local private rental market is so tight that landlords have their pick of tenants and generally opt for those without typical homeless “baggage,” such as previous evictions, unemployment, unstable incomes or criminal convictions.

“We didn’t realize what a crisis there is in the tight rental market” in Clark County, Silver said. “If Bill Gates gave us $1 billion tomorrow, we still couldn’t solve the problem.”

Market crisis

The local apartment vacancy rate is approximately 3 percent, Silver said. That’s among the tightest rates in Washington state.

“One factor might be that the private market is still weary from the recession; however ... Washington state has consistently had a tighter rental market and real estate market than the national averages,” Silver wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, new affordable housing is arriving in Clark County at a crawl. Silver pointed out that the state’s key Housing Trust Fund, which was set up to encourage the construction of new affordable housing, got no allocation of money in the last legislative session.

Two new affordable housing projects were recently announced in Vancouver; Silver said they are welcome but certainly no game changer. One is 15 West Apartments, a building with 120 units intended for singles, couples and families making no more than 60 percent of the median, and the other is Freedom’s Path, a 69-unit building for homeless and low-income veterans.

“While 120 units is great, it’s a small step,” Silver said. Rents at 15 West Apartments will start at $671 per month; that’s still totally unaffordable to the worst-off clients, Silver said, who would likely get screened out for the usual background reasons anyway. And Freedom’s Path, the veterans’ building, may well fill up with people placed there from elsewhere in the nation, he said.

Competing bureaucracies

Catering to emergencies used to be the Council for the Homeless’ way of doing business. Silver said. That often meant checking for available short-term shelter space, plus perhaps providing a whole list of ancillary programs a troubled client might try. And good luck with that.

“There was no way to track who had openings. You’d have to send people all over town. People would show up in the wrong place,” said Michael Boldt, director of the Housing Solutions Center. “These are not people who necessarily have their own cars, their own easy transportation.” Often they’d find that the paperwork they needed for one program would be in the custody of another, he said.

It’s tough enough for independent, fully functioning folks to negotiate competing bureaucracies, council administrative coordinator Charlene Welch said; just imagine how hard it is for people who may be hungry, tired, dejected — and perhaps fleeing abuse or suffering mental illness — and who don’t have access to the Internet or even a telephone.

That’s why the council launched the Housing Solutions Center, Silver said. “There’s one phone number and one place to go to figure out what you’re eligible for. And a holistic assessment of all your issues.”

The center opened under the roof of Share’s new Fromhold Service Center at 2306 N.E. Andresen Road, Vancouver, in March 2013. People in need of assistance are encouraged to call 360-695-9677 to check on program openings, according to the council’s website, www.councilforthehomeless.org. If you are not homeless but behind on rent or doubled up, call on Tuesdays at 3 p.m.

Right below that encouragement, underlined for emphasis, the website adds: “Please note that demand for these services far exceeds the resources available.”

Single entryway

Today, there are permanent housing programs for chronically homeless individuals and for low-income families; transitional housing programs for single women and their children who are fleeing domestic violence; and several rapid-rehousing programs aimed at keeping at-risk families from landing on the street or at scooping them back up as quickly as possible.

There are housing programs for people receiving mental health treatment and for people who are temporarily disabled; programs for homeless youths and for young families; for clean-and-sober only and for addicts only; for drug court graduates; for single men; for veterans; and for certain low-level sex offenders.

“We are now the ones who manage the entryway to all that,” Boldt said. “We shifted the burden from the person in crisis to us.” Information sharing between the different agencies that offer these programs has never been better, he said.

Silver said the federal government is encouraging such consolidation everywhere. But he’s not aware of another locality that’s managed the job as completely as Clark County. It’s largely a function of the county’s size, he said.

“We’re big enough to have real problems but small enough so we know all the players. There are a lot of places where that just couldn’t happen,” he said.

Generally speaking, he said, “Washington state is ahead of the curve.”

Couch surfers

Except when it comes to actually preventing homelessness, that is. Silver said the resources aimed at rescuing homeless people far outweigh the resources available to people who are homeless in all but name — so-called “couch surfers” who are doubled up with family or friends.

The federal government — which distributes money to local organizations through the state — doesn’t consider couch surfers to be homeless. That’s despite the fact that these uncomfortable arrangements tend not to last.

The Council doesn’t have 2014 data about couch surfers, but in 2013 it reported that there were 1,127 people “doubled up with family or friends and at risk of homelessness”; meanwhile, the total number of literally homeless people — those unsheltered or living in shelters — was 693.

It’s an upside-down situation, officials said: They can’t do enough to prevent you from sliding into homelessness, but once you’ve hit bottom they can serve you.

Flexible, faithful

To help stretch subsidy dollars, public housing agencies everywhere are getting more flexible, Silver said. A new “best practice” is providing months, not the formerly standard two years, of transitional housing assistance for households that are homeless or at risk; their situations are reassessed on an ongoing basis, he said.

The Council also launched what it calls a Navigation program that’s aimed at helping individuals overcome specific, not-too-high hurdles. Silver mentioned a homeless man who had a promise of a construction job and accommodations in Wyoming but no way to get there; another person with income possibilities only needed a pair of eyeglasses to realize them. Spending what’s essentially petty cash to overcome minor hurdles that prevent major life progress — a train ticket, a pair of eyeglasses — is a no-brainer, Silver said.

A crucial piece of the local safety net has nothing to do with government programs or dollars: it’s the thousands of volunteers and donors in the “very engaged faith community” who keep our local Winter Hospitality Overflow spillover shelters going every year, Silver said.

The Council is now working with a couple of local churches — the St. Andrew Lutheran Church and the St. Joseph Catholic Church — to develop a grassroots Housing Support Network that will undertake a new demonstration project. They’ll not only raise funds to help house a handful of families that are still waiting; they’ll also step into a mentorship and friendship role.

People who lose their homes often lose social networks too, Welch pointed out. Family and friends may tire of the worsening crisis. Bridges may get burned. That’s why an important part of the safety net needs to be friendship and social support, she said.

In late June, the Portland City Council endorsed a similar church-driven initiative to raise private funds and build social supports for the homeless.

Risk fund

Perhaps most importantly, the Council for the Homeless has convinced Clark County government to try an experiment: dedicating a pot of money to incentivize landlords to take risks on risky renters. As of July 1 there’s a Landlord Risk Mitigation Fund of $100,000; agencies that provide households with housing vouchers are able tap the fund for up to $3,000 per household for expenses such as additional damage deposits or existing damage costs, past-due rent payments and eviction costs.

“The fund was created because finding housing for individuals and families who are homeless and have multiple rental barriers has become increasingly difficult in the past year, and additional tools are needed to help reduce the risk of landlords who are willing to rent to this population,” said Department of Community Services program manager Kate Budd. It’s a pilot project that will be “closely evaluated,” Budd said.

Silver said the Council will continue to meet with landlords in search of ways to help the riskiest renters penetrate the tight market. “Nobody blames the landlord for saying, ‘This person looks like a better bet than that one,’ ” he said. “But we need to come together and get creative to figure this out.”