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Number of unsheltered people in Clark County rises

18% increase in a year comes as many have given up looking for assistance

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
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Community Service Northwest caseworker Jamie Spinelli takes information from a person experiencing homelessness during the Point-in-Time count that took place throughout Clark County on Jan. 26.
Community Service Northwest caseworker Jamie Spinelli takes information from a person experiencing homelessness during the Point-in-Time count that took place throughout Clark County on Jan. 26. (joseph glode for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The number of people living outside in Clark County increased 18 percent in a year. During a single-day census of the homeless population on Jan. 26, case workers and volunteers counted 269 unsheltered people, including 80 children. It’s 41 more people than in last year’s count.

“I was a little surprised it wasn’t even a higher jump than 18 percent, even though 18 percent is really big,” said Andy Silver, executive director of the Council for the Homeless.

The numbers released Wednesday by his agency in Vancouver offer a bleak insight into the progression of local homelessness. What’s more, the Winter Hospitality Overflow shelters, which provide extra overnight shelter space at a pair of Vancouver churches during winter months, will close Friday.

What’s next for the 99 people staying at those churches?

“Street homelessness,” Silver said. “There’s nowhere for those people to go.”

Over the past year, only 37 percent of people actively trying to get into a shelter were able to do so. That doesn’t include people who have given up on trying to get into a shelter because they’ve been told repeatedly that the shelters are full, Silver said. Trust is low and frustration is high among people seeking help.

‘Unsheltered’

The single-day census of homeless people, the annual Point-in-Time count, is a requirement from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and it influences federal funding. The agency defines “unsheltered” as “living in a place not meant for human habitation,” such as a car, tent, or trailer with no running water or electricity. The remaining Point-in-Time figures showing the number of people staying in shelters should be finalized by May, Silver said. (People who are couch-surfing or doubled up with other families aren’t considered in the count.)

It’s difficult to find everyone who’s living on the streets in one day, so the numbers are considered a baseline or undercount. According to January’s survey, there were just two unaccompanied, homeless youth living outside.

“We know that’s not true. We know there are more than that,” Silver said.

He said the increase in street homelessness is not because people are not trying to access services and better their situation.

“There’s an assumption that if they see people living outside that it must mean that they’re sort of choosing to live outside or choosing not to accept services,” Silver said. “It’s pretty rare that you find someone who’s just sort of written everything off and is never going to accept help.”

When Council for the Homeless staff surveyed people living downtown, some said they stayed at winter shelters last year but didn’t call about getting in this year because they knew shelters were full.

“It’s hard to put a percentage on how many people have given up,” Silver said.

Seeking solutions

His agency often gets asked what should be done differently or what new programs should be created to solve local homelessness. Existing countywide housing programs have an 86-percent success rate, meaning a participant does not return to homelessness after two years, according to the council. However, only 18 percent of people who tried to access these programs were able to get in.

“What would you expect to happen to the other 82 percent?” Silver said. “Given the demand because of our housing market, and given the level of resources we have going toward homeless assistance, we’re going to see large increases (in the homeless population) every year unless we change something about that dynamic.”

Creating more shelter space is a matter of resources and location. With anything related to homelessness, there are debates over where services should be located. Some people are critical of a proposed plan to open a day shelter in downtown Vancouver because other homeless services are already offered in the same proximity.

“People are very upset about the issue of homelessness. They’re upset that it’s happening. They’re upset about the effects homelessness has on other parts of the community. But, if we can’t do anything about it — if we can’t open up day centers and emergency shelters and get more housing assistance — it’s just going to keep getting worse,” Silver said.

Affordable Housing Forum

• What: The city will discuss ways to use the fund to increase affordable housing. Fund applicants and others interested in affordable housing development are encouraged to attend.

• When: 9 to 11:30 a.m. April 11.

• Where: Hilton Vancouver Washington, 301 W. Sixth St.

• Register: http://bit.ly/AffordableHousingForum

Delayed benefits

Apartment construction, whether it’s market-rate or low-income apartments, should help the situation, as well as whatever is created with money from the Affordable Housing Fund. Applications are currently out for projects that would create or rehabilitate affordable housing. A forum on how funds should be dispersed is scheduled for April 11 at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.

“The positive effects of that are going to be a few years down the road,” Silver said. “We need relief sooner than that, and we need relief not just in the city of Vancouver but the broader community.”

Besides the Affordable Housing Fund, change could come from the state Legislature. While there are debates over cuts to social services, there are also a couple of bills that would increase document recording fees, the main source of county-level funding for homeless services. Both bills would prevent the sunset of fees in 2019. One House bill would have counties decide whether to increase the fees and by how much, while the other Senate bill would mandate fee increases statewide. Silver and other homeless advocates are trying to convince state legislators fee increases are a good idea.

“That would give us the tools locally to provide more emergency shelter and provide more help getting people out of homeless into housing,” Silver said. “It’s just we needed it, like, yesterday.”

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Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith