Friday, December 13, 2019
Dec. 13, 2019

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In Our View: Count of homeless imparts important lessons

The Columbian
Published: January 30, 2019, 6:03am

The tally will not be available until spring, but Clark County’s annual Point in Time count of homeless people in the area serves as an important reminder of the challenges facing our community.

Mandated by state law and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the census provides a snapshot of Clark County. Volunteers and officials fanned out Thursday across the region to locate those living without shelter and to record data about gender, age, veteran status and length of homelessness. The findings will be used to help distribute homeless assistance and try to pinpoint where money and services will do the most good.

The count is imperfect. For example, those using their own money to live out of a hotel will not be counted, while those using public assistance for a hotel residence will be included. As The Columbian reported, “It does not include people who are couch surfing, doubled up with family or friends, or homeless but incarcerated.”

Another glitch arose this year as city crews and contractors cleaned out the area near Share House the morning of the count. That location is a frequent campsite for homeless people, and dispersing them prior to the census made it more difficult to generate an accurate count, which homeless advocates say already typically undercounts the number of homeless people.

As we ponder the count of homeless residents and the need to balance services for those in need with the amenities required for a thriving, growing city, it is essential to view people as the individuals they are rather a homogeneous collective. Last year’s Clark County Point in Time count identified 795 people living without shelter. While it is human nature to lump those people into a single group or to assume they have similar backgrounds and needs, the causes and circumstances of homelessness are varied.

Last year’s count, for example, identified 141 homeless people living in a family unit, with 63 of them over the age of 24, and 78 younger than 18. Six others were identified as living without anybody 18 or older.

More important, however, are the root causes of homelessness. Job loss often plays a role; so do mental illness, physical illness or addiction. And those factors often overlap. As the National Alliance to End Homelessness writes: “Health and homelessness are inextricably linked. Health problems can cause a person’s homelessness as well as be exacerbated by the experience. Housing is key to addressing the health needs of people experiencing homelessness.”

Rising income inequality and a lack of affordable housing also contribute to the problem, as do childhood traumas such as sexual or domestic violence. As The Olympian wrote editorially: “Every human being has a unique story. Yet too many think of people who are homeless as a homogenous mass of failure and moral shortcomings.”

Such views do nothing to deal with the issues that create homelessness, nor do they offer solutions. In truth, they simply try to assign blame while absolving the rest of us of our moral duty to confront the problem rather than looking the other way.

Local residents have made strong efforts in recent years to address homelessness. Those efforts will continue, supported by an understanding that homeless people are our neighbors and that helping them find reliable housing improves the quality of life for all of us. One step in that regard is to remember that we are dealing with individuals who have unique stories.