A one-night count in Clark County found that the number of homeless people rose 21 percent since last year, with seniors, veterans and families with children bearing the brunt of the increases.
Clark County’s Council for the Homeless released the results from its most recent Point In Time count, late last week. This year’s count on Jan. 24 found 958 people experiencing homelessness, compared with 795 people on Jan. 25, 2018.
The data further shows that unsheltered people — those sleeping in tents, cars, on the streets, or anywhere else not made for sleeping — drove the increase with a 30 percent increase in the last year. Those living in emergency shelters or transitional housing saw a more modest but still notable uptick, up 12 percent from 2018.
Council for the Homeless Executive Director Kate Budd said rising rents are the main factor driving more and more people out of their homes — especially senior and disabled people living on a fixed income.
“Research shows that homelessness increases in communities where rents grow faster than incomes. In one year, Clark County rents rose on average by 8.3 percent, with the fair market rent rising by over $500 in the last five years,” Budd wrote in blog post on Friday analyzing the Point in Time data. “Rental costs are greatly outpacing employment wages, causing people to spend a higher and higher percentage of their income on rent.”
What’s a Point in Time count?
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the state of Washington require counties to conduct a survey of everyone experiencing homelessness on the last Thursday in January every year.
The survey counts everyone living within emergency or transitional housing, as well as people who are unsheltered — living in cars, tents or on the street. Clark County has Point in Time data back to 2005.
The resulting number is a baseline, a snapshot of the minimum number of people known to be homeless within a community at a given time.
It’s not perfect. The count is all but guaranteed to miss some people, so its results are likely underreporting the reality. But as one of many methods used to analyze homelessness, it is a useful tool to track trends year over year.
Past Point in Time data can be found on the Council for the Homeless’ website, councilforthehomeless.org.
People call the Council for the Homeless hotline daily and say that they’ve had to vacate their housing due to rent increases, Budd wrote.
“Finding housing that is affordable, saving for move-in costs and moving all their belongings is too much to do with 20-days’ notice (outside the city of Vancouver). This is an often impossible situation, which leads directly to households moving into their car or on the street.”
A few groups saw huge leaps in homelessness this year. Homeless veterans are up by 49 percent, from 37 to 55. Homeless families with children are up 28 percent, from 104 families to 133.
Seniors 62 or older who are homeless saw the biggest leap. The number of homeless seniors during the Point in Time count nearly tripled compared with last year — from 20 people to 57 people.
“Rental cost increases are making it particularly difficult for seniors and people with disabilities who have stagnant incomes, often forcing them to make difficult decisions between housing and basic necessities,” Budd wrote.
More than half of the homeless people counted in the survey identified as having some kind of disability.
So what should all of this data mean for the people and policymakers affected by homelessness?
According to Budd, they need to keep their focus on long-term solutions to homelessness, including creating better transitional housing and more low-income rental units, instead of just providing emergency shelter care.
“Our collective eyes need to focus on solutions and outcomes that move people from being homeless into permanent living situations,” Budd wrote. “This means programs and housing that actually move households from homelessness to stable housing.”
A semi-silver lining: homelessness is getting worse, but the rate at which it’s worsening has slowed.
While a 21 percent increase in homeless people within county lines is a stark figure, the growth rate is actually flattening; 2018’s Point in Time count tracked a 39 percent increase from the year prior.
Local programs are having some success, according to Budd. But there aren’t enough of them.
“Data shows that our local housing stability programs that move people from homeless situations to housing are working; we just do not have enough of these resources to meet the increasing demand,” Budd wrote. She cited the success rate of Clark County Rapid Re-housing programs.
In January, The Columbian reported that 20 percent of Clark County’s homeless population participated in a rapid re-housing program last year. Four out of five of those participants went on to permanent housing, a much better outcome than for those served by emergency or transitional shelters.
But rapid re-housing programs are expensive. On average they cost $628 per day, as opposed to $195 per day for transitional housing.
Combating homelessness will require a willingness to invest, Budd wrote, and not just react.
“The long-term solution to homelessness is to increase housing stabilization programs that help people move from being unhoused to housed, while also working on the broader issue of housing affordability,” she wrote.
“This means increasing investments in 1) housing stabilization programs focused on people experiencing homelessness, 2) affordable housing and incentivize affordable and 3) mixed-income housing through our zoning and land use policies.”