Local options are limited for people without stable housing
By Marcy Stamper
Social-service agencies across the country try to get a handle on the number of people without stable housing — more commonly characterized as homeless — in an annual count during the last week in January. But that count most likely underestimates the number of homeless people in Okanogan County.
Okanogan County Community Action Council coordinates the local count with help from organizations like The Cove and Room One in Twisp.
The methodology for counting people without a home was developed for urban areas where many people go to a shelter when the temperatures plummet. But it misses lots of people in rural areas because people hunker down and don’t go to places where they can be counted, said Lael Duncan, executive director of Community Action.
Although they’re included in the total, many people — even if they’re doubled up or living in a car — don’t identify as homeless, said Hayley Riach, lead advocate for Room One. In the past year, Room One has helped about 25 who identify as homeless and another 40 who have no regular housing. There are 100 more who say housing is their main challenge, even if they’re currently in a rental, said Riach.
People experience all kinds of difficult living situations. “We see them as people in extreme housing instability,” said Elana Mainer, Room One’s executive director.
The problem can be fairly invisible in the Methow because people rely on friends and family and are reluctant to be public out of pride. “The faces of people who are homeless are our neighbors — familiar, loving members of our community,” said Mainer.
While the tally for Okanogan County runs from 50 to 60 homeless individuals, state agencies count an average of 400 to 500 homeless families, according to the draft of the Okanogan County Homeless Housing Plan for 2018. Almost 300 schoolchildren in the county are considered homeless, and others aren’t even in school, said Duncan.
Not having an accurate picture of the extent of the problem is unfortunate, because the numbers are used for planning and to allocate funds, said Riach.
The number of people who come to The Cove for lunch and groceries has remained fairly constant at 70 to 80 for years, said Glenn Schmekel, The Cove’s executive director. The state considers anyone without their own permanent place, and without heat, running water and a toilet to be homeless, he said.
There are 300 people in the county on a waiting list for federal rental-assistance vouchers and low-income apartments. Even if units were available, they’re not a solution for everybody, since some homeless people have been struggling for years and can’t pass a background check, said Sue Baldwin, food manager at The Cove.
Even though people don’t have a permanent place for the winter, they’re not necessarily panicked, said Schmekel. “They’ve lived for years in this uncertainty,” he said.
Data collected by Community Action indicates that more than a third of people without stable housing report loss of employment or financial hardship as a major factor in their homelessness, and a third cite physical and mental health issues or substance-abuse disorders. A fifth point to domestic violence or family break-ups. Many people face numerous issues.
The homeless plan is part of a national movement to end homelessness. State legislation passed in 2005 directs each county to develop a plan to cut homelessness in half. The focus is now on making homelessness a “rare, brief, and a one-time event.”
Okanogan County’s plan identifies a need for emergency shelter for various populations: men with children, couples, households with pets, and large families. There is also a need for housing for unaccompanied youth and individuals entering the community from jails and mental institutions. In the Methow, the need for housing for single individuals is higher than the state average, said Mainer.
Although the overall homeless population seems fairly stable, people are becoming more visible in recent years, said Duncan. “It’s connected with the housing shortage — there’s nothing affordable,” she said. Some people work but still live in motels.
“The challenge is even bigger in the Methow Valley because housing is even more expensive,” said Duncan.
Room One and Community Action can help with hotel vouchers and with first month’s rent or a security deposit, said Duncan. “People stabilize much faster in permanent housing. Shelters are the least desirable, but an integral part” of the solution, she said.
The Cove also has vouchers for a motel room, but the agency views that as a solution of last resort because they would rather put the money toward a rental, said Schmekel.
For the past three years, Room One has received from $7,500 to $12,500 from the Okanogan County commissioners to help with housing stability and eviction prevention. This year the organization received $10,000, said Riach. Room One also receives money from the Salvation Army for emergency lodging and rental assistance.
But the biggest problem is inventory, not money. Last year Room One had eight people who’d qualified for assistance, but there was no rental housing to spend the money on, said Riach.
Federal Section 8 housing vouchers, which people can use for private rentals, are not even available in the Methow because no rents meet the government-established fair-market rate, said Riach. People are not permitted to supplement the vouchers with other funds.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” said Schmekel, who said a regular rental could be $750 a month. Someone might collect $550 from disability, but that’s not enough, he said.
There are three low-income apartment complexes in Twisp (one reserved for seniors and disabled people) and one in Winthrop, run by the Okanogan County Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the wait for a unit is typically at least one year, said Riach.
“A few people who come in here aren’t attached to any place — they go from one place to the next, saying, ‘Can I stay here tonight?’” said Schmekel.