By Kat Goering
At this point, we’ve all heard that housing is an issue here in the valley. It’s expensive, it’s out of reach for so many people whether you are buying or finding a place to rent. Why then is it a surprise to so many that homelessness exists here in the valley?
When people hear the word “homeless” they often have an image of an encampment with tents in an urban area or an overnight homeless shelter. These indeed are the most visible forms of homelessness that tend to generate a mix of feelings ranging from discomfort to sympathy to pity. It is the intensity of these feelings that imprints the image in our minds.
The truth is that homelessness has many “invisible” variations in rural areas that do not always align with the definitions or images that are most frequently understood in urban settings. Because of its “invisibility,” the issue feels less critical or even nonexistent.
Homelessness here in the Methow Valley differs depending on the season of the year due to weather, temperature, employment availability and other factors. The summer is when it is more likely for people to be living out of their cars, tents or on forest service land. Winter is a time when people are forced to double up, stay in motels, couch surf, sleep in public spaces that are open, or live in situations that are not safe.
The nearest (and only) homeless shelter in Okanogan County is 40 miles away and over a mountain pass in Okanogan. It is run entirely by a committed group of volunteers and currently only operates in the winter. Needless to say, space is limited there, and the location is not realistic for those working in the valley or with kids in school here.
Who is homeless? In our community, literally anyone can find themselves without a home — families with young children, teenagers, young adults, elders and others. Some individuals moved to the valley for a job but could not find housing, or they had a rental that was sold, and the new landlord no longer wanted long-term tenants.
For some families, kids are enrolled in school and work is seasonal and not consistent enough to make enough for rent, even if something were to open up. Others are in households with drug use or violence and need to find alternatives that are safe and healthy. In 2022, Room One assisted people 29 times with rental assistance, 77 times with housing planning, 10 times with emergency motel stays and we have an entire program that works with youth and young adults who are unstably housed here in the valley. These numbers, and more importantly the lives and stories connected to them, show that there is an unmet need in our community.
How do we know the number of people who are experiencing homelessness? Last week, Jan. 23-27, marked the official Point in Time Count (PIT) across the country. This count surveys people experiencing homelessness on the same night. In rural areas, having one night to count people is difficult because homelessness is not centralized in specific areas. We do not have shelters or other areas where people congregate in the Methow Valley. Fortunately, last year Commerce extended the PIT Count for Okanogan County to a full week in January.
Last year’s PIT Count was very low in Okanogan County, too low. Lead agencies across the county all agree that the number was not even close to accurate, which spurred an expansion of outreach strategies and partnerships. Room One was the lead for the PIT Count in the Methow Valley and partnered with Aero Methow Rescue Service, the school district, The Cove and Family Health Centers to collect this information. We want as accurate a count as possible to be informed as a community about the full picture of what housing looks like or does not look like so that we can advocate for ourselves as a rural community.
I invite you to help us with this work! Stay informed — Room One is committed to sharing back to the community information from this year’s PIT count in the Methow Valley and in Okanogan County. Join us for the conversation on local housing issues with community partners on Feb. 7 at the Twisp Valley Grange. Check in with Room One to see how else you can get involved to support our neighbors who are unstably housed.
Kat Goering is executive director of Room One in Twisp.