Point-in-Time counts Whidbey Island homeless

People play bingo at SPIN Cafe in Oak Harbor during the recent Island County Point-in-Time count of its homeless population.

Like many of Whidbey’s first European settlers, Alex Magowan moved out west in search of opportunity. 

He’d been laid off from his job in Philadelphia not long after the financial crisis of 2008, a story not unfamiliar to many Americans.

But the opportunity he sought was much harder to come by than he had anticipated.

For the past five years, Magowan has been without a home, camping on the streets of Oak Harbor.

In regard to homelessness, Magowan said there is much more to the picture than the snippet most people observe, or assume.

Magowan was one of several individuals who gathered at Oak Harbor’s SPIN Cafe during the open house associated with the annual homeless Point-in-Time Count Thursday.

The count, a nationwide event which takes place each January, is an effort to identify how many homeless individuals reside in each county. Groups of volunteers in each of the four main regions of the county — South, Central and North Whidbey and Camano Island — set out in search of those in the community who lack permanent shelter or live in a space not fit for human habitation.

The North Whidbey count was based out of the SPIN Cafe, while the South End count was based from the Island Church of Whidbey, both of which are regular gathering places for those in need.

At the church, visitors were offered free food, clothing, hair cuts and hand massages as well as eyebrow waxing, courtesy of a volunteer esthetician.

At the SPIN Cafe, patrons were also offered free food, as well as a chance to join in a game of Bingo. A pop-up free clothing store called the Street Store was set up outside.

Both locations also had an array of informative materials about services offered in the community. Lists of services were also handed out by outreach volunteers, who collected contact information whenever possible for follow-up purposes.

The number of homeless individuals for 2016 will not be available for some time, but Catherine Reid, Island County housing program coordinator, said she expects the numbers for North Whidbey to remain about the same.

Central Whidbey representatives had not yet reported as of Friday morning.

Faith Wilder, president of the South Whidbey Homeless Coalition and coordinator of the South Whidbey count, said South End numbers were about three times that of last year.

In large part, she said, that is due to the change of home base location from Bayview Hall to Island Church, where homeless individuals often congregate Thursdays to receive a free meal.

In addition, the South End was also able to count the 14 individuals currently living in the House of Hope, a temporary living facility for homeless individuals that opened just last year. With those 14, said Wilder, the day began at half the total number counted in 2015.

In 2015, 71 homeless individuals recorded during the count resided in the Oak Harbor area, 28 on South Whidbey and 10 in Coupeville. Volunteers found none to survey on Camano Island.

Individuals were counted as “sheltered” if they were living in an emergency shelter or in transitional housing associated with a state or county organization. Those who were “doubled up” living with family or friends were not included in the count, nor were those who were in the hospital or incarcerated.

Several homeless individuals also decline to participate in taking the survey, and thus are not counted.

In addition to the county’s count, Ryan’s House for Youth, South Whidbey School District’s Readiness to Learn program, and school district homeless liaisons did their own tallies.

Ryan’s House and homeless liaisons also tried a new technique this year, asking parents to fill out a Community Perception Survey. Youth ages 12-24 were also asked to fill out a survey. The goal of both is to gather input in order to better address the concerns of homeless individuals in the community.

County representatives will collect the information provided by school district homeless liaisons, Readiness to Learn and Ryan’s House, though unaccompanied minors, like those adults unwilling to provide their signature, cannot be counted in the state database.

Children accompanied by an adult can be counted in the state database with the adult’s consent.

“These are our neighbors; there are hardly one of them that is from off-island,” Wilder said. “These are our young people and our young families struggling.”

More precise numbers will be compiled over the coming weeks, as county agencies have the month of February to complete their data sets and file with the state. Island County Housing Resource Coordinator Joanne Pelant said she hopes to have unofficial preliminary numbers some time in the next two weeks.

Most of those counted on the South End were located during the town sweeps, in which volunteers searched the community centers of Clinton, Langley and Freeland. On both ends of the island, several campsites were found with no one present.

Many of those counted on South Whidbey were residing in vacant houses without power or water, according to Wilder.

“They are in dire circumstances,” Wilder said.

On North Whidbey, about half of those counted were living in cars. Reid noted that about half of those homeless are also employed, something she says is often not realized by the public.

“These are folks that have jobs and are contributing members of our community, so we should make every effort to ensure they are part of our community in terms of their housing,” she said. “I think that’s something folks really miss when they’re talking about homelessness.”

A lack of affordable housing is something Reid and others are working to address alongside county commissioners, she said.

Reid stressed that the count is merely a snapshot; the whole story is much bigger, and more complex.