Their roof leaks, they sleep an arm’s length from their two children and a trip to the bathroom requires shoes, a coat and trek to the home next door. Although technically homeless, they consider themselves lucky to have a place to stay every night.
Thursday, the family became a statistic of Island County’s Homeless Point in Time annual count. It’s part of a national effort to get an idea of how many Americans are sleeping in shelters, cars, RVs, on the streets or doubling up with other households.
Long-time Whidbey Island residents with children in elementary school, the couple didn’t want their names used because of the stigma of homelessness. They sought information at one of several soup kitchens the county hosted with area churches to encourage people to come in and register for housing services help.
In the fall, after being unable to afford a rent increase on their Freeland apartment, the couple bought a used recreational vehicle for $700 and parked it on their friend’s land. They both work but are unable to find an apartment they can afford.
“Never, never in a million years did I ever expect to be in this situation,” she said. “They count us as homeless but we count ourselves as fortunate to have amazing friends.”
The couple fits a growing category referred to as “temporarily living with friends and family.” It’s one of many situations on the Point in Time Count intake sheet that volunteers check when asking people about their shelter situation.
Numbers from the survey were not available at press time. Last year, 222 people were counted as homeless on Whidbey and Camano Islands.
Whidbey Island social service organizations say they are hearing more and more stories of people being evicted from apartments because of rent increases or loss of employment.
At House of Hope, a short-term shelter in Langley, house manager Ashley Rowley said a family of four is currently living there that was evicted. A woman who was forced out by a higher rent is also expected to move in this week.
“There’s absolutely no place to rent,” Rowley said. “They are not finding anything under $1,200 to $1,300. They just can’t afford what’s out there.”
The 90-day shelter, that can accommodate up to 20 people, is also currently the temporary home to a family of seven, she said.
One indicator of homelessness and housing needs is the increasing number of people seeking help at Island County Housing Support Center, which opened Aug. 8.
“To date, 319 households have requested housing assistance. Some are literally homeless and others are at risk of losing their housing,” said Housing Resource Coordinator Joanne Pelant.
“They are receiving notices of significant rental increases that they can’t afford, so they’re forced to move and look for other housing,” she added.
However, a low vacancy rental rate combined with more military families seeking housing and other factors has led to a “landlord’s dream and a renter’s nightmare,” as one city official put it. Spin Cafe in Oak Harbor, which provides social needs assistance by day and hot meals on some nights, was also busy Thursday with Point in Time activities.
The Point in Time count, done on a specific day, is merely a snapshot of homelessness in Island County, said Catherine Reid, coordinator of Island County Housing Program. Passing out small backpacks with socks, hats and some food to those in need, Reid said Point in Time volunteers scoured the woods and abandoned buildings and also rode buses and looked in libraries and other locations.
“We found some folks throughout the day,” she said, “and others have come to us.”
Under a canopy in front of Spin Cafe, Shawna Pinder attended to “The Street Store,” an international organization that gives local groups and individuals the framework to assist the homeless with clothes and shoes. Pinder said this is the third year she’s set up during the annual homeless count.
Every year, she’s given away more donated clothes, and seen more people living in the streets, she said.
“Just driving here this morning, I saw three people pushing shopping carts full of possessions,” said Pinder, a mother of two and long-time Oak Harbor resident. “Two years ago, I never saw that. We have to come up with a solution. It’s such a multi-faceted problem. There’s addiction involved, there’s mental health issues involved.”
“It’s an unimaginable struggle,” Pinder added. “I’m very fortunate to have the home I have. But I don’t want anyone to have to experience homelessness.”
The only overnight shelter on Whidbey Island is at the Langley Methodist Church. Called a warming center, it opens nightly if the temperature dips below 35 degrees. People sleep on cots in a fellowship room where food and bathrooms are available. They must agree not to carry weapons or consume alcohol or drugs, among other rules.
Recent cold snaps have led to record use of the warming center, said Faith Wilder with Whidbey Island Homeless Coalition. The organization formed three years ago as a response to homelessness on the South End.
“The warming center has already been open 40 nights,” she said. “That’s nearly double the total of last winter.”
Nearly half of the 10 to 15 people who depend on the Langley shelter travel from Oak Harbor, Wilder said. Increasing homelessness on North Whidbey led Wilder’s coalition to expand its efforts and it took the lead coordinating many groups and churches concerned about Oak Harbor’s growing homeless population. The emergency shelter would be open year round; it’s expected to help 30 to 60 people.
Commitments from four Oak Harbor churches are being sought, Wilder explained. Each would stage the overnight shelter for three months, using cots, bedding and other materials provided by the homeless coalition. A paid shelter manager would coordinate the nightly operation, which requires donations of food and people volunteering to say overnight.
One of the churches may be close to agreeing to be the first to open its doors as a shelter, Wilder said Thursday while checking in Point in Time volunteers at Langley’s Island Church. More information will be provided at the next Whidbey Island Homeless Coalition “Community Conversation” scheduled Feb. 7 at Oak Harbor United Methodist Church.
Nearly $10,000 has been collected in community donations for the Oak Harbor shelter, Wilder said. “And that’s without any fundraisers. People really want to help.”
A search for a paid shelter manager is also underway, Wilder said. The idea is to provide year-round overnight shelter at church locations while the coalition continues searching for a permanent building, Wilder said.