Chronic homeless population hardest to help, officials say

Many people struggle to find a place to live on the island, but certain groups of people have almost no real housing options in Island County.

Officials from Oak Harbor, Langley, Island County and the port districts discussed homelessness Wednesday during a Council of Governments meeting.

Island County’s Point in Time homeless population count results show a stagnant number over the years of chronically homeless people, and county officials say it won’t improve until there are viable options made available.

The 2019 annual one-day count found 166 total homeless people— 46 of whom are chronically homeless, which is defined as having been without housing for a year or more and having a disability. There were 37 individuals counted in this category in 2018.

THERE IS significant need for permanent supportive housing, which not only provides shelter but also behavioral health services, according to county Housing Resource Coordinator Joanne Pelant.

She said the best outcomes for people with mental health or chemical dependency illness are to have significant supportive services available, usually on-site.

Compass Health has eight beds in Coupeville and Oak Harbor for its clients who are chronically homeless. However, Pelant said there is almost no turnover and the services aren’t provided on-site. Pelant said the population is aging and developing physical health problems as well.

“They’re very, very vulnerable and left without any housing or services,” she said in an interview.

THIS POPULATION also tends to end up in the emergency room, jail or take up time with law enforcement, which are all expensive.

Pelant said human services staff will try to do more outreach to this population to better understand what they need. Anecdotally, she said it seems that many of the people have given up seeking services because of a lack of success.

The housing support system in the county has limited resources to help chronically homeless people and their complicated needs, she said. Document recording fees are counties’ primary source of funding for homeless services.

Much of the money is used toward prevention. More than 50 percent of those seeking help at the Housing Support Center were at risk of becoming homeless.

Pelant said many of these people are working, low-income households that are forced to spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

SPENDING MORE than 30 percent of household income on housing meets the federal definition of “cost burdened.” Without being able to put much money into savings, a spike in rent, a loss of a job, unexpected medical bills or a variety of other situations could lead to homelessness.

“We know if they lose their housing, it’s going to be very difficult and maybe impossible for them to find housing,” Pelant said.

More affordable, workforce housing is needed for people like this, the government leaders present at Wednesday’s meeting agreed.

Port of South Whidbey Commissioner Curt Gordon suggested that if more market-rate housing was built, people living in smaller or older units that can afford to will move to newer housing, which will then open up those other units to lower income households. He suggested it was an issue of supply and demand.

WHILE THIS is true for some families, Pelant said, it isn’t viable for households making $30,000 a year or less. To build at the scale needed to address the problem and maintain affordability, the county needs developers to come in that can use the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit and Housing Trust Fund money.

Since the Housing Support Center opened in August 2016, more than 615 households that were in imminent risk of homelessness sought services. If more of those people lived in affordable housing, they wouldn’t need as much rental assistance and more funding could be shifted from prevention toward serving those who are already homeless, Pelant said.

Regional developers are needed to create that kind of workforce housing, she said. To attract them, leaders in the county need to create “an atmosphere that (the developers) feel welcome to,” she said at the meeting.

HOUSING SOLUTIONS would also address some of the physical and mental health complications associated with the stress of being financially burdened and at risk of losing housing, she said.

In turn, this can lead to encounters with law enforcement or trips to the emergency rooms, she said.

“The cost for these people living on the edge like that is kind of silent in our community,” Pelant said, “but yet it’s very real to other systems.”