Matthew Richards said he’d been living in a tent for a few months when county human services employees talked to him Thursday. He is one of many who were counted and surveyed that day in an effort to better understand homelessness in Island County.
For Richards, it was a combination of a job falling through, a criminal record and a relationship ending that led to his loss of housing.
Island County human services employees Dennis Phillips and Cynthia Besaw performed the mandated survey but also encouraged him to seek out help and informed him of offices that might be able to assist him.
Richards said he didn’t know of many of the services available, but admitted he’d avoided the ones he did know about.
“It’s a little bid of a pride thing, I think,” he said.
Teams of volunteers split Whidbey Island into regions as they set out to do the annual Point in Time homeless count. The federally mandated effort provides the longest-running data on the issue in the state and nation.
Some volunteers at Spin Cafe in Oak Harbor and Island Church of Whidbey in Langley offered food, clothes, toiletries and other donated items to people that came in to take the survey.
Margo Hutchinson said she and her husband, Darrin, and their child bought a fifth-wheel trailer to live in after being asked to leave an apartment complex in the fall.
“I had some money from my parents’ inheritance,” she said. “We lived in the Acorn Inn for a month and now are in a fifth-wheel trailer in Greenbank.”
The couple has no vehicle and the family relies on Island Transit to travel to food banks and other places providing support services. They left with donated warm coats, bedding and some food leftover from the afternoon meal.
Meanwhile, outreach volunteers ventured to wooded areas, bus stops and other areas noted by social workers and law enforcement as places unsheltered people might be. Volunteers scouring woods in South Whidbey didn’t find clusters of people living together outside as they have in past years, said Faith Wilder with Whidbey Homeless Coalition.
“There were people living in tents but we didn’t find any group encampments,” Wilder said. “Last year, we knew of two encampments.”
The Point in Time count is considered a “snapshot in time” and follows guidelines established by the federal Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.
HUD’s definition of homeless persons are those who are sheltered in emergency shelter or transitional housing or those living unsheltered, such as in tents or vehicles.
Using that criteria means the count underestimates the true picture of homelessness, Wilder said.
“There are people squatting in sheds or doubling up with families but they don’t count under HUD,” she said.
On the north end of the island, there are a number of encampments but most are empty during the day. Besaw and Phillips said after searching camps and other marked areas for much of the Thursday, Richards was the only person they’d been able to find and talk to.
The two said they’d heard many people try and avoid the count and survey. Which is unfortunate, they said, because the numbers help dictate how federal and state funding gets allocated toward tackling the issue.
Oak Harbor Police Officer Mel Lolmaugh, who escorted a few volunteers to an area off Goldie Road known as the pit, said the timing is also part of the problem. The people living in the camps typically only return when it starts to get dark, he said. Many go to the Spin Cafe, food banks or parks in town, Lolmaugh said.
Richards said he’s managed to survive with help from his friends. The 34-year-old has lived on Whidbey since the late 80s, he said. Despite it being January, he didn’t complain of the weather and said he hadn’t had trouble staying warm.
“The hardest part is I’m getting ready to be a grandpa, and you don’t have anything,” he said.
His daughter turned 18 in July and she’s getting ready to have a child. Richards said he wants to help his daughter, but he has no way to do so.
Among those counted as part of Whidbey’s homeless population Thursday were 36 individuals being served by Whidbey Homeless Coalition’s services, Wilder noted. At Langley’s House of Hope, 13 people are being provided three months of temporary residency, 20 people are staying at the Haven emergency shelter in Oak Harbor and three people are living in the organization’s transitional housing.