Human Services spent $18M on COVID help

Human Services officials led a comprehensive presentation about the department’s efforts.

Since Whidbey Island’s first COVID-19 case was identified on March 10, 2020, Island County Human Services secured and spent over $18.3 million in funding to help meet the needs of residents impacted by the pandemic in various ways.

During a county Board of Health meeting last month, Human Services officials led a comprehensive presentation about the department’s efforts, spanning from March 2020 to June 2022.

Human Services implemented a total of 10 different grants that the county received to provide isolation and quarantine services, economic relief through essential needs, utilities, rent and mortgage assistance, and behavioral health support to those suffering due to the stress and anxiety of illness, loss of life and economic challenges.

One of the first programs to be offered – supported by an emergency housing grant – provided an isolation and quarantine motel early in the pandemic for individuals and families who either had tested positive for the virus or were exposed to it. The county partnered with a motel owner in Oak Harbor who contributed rooms.

From April 2020 to June 2021, 32 community members ended up spending a total of 244 nights there, with the average stay lasting eight days. County staff served three meals per day to guests at the motel, who were not able to leave their rooms during their period of quarantine.

The program also allowed people without homes to clean up during a time when many facilities that previously provided showers had shut down. Unhoused individuals received transportation and supplies for a total of 295 showers that were taken between May 2020 and December 2020.

County officials reported that for the hotel and shower program, they spent an average of $763 per person for food. The Whidbey Seatac Shuttle made 30 roundtrips and transported 120 people to and from the shower location.

During the meeting, Commissioner Melanie Bacon referred to the program, which cost nearly $400,000 in grant money, as “a pretty efficient and amazing use of tax dollars.”

Other programs, funded by the CARES Act, provided county residents assistance with rent, mortgages, utilities and other essential needs such as child care, food and gas vouchers and car repairs if necessary to maintain employment. By and large, Oak Harbor citizens received the most assistance when broken down geographically.

Overall, 1,371 households were served across four different grants, with some applying more than once for help and others as many as six times. Oak Harbor residents made up 74% of the total applicants served.

Human Services received 514 online referrals for assistance, 330 calls to the Human Services Helpline and 220 calls to the Housing Support Center.

Food was the No. 1 essential need, with $50,450 of CARES funds supporting it.

Some needs went beyond food and housing. Human Services offered support groups online for seniors, parents and essential workers. Additionally, the department distributed over 65,000 face masks to 54 community partners.

Three grants totaling $14.4 million, the bulk of Human Services’ COVID dollars, focused on preventing eviction. Through the course of these programs, Human Services staff kept people housed while simultaneously working with landlords and property management companies to help them stay solvent during this period of time. If they agreed to receive assistance, landlords and property management companies had to sign an agreement and consent to not increase rent or terminate the tenant’s lease in six months.

During the presentation, Commissioner Janet St. Clair said she was surprised to hear about the high need for child care. Human Services officials pointed to the immediate shutdown of schools and how this had a big impact on the need.

An ongoing program called the North Sound Accountable Communities of Health has been providing assistance to people who are quarantined in their own homes. Case managers contact the COVID-positive individuals when the referral comes in and determine their needs, such as grocery deliveries. From June 2021 to June 2022, this program has provided 443 services and items to 156 people.