Clark County was among 21 of 39 Washington counties that saw more people experiencing homelessness this winter.
Yet, homelessness declined 3.1 percent statewide, according to the results of a single-day census of the homeless population released this week by the state Department of Commerce. There were 21,621 people counted statewide lastin January during the Point in Time, a decrease of 683 people from the prior year. King County has the largest homeless population (8,622 people) and recorded a decrease of 913 people from 2018.
The data shows where counties succeed and struggle, and how they stack up against the rest of the state.
In terms of residential population, Spokane County is the most logical to compare with Clark County.
The most populous county in Eastern Washington, Spokane County has slightly more people than Clark County. But its residents are spread out over a much larger geographic area, and the cost of living is 35.6 percent lower than in the Portland metro area, according to personal finance website bankrate.com.
Kate Budd, executive director of Vancouver-based Council for the Homeless, has worked in both communities. Between 2003 and 2005 she worked at a Spokane homeless shelter for Catholic Charities Eastern Washington and keeps in touch with her former colleagues. Catholic Charities is a large social service provider in Eastern Washington and is the primary provider of homeless services for area families.
Both communities are seeing an increase in the number of visibly homeless people. Both areas are not particularly diverse, but see a disproportionate amount of people of color who are homeless. Homelessness is a hot topic of conversation among community members, elected officials and people running for office in both communities, Budd said.
“Homelessness is the No. 1 issue in the mayoral race, for better or worse,” said Nadine Van Stone, vice president of crisis response and shelters at Spokane-based Catholic Charities.
She’s glad to see homelessness is being discussed, but conversations are not always positive or focused on solutions. Some candidates running for mayor are fixed on the idea ofthat homeless people are being bused from other places to Spokane, although 80 percent of people counted during the Point in Time said they lived in Spokane before becoming homeless.
Like Clark County, Spokane has seen a decline in the amount of housing affordable to its poorest residents and it has a low rental vacancy rate. People were displaced when developers converted downtown apartments to condominiums.
“We’re starting to see some effects of gentrification,” Van Stone said. “The amount of low-income housing just continues to drop.”
One stark difference between Clark County and Spokane County’s homeless population is the majority of homeless people in Spokane County were sheltered during the January count, while in Clark County slightly more people were unsheltered than sheltered.
“Part of it is it’s significantly colder there,” Budd said of Spokane, where people have frozen to death.
She added that while Clark County winters are milder, Council for the Homeless has seen clients experience frostbite and lose limbs.
Van Stone said in 2017 the city of Spokane decided to try providing a 24/7 shelter for people through the winter. The next winter Spokane decided to fund multiple shelters throughout town, so there wasn’t such a high concentration of homeless people in one area. However, Van Stone said, there were concerns that these warming centers weren’t adequate in terms of safety and health, and they cost more than anticipated to run.
“There has been a lot of lessons learned,” Van Stone said. “The downside of building up shelter capacity is that we can’t actually sustain it with the funding that we have.”
Funding is a concern in both communities.
It’s clear the homeless crisis response system doesn’t have adequate dollars to support people as needed, Budd said.
Van Stone said she’s seeing more homeless people with substance use disorders and mental health issues. While there is a new behavioral health center, accessing services is still a challenge. Catholic Charities has been providing respite beds for people at one of its shelters, a cheaper alternative to longer hospital stays.
“We’re trying to get ahead of it, but our systems are strained,” she said.
Spokane has been able to house some of the people who have been on the streets the longest. The number of chronically homeless people decreased from 325 in 2017 to 257 in 2019, according to the Point in Time count. (Chronic homelessness is defined as someone who has a disability and has been homeless for at least a year or on at least four separate occasions that when combined total one year or longer.)
Van Stone attributes the decline to the community building 150 housing-first units — where residents don’t have to get clean and sober before being housed — in the last three years. Another 100 units will be built this year.
Clark County has a couple of similar buildings, Lincoln Place in downtown Vancouver and Meriwether Place in central Vancouver. However, its chronically homeless population has doubled in the last few years.
Budd pointed out that Spokane is a larger area with more resources to devote to addressing homelessness. She’s taken note of some of its approaches, particularly when it comes to diversion, a strategy to help households quickly exit homelessness.
Van Stone said Spokane has become a leader in the state for diversion and rapid rehousing, which focuses on quickly getting people into housing and providing short-term financial support. People around the country have visited the area to look at its housing models and partnerships with health care.
“They hold a lot of promise and they’re already doing a lot to help with those issues,” she said.
Clark County and Spokane County have been part of collaborative meetings about improving approaches to solving homelessness. The annual Conference on Ending Homelessness will be held in Spokane in November.