Although a survey found that the overall number of homeless people dropped 4 percent this year in Clark County, it found more people living without shelter.
During an annual census of the homeless population known as the Point in Time count, survey takers counted 916 people, including 516 people living outdoors; the latter has more than doubled in the last five years.
Kate Budd, executive director of the nonprofit Council for the Homeless that oversees the count, said it cements what residents have noted anecdotally: They’re seeing more homelessness.
There’s a simple explanation for why the survey found fewer homeless people with shelter. One of the largest family shelters, Share Orchards Inn, was closed for remodeling during the Jan. 30 survey. It had a capacity of 50 and should reopen in a week or so. Also, Jan. 30 featured mild weather, making people less likely to seek shelter. Budd said shelter beds tend to stay full when they’re available.
The Point in Time count, required by state law and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, helps inform homeless services, but it’s not considered comprehensive.
“This is not a perfect count. It’s just unrealistic that we would count everyone who’s experiencing homelessness,” Budd said.
However, the Point in Time can identify trends. It showed that homelessness disproportionately impacts people of color. Many people surveyed reported having a physical or development disability or a mental illness. The count also showed a higher number of homeless youth and seniors and lower number of homeless families and veterans. Budd said that in recent years an emphasis on reducing family and veteran homelessness boosted programs and resources, leading to the improvement.
The number of people in transitional housing also declined. Nowadays, transitional housing is serving fewer families and more individuals or couples, which means fewer people overall. Also, funding for transitional housing decreased, Budd said.
People experiencing chronic homelessness will likely be the next major focus. A few months ago, a group of providers began convening to identify who is not engaging in the traditional homeless service system and how to help them.
The community has been clear they want to see fewer people living on the streets, Budd said.
The Point in Time count also helps identify why people are homeless and what barriers they face. Survey respondents most often cited lack of income, lack of affordable housing or a household crisis.
Next year’s survey could include a question related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. People who’ve lost income during the pandemic could become homeless before the next Point in Time count.
“We know it’s going to take months, if not years, to get people back to their income earning potential before COVID struck,” Budd said.
However, she is encouraged by the current momentum around emergency shelter and rent assistance, and the emphasis on housing.
“If someone isn’t housed, it’s much more difficult for them to remain healthy,” Budd said.
The pandemic helped push the county to open a motel for people impacted by COVID-19 or at risk of contracting it. It also pushed money toward motel vouchers and rent assistance.
In 2019, the county spent more than $7 million on homeless services. Michael Torres, program manager with Clark County Community Services, expects that amount to be significantly greater this year due to COVID-19. Having the east Vancouver motel open through June will cost at least $1.1 million, and the county expects to receive funding to continue operating the facility through October.
Budd hopes COVID-19 will have a positive impact on next year’s Point in Time count. That is, she is hopeful that by January, there will be more resources for people without homes.
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