The Days Inn on Everett Mall Way on Aug. 8, in Everett. The motel is one of two recently purchased by the county to shelter the homeless. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The Days Inn on Everett Mall Way on Aug. 8, in Everett. The motel is one of two recently purchased by the county to shelter the homeless. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Snohomish County lacks shelter capacity to participate in state program

Four other counties got funding to house people living along state-owned rights of way. Snohomish County didn’t apply.

EVERETT — Snohomish County officials say they lacked — and continue to lack — the shelter capacity to help in an effort to house people living on state-owned rights of way.

In total, the county has 683 shelter beds available year-round, with a little over a quarter of those open through a voucher program, according to county human services director MJ Brell Vujovic.

Snohomish County also has 157 beds that open up in cold weather conditions, bringing the total capacity to 840 shelter spaces. Once two new motels come online, that’ll add 130 rooms. That makes the upcoming total 970 shelter beds.

The new initiative, which drew staunch criticism from Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin and Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, aims to house people living on state-owned rights of way. The local leaders decried the plan, claiming big numbers of people would be moved from outside of Everett into motels here without the city’s knowledge. It was later clarified that three people living in Everett had been moved into shelter.

Last week, state leaders responded in frustration, requesting a “public retraction of those statements and an apology.”

“Such accusations undermine our collective ability to do the work the public demands and unhoused individuals need,” reads the response from the heads of the state departments of commerce and transportation as well as the Washington State Patrol.

In another statement on Nov. 9, the Everett mayor said: “I am not aware of any false secondhand information that was contained in my previous statements and stand by my position that a discussion must still occur between the participating stakeholders, to include the City of Everett Mayor’s Office.”

“I will not be issuing a public retraction or apology for my statements, and I reiterate my request to immediately cease the placement of unsheltered individuals in Everett motels until further discussion can take place,” she added.

The state departments of Commerce and Transportation as well as Washington State Patrol were tasked with establishing a grant program to transition people living on such rights of way to housing, according to the state.

Four other counties — King, Pierce, Spokane and Thurston — received funding for the program. Snohomish County didn’t apply due to its capacity issue, according to the Department of Commerce. So money that had been planned for the county was reallocated elsewhere.

In a July letter to a state Commerce official, Vujovic wrote, “We have determined that we are unable to meet the requirements,” in the apparently tight timeline given by the state. The letter noted county officials “look forward to future conversations regarding addressing the needs of people who are unhoused in Rights of Way in our community.”

Last week, Vujovic said in a statement one of the state’s initial concerns was RV camping at the Smokey Point rest stop.

“We are working across the county to move people from streets and encampments into stable shelter,” the human services director said. “As most people know, we don’t have the capacity to meet current needs, since the number of people in need exceeds available beds.”

In the statement, Vujovic noted the recent purchase of two motels using federal funding to convert them into shelter units but “we still do not have the capacity to help with the challenges the state is trying to solve.”

Data released earlier this year show homelessness in Snohomish County is at a 10-year high. The point-in-time count found 1,184 unsheltered people in the county, a small increase from 2020. That count outpaces the number of shelter beds.

From 2020 to 2022, local shelters saw a one-third increase in clients, to the highest point in almost a decade, according to the count. The county attributed that stark rise to an increase in available shelter space, including the cold weather shelters open at the time of this year’s count.

Without the county’s participation, the state turned to the Everett branch of Volunteers of America and Helping Hands.

“This project will be a valuable expansion of our services and will allow us to provide even more resources to community members in a way that aligns with our mission and vision for Snohomish County,” the organization’s Chief Operating Officer Brian Smith said.

In a letter supporting the Volunteers of America’s grant application in August, Vujovic lauded its past collaborations with the county to help vulnerable residents. This included tens of millions of dollars in rental assistance and support resettling refugees.

In the letter, Vujovic noted Volunteers of America has “also proven to be successful at rapidly placing individuals experiencing chronic homelessness into privately held rentals and helping them retain housing.”

In Everett, the program would have a full-time program supervisor, substance abuse and mental health counselors, as well as an outreach coordinator, according to Helping Hands, the other local organization with which the state is contracting.

Once someone is moved to a local motel, staff provide other essential services to help them get permanent housing. Under a contract reportedly signed Sept. 1 with Helping Hands, up to nine months’ worth of rental payments and help with move-in costs are available.

Helping Hands believed around 90 people were living in “scattered encampments.”

As of Monday, six people in Everett had been moved from state-owned rights of way into hotels, up from three earlier this month.

Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; jake.goldstein-street@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

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