The news isn’t good, but the timing of the City of Everett, Snohomish County and others is.
Last week’s Point in Time survey of homelessness in Snohomish County found a significant increase over the previous year, as reported Tuesday by Herald Writer Noah Haglund. The one-day tally last week found 481 without shelter, a 54 percent increase from 2015’s 312. Most are single adults, but the number of homeless families also has jumped, more than doubling to 35 this year from last year’s count of 16.
That news came out the same day as two forums brought together county and city officials, advocates for homeless services programs and others in the county to downtown Everett, as reported today by Herald Writer Chris Winters. Updating afternoon and evening forums regarding what is now a centerpiece of Everett’s Streets Initiative programs, Mayor Ray Stephanson announced that the city is working with the YWCA to provide low-barrier housing to five chronically homeless individuals deemed to be most in need based on their frequent and costly use of public services. The YWCA and Everett plan to find housing for 15 more this year. With a pledge of $1 million each from the city and the county and hopes for $2 million from the state, Everett is in talks to purchase and refurbish a property to provide some 60 units of low-barrier housing.
While low-barrier housing, also known as “housing first” may be new to many in the county, the practice is becoming more common across the country and Washington state. Previously, Everett brought Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah’s Housing First program, to speak at a November forum. Monday’s forum featured three advocates whose agencies offer low-barrier housing in Seattle and Spokane, each offering advice as Everett and other communities in Snohomish County consider and begin similar programs.
Recognizing that many of those chronically homeless are suffering with issues of addiction and mental illness, the goal is to use housing as a gateway to needed services, rather than as coercion to change behaviors, said Daniel Malone, executive director for DESC in Seattle.
Everett can expect some push-back on the idea, said Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities Spokane. But what has earned his community’s support, he said, was the opportunity to prove that it works, that it provides stable housing and an opportunity to connect with services. Since its Father Bach Haven opened in 2013 with 50 units, 80 percent of its residents remain in stable housing. Where the Spokane region was spending as much as $200,000 annually for police, aid, hospital and other services for each chronically homeless person, the cost of housing and services is now only $11,000 per person.
McCann and Mary Jane Brell Vujovic, director of Snohomish County Human Services, also argued against the myth that providing low-barrier housing would attract homeless people from outside the area. An intake survey of homeless in Spokane found 90 percent were born and raised within 40 miles of downtown Spokane, McCann said. That echoes what the most recent Point in Time survey in the county found, Brell Vujovic said, that those who are coming from outside the area are not coming for services but for job opportunities that aren’t always there.
McCann, Malone and Kelli Larsen, with the Plymouth Housing Group in Seattle, also urged that necessary services be located in the building with residents or at least nearby, that expectations for residents’ behavior are articulated and that organizations administering the housing be responsive to neighbors and act quickly to address any concerns.
The chronically homeless are not the only homeless population that needs assistance, as the increase in homeless families shows. The pending loss of the Everett Housing Authority’s Baker Heights units and the federal government’s move away from federal housing to vouchers and an increase in rental costs, poses a different problem for Everett and other cities in the county that also must be addressed by increasing the inventory of affordable housing.
But finding stable housing for those most vulnerable to crime, addiction and untreated mental illness will improve lives and the community. Everett is following the right path in providing and raising the capital to build facilities that can be operated by partners in the community who have experience in providing services.
“How it gets done,” said Larsen, to a nearly full house at the Historic Everett Theatre on Monday night, “is by having all these people in a room who care.”