WENATCHEE — Kids have had a rough couple of years. In 12 local school districts, the number of homeless children increased between 2007 and 2009, and even doubled in some places.
In Wenatchee, nearly 70 more students did not have a reliable place to sleep last school year compared to 2007-08. Of Wenatchee’s 572 homeless students last year, 186 lived in a shelter.
“The poverty rate in our district is quite high,” said Suzanne Stanton, homeless student liaison for the Wenatchee School District. “If there’s high poverty rate, then you know more families are having housing issues. They just don’t have a sustainable income.”
Stanton helps families stabilize by networking with other social services for whatever they need — food stamps, bus passes, warm clothes or school supplies.
“I try to help them find a place to put their feet down and build roots,” Stanton said. “That’s the great American dream.”
Every school district has at least one homeless student liaison. Wenatchee’s homeless population tends to be greater because it’s the regional hub of social services.
In addition to the economy, the growing awareness of the homeless student support program is contributing to the increased numbers.
Most homeless students join the program through teacher referrals and word-of-mouth between families, Stanton said. She discovered one family because “a first-grade girl goes to school and tells her teacher she’s scared because she doesn’t know where she’s going to sleep,” Stanton said.
WENATCHEE — Artemio Salas held court against the bumper of a long-parked car, grateful for his new hat.
The homeless orchard worker and commercial fisherman, troubled by failing eyesight, accepted the knit cap and other sundries from Mariah Terhaar and her team as they assessed the Wenatchee Valley’s unhoused population Thursday night. Salas, 60, is one of about eight men who bunk in their cars south of the Sen. George Sellar Bridge in Wenatchee. He’s been there seven months, working whatever pruning jobs he can find and waiting to see a doctor about his eyes.
“Maybe in a couple of days, something,” he said with a chuckle.
Salas and most of his neighbors filled out surveys for the annual “Point-in-Time” count of homeless persons, carried out by volunteers with the Women’s Resource Center and other nonprofit agencies. The rough census, in which workers fan out to sites known as bunking-down points for those without housing, helps determine the amount of government funding to local homeless shelters and support agencies.
About 15 people formed teams to gather data in Wenatchee, East Wenatchee, Entiat, Cashmere, Dryden and even more rural areas. Terhaar was part of a four-person team surveying Wenatchee from south to north, mostly in riverside areas. Team leader Ryan Johnson shepherded the group around in a van, and volunteers quizzed homeless respondents and passed out clothing, blankets and toiletry kits along the way.
“I’ve been doing this for 13 years, and I’m learning more tonight,” said Carolyn Perry, a WRC case manager. “You start recognizing being homeless as a culture — how it happens, why you are homeless.”
Statewide, the 2009 Point-in-Time count tallied 22,827 persons as homeless. Four hundred of those were in the Chelan-Douglas region, and more than 570 in Okanogan County. Results of the current count won’t be known for several weeks; the survey checks gender, age, disabilities, income sources and the root causes of homelessness — domestic violence, unemployment, mental illness, substance abuse and so on.
For most of the night, team member Santos Martinez guided the group to likely shelter spots and made initial contacts with homeless inhabitants. Formerly homeless himself, he now lives and works at the WRC’s Bruce Transitional Housing center, and uses his Spanish skills when dealing with clients on the phone.
“That’s an advantage of having a Bruce resident here with us who actually has lived on the streets before,” Johnson said. “He knows how to approach people and how to talk to folks. That’s a real asset for our group.”
Martinez’s Spanish skills came in handy too, especially when Perry tried to introduce herself to Salas and his neighbors with, “Mi nombre Carolyn,” but accidentally replaced “nombre” with “hambre.”
“She said ‘I’m hungry!’ ” Martinez guffawed. Perry herself laughed along, as did all the survey subjects.
The survey followed up on the annual Community Resource Fair at the Wenatchee Community Center, which served an estimated 500 visitors Thursday by passing out food, clothing, blankets, hygiene kits and resource consultation.
“Five hundred is far and away the most we’ve ever had,” said WRC Executive Director Phoebe Nelson. “We opened it up to the whole community this year, people who were low-income as well as those who were homeless.”
Salas could qualify in either category, and often in both. He’s come and gone from the Wenatchee area for 10 years, living a mostly migrant lifestyle — moving from Texas to Montana to Alaska, wherever the agricultural or fishing jobs could be had.
“I’ve been a couple of months, no work,” he said Thursday, from under his new brown cap. “… It’s sometimes a lot of money, sometimes not any. But it’s OK. Maybe next month, something.”
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123