YAKIMA — Mayor Kathy Coffey says Yakima is facing a homeless crisis and something must be done.
During a council meeting last week, she said the city needs to look at proposals to address the issue and determine what resources will be required.
“I think that right now Yakima is facing a crisis and we’re at a tipping point ... ,” she said. “It has to be addressed now, not next year, but now.”
Calling Yakima’s homeless problem a crisis is a matter of perspective, service providers say.
In terms of the number of homeless people in a city of our size, Yakima is about average, said Rhonda Hauff, chief operating officer at Yakima Neighborhood Health Services.
But from a moral standpoint, many do consider it a crisis, including Hauff.
“If it’s me or somebody that I love that’s living on the streets, I would definitely call that a crisis,” she said.
The Yakima council in 2016 banned unauthorized camping on public property. Earlier this month, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark ruling on a camping ban in Boise, Idaho. It said if a city doesn’t have enough shelter beds available, enforcing a camping ban like Boise’s violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Boise is appealing.
The city of Yakima has been involved with setting up Camp Hope, a temporary homeless shelter, as an alternative to unauthorized camping. The camp is near the intersection of Interstate 82 and East Nob Hill Boulevard. The city has also been working on plans for a permanent shelter on the property.
Councilman Brad Hill said the city has an emergency bed threshold it needs to achieve, it needs to have proper ordinances, and “there’s enforcement, which means money, which means personnel.”
Hill said he considers the issue a priority as the city heads into budget season. The council unanimously agreed to direct staff to prepare a proposal on funding needed “to address the no-camping ordinance.”
“I just think we’re eventually going to be told resources are part of the problem, so we need to get after that,” he said.
The city’s homeless problem isn’t as extreme as other parts of the state, service providers say.
In Yakima County — population of about 250,000 — 1 out of 400 people are homeless, for a total of about 635 homeless people.
In King County, 1 in about 212 people are homeless. King County boasts a much larger population — nearly 2.2 million — and more than 10,300 are homeless, according to figures provided by Mike Johnson, executive director of the Union Gospel Mission in Yakima. He used to direct the mission’s operations in downtown Seattle.
Although Yakima’s homeless problem may be about average, there’s still a shortage of shelter beds, as well as transitional and affordable housing, service providers say.
The Union Gospel Mission serves about 300 unique visitors a month, and houses about 200 men and women and children overnight, Johnson said.
Rod’s House, a drop-in center for homeless youth, is seeing a steady increase in youths and young adults seeking services. Last year the center helped 380 unduplicated youths and young adults.
This year, the center has helped 300 unique visitors, said Josh Jackson, the center’s director.
“I anticipate that we’re going to be close to last year’s number if not exceed it,” he said. “We always pick up at the end of the year. It’s been a busy September.”
A matter of perspective
Although there hasn’t been a sudden spike in homeless statistics in recent years here, homeless people are more visible since Yakima County officials in December 2012 banned camping along the Yakima River.