NCW — A lack of affordable housing leads to homelessness.
That’s what community experts, nonprofit organizers and political leaders in Chelan and Douglas counties say. Both counties together have the second highest per-capita homeless rate in the state, right behind King County, according to the city of Wenatchee and data from the U.S. Census Bureau and state Department of Commerce.
The issue is there are not enough houses and apartments to get people off the streets and end the cycle of homelessness, Chelan County Commissioner Kevin Overbay said. Overbay sits on the Chelan-Douglas Homelessness Steering Committee, which decides how to spend over $1 million a year to fight homelessness in the two counties.
“What we lack right now is that low-income housing piece to assist these folks who are currently homeless,” Overbay said. “So it is OK for me to give you a housing voucher, but what do you do with it? Put it in your pocket and walk around.”
Here’s the situation the counties face, based on data from the state Department of Commerce and interviews with shelter officials:
♦ In the last 10 years, Chelan and Douglas counties’ homeless population has averaged 386 people.
♦ The homeless population in Chelan and Douglas counties jumped from 370 in 2017 to 474 in 2018. This year’s count took place Jan. 24. Results will be available in a couple months.
♦ More than 140 of those 474 people were unsheltered as of the annual 2018 homeless count, meaning they live on the streets, in cars or buildings not meant for humans.
♦ Wenatchee has three emergency shelters run by nonprofits. All of them require sobriety. There are few beds people with physical disabilities, women and children.
♦ The Chelan-Douglas Homelessness Steering Committee is working toward a housing-first model that focuses on adding more affordable housing. A housing-first model first gets people off the streets and then deals with mental illness and addictions. People don’t need to be made “ready” to receive stable housing by living in a shelter first.
♦ The Wenatchee area has a 2 percent vacancy rate for all types of rental housing, according to Pacific Appraisal Associates.
♦ Chelan and Douglas counties also have one of the highest median rent price for one-bedroom apartments outside of the Puget Sound area, according to the University of Washington’s Runstad Department of Real Estate. Yakima County has the lowest rent rates for one-bedroom in the state overall.
“When we take a look at that we’ve been doing it is like OK, ‘Have we been able to reduce our homelessness in the last 10 years?’” Overbay said. “And it is really a ‘no.’”
There is some hope on the horizon, though, he said. Catholic Charities Housing Services is building a 67-unit low-income housing facility that will open in fall 2019. Chelan County provided $724,000 in funding for the project.
Catholic Charities housing
The project will be the first permanent supportive housing development that the Diocese of Yakima has built, said Bryan Ketcham, Catholic Housing Services director in Yakima. It will have 33 rooms set aside for the chronically homeless. They will not be required to be clean and sober to get housing.
Five of the 67 rooms will be ADA compliant and the other rooms will be rent-controlled at a variety of income levels. All of the rooms can be made ADA compliant.
“There is a significant need in Wenatchee,” Ketcham said. “You know the vacancy rate has been hovering at 1 or 2 percent for many years. It is a very, very tight rental market and that causes rents to increase.”
Wenatchee’s housing market was a key factor in Catholic Charities investing in this project, he said. The low vacancy rate over several years and organic growth of the community has created challenges, including homelessness.
“If you contract supply then pricing goes up,” Ketcham said. “So families can get priced out of homes. And that is what we’ve seen in Wenatchee where some families are working families that can’t afford a place to live.”
A low-barrier shelter
A housing-first model is probably years away. Wenatchee has 143 people living on the streets right now.
Some of the 143 don’t want to be in a shelter. But for those who do there are still barriers to finding places to stay. All of the area’s current agencies providing shelter or housing services are private or nonprofit and have their own rules or regulations, including curfews, religious study requirements, bans on personal pets and more.
The city also does not directly run shelters or provide housing for the homeless, said Sandra Van Osten, city of Wenatchee housing programs coordinator. Instead, the city combats homelessness by giving out $1.1 million to $1.5 million on behalf of the Homelessness Steering Committee. The money funds 11 agencies and about 20 programs.
Van Osten said the plan is to use that funding to remove shelter barriers.
But organizations may not be receptive to that strategy.
One of the biggest providers in the valley, Lighthouse Ministries, does not accept government funding, because it is a Christian organization and doesn’t wish to be regulated by the government, Lighthouse Pastor Shawn Arington said.
Arington said he hasn’t heard of anyone else who might be able to open their doors for people who are still using narcotics.
“I personally don’t know anyone who wants to invest money into a place that doesn’t promote sobriety,” he said.
When Lighthouse Ministries first opened Gospel House’s doors it didn’t require people to be clean and sober, Arington said. But it slowly developed those rules because of safety and other issues.
“There are triggers,” he said. “(People) see someone who is high, it immediately triggers them to want to be high.”
It would be wonderful if a low-barrier shelter did enter the community, though, Arington said. The low-barrier and higher-barrier shelters could then work with each other. If someone relapsed they could then go to the low-barrier shelter until they were ready to go clean again, get a job and find permanent housing.
The Homelessness Steering Committee hasn’t made any suggestions about establishing a publicly run shelter, Wenatchee Mayor Frank Kuntz said. But the city of Wenatchee would look at that possibility if it was suggested.
“If they came to us and said we’re better off taking 10 years of the money and building a shelter, I think the city would look hard at taking 10 years of the money and building a shelter,” Kuntz said. “But no one has said that is the best bang for the buck at this point.”
Municipalities are required by state law to create 10-year action plans for combating homelessness.
To assist those efforts the state provides funding, which comes from document recording fees in each county’s auditor’s office, said Sandra Van Osten, city of Wenatchee housing programs coordinator. The state collects those fees and then gives them back to the counties as grants earmarked for projects to end homelessness.
Chelan and Douglas counties, as well as the cities of Wenatchee and East Wenatchee, work together in that effort, Van Osten said. The counties’ Homelessness Action Plan receives about $1.1 million to $1.5 million per year through their document recording fees.
In 2015, the Chelan-Douglas Homelessness Steering Committee, which includes government representatives and several organizations, redid its 10-year action plan with a focus on a “housing first” model. The idea is that people don’t need to be made “ready” for stable housing. Instead they can be given apartments and then be provided with chemical dependency or behavioral health services.
The committee is redoing its action plan this year for the next five years, Van Osten said. It will focus on removing barriers to entry into shelters and several other priorities. The plan will be finished by December 2019.
“One of the priorities is families with children so that is a real area of emphasis,” Van Osten said. “The other area is chronically homeless, unsheltered individuals.”
The city of Wenatchee is tasked with managing those funds through agreements with municipalities in Chelan and Douglas counties, she said.
It provides grants, with direction from the Homelessness Steering Committee, to organizations who fit into the mission and goals of the Homelessness Action Plan.
The homelessness picture in Wenatchee may look worse than it is in reality, Mayor Frank Kuntz says.
Wenatchee’s unique geographical location and access to services may increase the number of homeless in the region, Kuntz said. Wenatchee receives the homeless for most of North Central Washington, because of Central Washington Hospital and other chemical dependency and behavioral health treatment centers.
“We are really providing it for Okanogan County as well and Grant County as well,” Kuntz said. “To me it is the same service area as Confluence Health, so from here to the Canadian border, because we are the urban center for that entire area.”
Also, Chelan and Douglas counties’ homeless population numbers have stayed relatively the same over the years, they haven’t increased like some urban areas in the state, he said.
“The numbers haven’t changed much,” Kuntz said. “But they’ve gotten a lot worse in other cities and they haven’t gotten a lot worse here. I would take that as a positive.”
The Wenatchee World is taking a deeper look at the area’s housing crisis.
Our reporters in the coming months will tell the stories of renters to first-time homebuyers to businesses struggling to house job-seekers. We start today with a report on the homeless.