YAKIMA — Business owners in Yakima say problems from homelessness have not gotten better, and they want to know what city officials plan to do about it.

Verlynn Best and Bob Gerst, the CEO and board chairman of the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce, wrote in an Oct. 31 letter to the city council that business owners continue to confront messes left by homeless people, ranging from cigarette stubs and needles to leftover food and feces, as well as ransacked trash cans and dumpster fires.

Open drug use, customer harassment and difficulty recruiting new businesses downtown are other complications due to homelessness in the city, the letter said. The chamber asked the council to develop a plan with definite deadlines to resolve the issues within the next six months.

At a work session this week, the Yakima City Council directed city staff to research possible rehabilitation grants, which would award funding to nonprofits to improve housing units, as well as to track down more data about the existing distribution and need for rental assistance vouchers to increase affordable housing options.

Council also asked the city’s planning department to draft a permitting process, as exists in the city of Olympia, allowing religious organizations to establish temporary shelters on their properties.

Senior Assistant City Attorney Sara Watkins noted that statute allows the organizations to create the temporary shelters, but the permitting process would allow the city to define how long a shelter could remain open, as well as collect the organization’s contact information in the event of community complaints.

Watkins also highlighted data from the county’s most recent point in time survey, which identified 818 homeless individuals in the county, of which 172 people were classified as chronically homeless. The count indicated 509 homeless resided within Yakima city limits, she added.

Service providers said earlier this year they thought the 2019 figures were an undercount.

Watkins recapped some of what the city already has done to address homelessness concerns, including extending Camp Hope’s lease through 2025, with two-year renewal options through 2029, and approving the Clean City Project.

The project will include collaborative enforcement by the Yakima Police Department, the city’s Codes and Public Works departments, and a refuse code enforcement officer. The city also plans to contract with a case manager, with a contract finalized by April 2020, Watkins said.

Watkins added that the council also would retain a portion of sales tax, to direct toward affordable housing, through House Bill 1406. She estimated that measure would bring in about $140,000 each year. She added the city would not start seeing those funds until March 2020.

Ideas considered by the city council for that eventual funding included constructing new housing, awarding grant money to nonprofits to rehabilitate units, or partnering with a community organization to provide rental assistance.

The council last month approved a plan to tackle enforcement of the city’s no-camping ordinance.

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