WENATCHEE — A public hearing on homeless housing is likely to occur next month after the Wenatchee City Council asked for an ordinance to help fund a potential sleep center and provide low-barrier housing.
“I think this is a great idea to move forward and I think we really need to get the public’s engagement as much as possible with this,” Councilman Keith Huffaker said at the end of Thursday’s council work session.
Mayor Frank Kuntz, though he conceded he doesn’t get a vote on the matter, said the city would need to partner with one of the ‘three biggies’ — East Wenatchee, Chelan County or Douglas County — for him to be a yes. And the rest of the council seemed to agree.
Kuntz said both Chelan and Douglas counties are not like to partner with the city.
“I have a hard time doing this by ourselves, we need another government entity to do this together,” Kuntz said. “Our best bet is the city of East Wenatchee. (Mayor Jerrilea Crawford) is aware of this conversation and I think those conversations are taking place with their council members — who meet for a work session Feb. 25.”
Kuntz proposed drafting an ordinance for a 1/10 of 1% sales tax contingent on either East Wenatchee or one of the two counties coming together to pool resources and tackle the issue.
“Just like that it makes it so we’re saying ‘we’re here, and we’re looking for a partner,’” Kuntz said. “On Feb. 25 we’ll know.”
Councilwoman Linda Herald opened the discussion by explaining that while the current programs in place for the homeless (Lighthouse Ministries and St. Jude’s Landing) are helping decrease the number of homeless overall, they are not having any impact on the chronically homeless — defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as an “individual with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more.”
“There are currently no low-barrier shelters in Chelan or Douglas counties,” Herald said. “And the current shelters won’t admit them simply because they are drug and alcohol addicted and they’re faith-based organizations and will not give them shelter.
“I’ll just say this, the county commissioners for Chelan and Douglas counties have not given us any support on this; they have not taken a look at (House Bill) 1590 — implemented last June, which allows cities to levy a local sales and use tax to provide affordable housing — nor do they intend to.
The councilwoman said most of the chronically homeless population suffers from mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction. “We have a serious problem and it is only going to get worse,” Herald said. “We are not going to be able to walk away from this, we need to do something.”
Wenatchee housing program coordinator Sandra Van Osten said that on any given night in Chelan and Douglas counties, there are 350 or more homeless people — 266 of whom are classified as sheltered and a group of about 84 who are out on the streets.
“About 43 of those are chronically homeless, and that’s the group that is most vulnerable to disabilities or health issues and have lived for extended periods on the street,” she said. “Those are the most visible groups in the community. And due to some recent rulings (Martin v. City of Boise), law enforcement has their hands tied. Unless there is a viable low barrier option available, it’s unconstitutional to (forcefully remove or arrest them).”
Wenatchee Police Chief Steve Crown echoed those sentiments, saying that using the criminal justice system to deal with homelessness is like slapping a Band-Aid on the problem.
“It’s highly expensive and not efficient,” he said. “We feel really strongly that sleep centers — like the ones in Moses Lake and Walla Walla — are the best solution for that short period where we are trying to get them into additional programs and get them into that next level of stable housing around the city,” the chief said.
“It helps us do the humanitarian things; getting them to a place where they can try to get some sleep, wake up the next morning and then that is where wraparound services need to be ready to go and be aggressive about it.
“We have too many service providers expecting people to walk in the door or pick up a phone. We cannot approach homelessness in that fashion, it is a loser every day of the week.”