At any given time there are as many as 3,000 residents of Grays Harbor County who are not stably housed and 500 to 700 of them are literally homeless. That’s from the latest report on homelessness from the county Health Department, which also says there is little in the way of affordable housing to address the needs. According to the report, for every 100 low income households in the county, there are only 17 units of safe, affordable housing available.
The recently completed report, for 2019-24 and called the Five-Year Plan to Address Unmet Housing Needs, focuses on several areas contributing to homelessness, from mental health to a lack of affordable housing.
“We have made the effort to highlight the importance of those longer-range ingredients of success,” said Grays Harbor County Housing Resource Coordinator Cassie Lentz. “That includes the availability of affordable housing for all income brackets, as well as connections to other sectors of service.”
Those “other sectors” include employment, health care, including mental health care, and many others.
“They all have to be growing together in order for meaningful progress to be made,” said Lentz. “It’s not simply a financial shortfall in resources. If we don’t have housing units people can afford to move in to, if they don’t have a job to move themselves into self-sufficiency, or if they can’t get health care to stabilize themselves we are just treading water.”
To facilitate a cohesive, focused effort, a group made up of county housing and employment management staff, directors of behavioral health services and the county have been meeting for the past year and a half through a pilot program funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant, said Lentz.
The 5-year plan was borne out of the county’s 10-year Plan to End Homelessness. The first plan was a requirement by the state under the 2005 state Homeless Housing and Assistance Act. That plan was updated in 2016; in 2018, the Legislature passed specific guidelines and requirements that had to be included in each county’s plan; part of that legislation was going from a 10-year to a 5-year plan, and allowances for “additional flexibility” in naming the plan.
“Using the terminology ‘to end homelessness’ without resources to adequately fund efforts to end homelessness (caused) negative impacts with communicating the plan and with our community partners,” said Lentz. “We were left with the feeling the community had failed when homelessness didn’t end in 10 years, when there weren’t funds and systems in place to do so.”
The overall mission of the plan is to make homelessness “rare, brief and one-time,” according to the report. The goal is to reduce the number of literally homeless by 49 percent, decrease the length of time homeless from 77 to 60 days, increase the access to permanent housing, and decrease the number of people who return to homelessness, all by 2021.
To fully implement the plan, to reduce the number of newly homeless by 53 and to increase the amount of assistance available by 220 people per year, the cost would be a little , according to the report. Potential funding sources include the State Office of Homeless Youth, and federal sources like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
An overall lack of funding is among the key roadblocks to providing affordable housing and the multitude of services needed to address homelessness, especially when it comes to addressing immediate needs, said Karolyn Holden, Grays Harbor Public Health and Social Services Director.
Holden said the “frightful urgency” of addressing the very public problem requires a different response and in a sense competes with sustainable solutions. “There is an urgency to get people sheltered and safe, especially in cold weather, but that’s not necessarily what the people who give us funding want to support because it doesn’t solve the long term problem.”
There is competition for funding and grants are often awarded based on the largest number of people served.
“In some limited grant opportunities we have sought in the past it has been a challenge when one of the requirements is based on how many people you can serve, what is the cost per person ratio,” said Lentz. “And there is always going to be a foundational level we can’t get below to purchase basic services.”
The cost of such services factor in things like an appropriate amount of staffing to handle the case load, people at the administrative level to coordinate the efforts and providing infrastructure for the services offered. In more sparsely populated areas that typically raises the cost per person served, making the county less attractive to some grants.
Holder said, while Grays Harbor County might be at a disadvantage in some ways in terms of getting grants, it’s the overall lack of funding for a problem that hits communities big and small across the state.
Lentz said there are two primary sources for funding, state and local. A “somewhat stable” source of funds comes through document recording fees collected statewide.
“Everything beyond that is competitively applied for,” said Lentz. “Unfortunately, that puts us in direct competition with other rural or semi-rural counties with just as much need as we do.”
The report includes an appendix that talks about how community members can help contribute to the plan to tackle homelessness in the region.
“Citizens who want to help, there are a few things outlined, like volunteering time and money,” said Lentz.
Specifically noted in the report is a designated United Way “Pooled Benevolence” fund, in which donations are pooled and provided to help assist families trying to stay housed.
“We’re excited about the partnership with the United Way and the county designated fund for homeless prevention,” said Lentz. “It’s another tool in the tool box to help prevent people” from entering the cycle of homelessness.”
To view the plan, go to healthygh.org and click on the housing and homelessness link.