The face of homeless in our area is changing
Blog: Common Ground
July 4, 2012
A local task force is working diligently to come up with a plan to address homelessness in Chelan and Douglas counties for the next 10 years. In attending meetings of the task force, I was shocked to learn how many people are homeless and the complexity of the issues involved.
The City of Wenatchee is the lead agency in coming up with the homeless plan, with the support of Chelan and Douglas Counties. The city received a grant to do the work and contracted with Marilyn Dold to oversee the project.
There are conflicting estimates of the number of homeless. Probably the best count comes from the school districts, which report that there were 986 homeless in the two counties 2011. There is also a one-day count of all homeless that totaled 1,098 in 2011. Those numbers don't square, so it's almost certain that the actual number of those living in substandard housing is far greater.
The numbers, to no one's surprise, are on the rise. The one-day homeless count numbers were up 13 percent from the previous year. What's driving the increase is the combination of low wages in the region combined with relatively high housing costs, Dold said. The economic misery of the recession is certainly taking its toll. Local food banks are reporting a 37 percent increase in visits from 2009.
Most of this is invisible to those of us in the community. There will always be those with chronic drug, alcohol or mental health issues — the chronically homeless. They present one set of challenges. The new homeless have different characteristics. Many of them are working but don't make enough money to get by. A surprising number of children are homeless in the valley. The Wenatchee School District, according to Dold, has the third highest per-capita homeless population in the state. In Orondo, the statistics show that 40 percent of the students are homeless.
The term homeless can mean different things. Multiple families may be living in a household to save money, they may be couch surfing with friends or they may be living in cars. "You can imagine how difficult it is for children to come to school and perform when they're living in those sorts of situations," Dold said.
Compounding the issue is that in a down economy, Dold said, donations are down and social service agency resources are extremely stretched. State and federal funding for programs has been impacted. Furthermore, with more people looking for housing and jobs, employers become more picky about who they hire. Those who have been homeless have a more difficult time getting opportunities.
To solve this issue will take more than building homeless facilities. A one-size-fits-all approach has no chance of working, Dold told me. It's going to take a coordinated effort involving social service agencies, businesses and members of the community.
These are difficult problems but our communities consistently step up to these kinds of challenges. Getting a handle on the scope of the problem is the crucial first step.
If you would like to watch my interview with Dold, please log on to wenatcheeworld.com and click on videos.