Solutions to Cowlitz County’s homelessness problem are a lot closer than they seem, according to Commissioner Dennis Weber.
In a column in the Kelso -Longview Chamber of Commerce November newsletter, Weber outlines a five-point plan to “end our reputation as a willing dumping ground for the region’s homeless while creating successful, life-transforming programs.”
Weber’s proposal focuses on opening multiple therapeutic group homes as a way to house chronically homeless individuals while providing them counseling and treatment.
The county has a “remarkable” record of success helping most of those who become homeless each year, his column says. But Weber told The Daily News on Thursday the county doesn’t have a specific program to help the homeless with the most severe problems.
“Among the homeless are around 50-60 left behind in the encampments, some hidden in plain view and others blatantly invading public parks and facilities,” his column says. “Among them are predators and drug pushers who need to be driven away. The rest are victims who are considered by the federal government as ‘chronic homeless.’ ”
Weber serves on the boards of several social service agencies, and most government funding for local homeless programs gets funneled through the county commissioners, giving him a broad perspective on the problem.
Chronically homeless are individuals that have a disability who are unsheltered or in an emergency shelter who have been homeless for at least one year, or at least four separate occasions in the last three years for a combined 12 months, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The department defines a disability as a physical, mental or emotional impairment caused by alcohol or drug abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, a brain injury, developmental disability or AIDS. According to the 2019 Cowlitz County Point in Time Count, 91 people in the county were reported as chronically homeless.
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In his chamber column, Weber proposes finding funds to open at least two therapeutic group homes, as well as a medical transition group home, to house homeless patients released from the emergency room.
The therapeutic homes, at least one for men and one for women, could in part be patterned after Lower Columbia CAP’s existing group home, Weber said. The CAP home houses up to six residents and provides them case management, assistance accessing services and help connecting them to other benefits.
Many people who could live in the group homes have some source of income that could cover at least some rent and utility costs, Weber said. Funding the support services for the residents, such as counseling, is the missing piece, he said.
Weber said the homes could be partially funded through new legislation that allows counties and cities to keep a portion of sales tax collected in their jurisdictions for homeless and affordable housing programs. The county could collect $140,000 to $280,000 annually, depending on how many cities decide to collect the tax. The commissioners and the city councils of Longview and Kelso have all approved it.
The commissioners, the county Health and Human Services Department and city officials have discussed the best way to use the tax revenue, Weber said. Nothing has been decided, he said.
Weber also suggests expanded peer-counseling programs for individuals and families with less severe needs. Peer counseling pairs individuals in recovery with trained counselors who share their life experiences and who have recovered from addiction.
He said there is a “false narrative” that there are no openings in housing programs, so there needs to be an effort to track and communicate these openings among service providers.
“We’re making progress, just slowly,” Weber said.