If the numbers are accurate, the community’s efforts to combat homelessness are working — though slowly.
According to a report from the Washington Department of Commerce, the prevalence of homelessness in Cowlitz County decreased by 28 percent from 2007 to 2017.
During the same time, the raw number of homelessness people in the state has not changed much, though that could be due to the state’s burgeoning population, which has outpaced that of Cowlitz County.
Homeless estimates are based on an annual “point in time” count and can be highly variable. In Cowlitz County, for example, about 460 homeless people were counted in 2007, and the number hit a decade-long low of about 225 in 2014 before rising again in 2015 and 2016. Last year it fell to about 330. Overall, the 10-year trend is showing slow improvement.
Gena James, county human services manager, said many factors affect homelessness, so it's hard to know what efforts and factors are behind the decline. But the efforts of local organizations are helping, she said.
“What we are doing is contributing to the continuum that helps folks and it is helping the community,” James said.
Cowlitz County has a multitude of programs and services for low-income and homeless individuals and households. The county contracts with some of these organizations to provide services for specific funding.
James said the Cowlitz County commissioners have approved six contracts financed through document recording fees. Most are continuing programs from last year, including a permanent supportive housing project with Lower Columbia CAP, funding for the Emergency Support Shelter and three contracts with Love Overwhelming. There is a new contract with Cowlitz Community Network for financial literacy training.
Love Overwhelming has contracts with the county to operate coordinated entry; prevention and diversion programs; and permanent supportive housing. The commissioners renewed the contracts for two of those programs through the end of the year on Sept. 4. The contract for permanent supportive housing is on the commission’s agenda for Tuesday to be renewed through June 2019. The contracts are for a total of $216,000. For the 18-month period starting Jan. 1, 2017, the county paid Love Overwhelming $477,000 for these services.
Coordinated entry connects those who are or at the risk of being homeless to housing options and support services. Prevention and diversion is a part of coordinated entry for those who are at risk of losing housing. Love Overwhelming Director Chuck Hendrickson said the organization has run coordinated entry since 2014. The program has had “incredible” results, Hendrickson said.
Love Overwhelming evaluated 1,367 families through coordinated entry from January 2017 to June 2018. The system is an improvement over previous years, when people had to jump from agency to agency to get services, he said.
“Coordinated entry has become a hub for people who are homeless or who are about to become homeless,” Hendrickson said.
Melissa Taylor, program development director for Lower Columbia CAP, said adopting the coordinated entry approach saves social service agencies and applicants time by streamlining the referral process.
Numbers of homeless individuals and households should drop as the system gets better at helping people quickly resolve problems that can lead to homelessness, Taylor said.
Providing intervention programs for homeless or those at risk of losing housing helps the community as a whole, she said.
“If families were left on their own, they would end up spending thousands in public resources,” Taylor said. “So if we weren’t here, they would be trying to access other resources in an inefficient way.”
James said those who go through coordinated entry complete an assessment, are assigned a vulnerability score, find out what programs they are eligible for and are referred to the appropriate services. Those needing housing are put into a housing pool list. From January 2017 to June 2018, 1,425 households were active in the housing pool. James said the clog in the system is a shortage of affordable housing.
“A ton of people are coming in but there is nowhere near enough resources they are eligible for,” James said.
Rental vacancy rate is also low in the county. According to the state Department of Commerce, Cowlitz County’s rental vacancy rate dropped from 5 percent in 2015 to 0.9 percent in 2016. The rate improved to 1.2 percent in 2017, but it’s still below the state average of 3.8 percent.
Funding is also a challenge for everyone who fights homelessness, Taylor said. Costs to assist people with housing and other needs have increased, but funding has not, she said. On top of rental cost, Taylor said CAP is assisting those who have more barriers and stay in the program longer.
“All these things make it more challenging for providers to make a dent overall,” Taylor said.
The Legislature increased the document recording fees and made them permanent during its last session. Taylor said the change hasn’t showed up on the ground, but it will definitely help when it does.
But document recording fees are just one funding source for homeless and housing programs, and not all programs get that money.
Frank Morrison, executive director of the Community House on Broadway in Longview, said funding operations is the organization’s biggest challenge. Community House relies primarily on donations and other grants for funding.
Morrison said he has seen improvements in the six years he’s been at Community House. One would be the starting CORE Health in 2015. The practice offers behavioral health services and programs to Community House residents and the overall area. Morrison said starting the program spurred other agencies to step up their services.
Despite the downward trends in homeless numbers, all agencies agree the problem won’t end anytime soon.
“We’ve always had homelessness and always will,” Taylor said. “The goal is to make it as rare, brief and one-time for as many people as we can.”
The commissioners renewed the contracts for two of those programs through the end of the year on Sept. 4. The contract for permanent supportive housing is on the commission’s agenda for Tuesday to be renewed through June 2019. The contracts are for a total of $216,000. For the 18-month period starting Jan. 1, 2017, the county paid Love Overwhelming $477,000 for these services.