2019 #4: Homelessness in Our Community: Slow and Steady Declines Impacted by Market Forces and Methodology Changes

by Brian Kennedy and Dr. Patrick Jones

As we gear up for the new year, January brings about another round of the annual point in time count of the homeless population through the nation. Numerous social workers, volunteers, non-profits, and warm hearted people take to the streets on some of the coldest days in Spokane in order to help assess the magnitude of the homelessness issue in our community.

What do the homeless look like in Spokane? It is easy to generalize what a homeless person is but they are not a homogeneous group of people. Did you know that in 2019 there were twenty-one unaccompanied minors who were homeless? Or that there were 85 homeless veterans out on the streets? Only 20% of the 1,307 were chronically homeless, meaning the other 80% are individuals like you and I who may have encountered a series of unfortunate events who have the best chance at improving their housing status through the great work our community provides.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) breaks down the population further, shedding light on what we perceive to be homeless community in our County. In 2018, 307 individuals, or 25%, had a severe mental illness; 184, or 15%, had chronic substance abuse issues; and 121, or 10%, are victims of domestic violence. All this comes from the point-in-time count.

Before jumping into the trend, observed on Indicator 6.4.5, let’s take a look at how the count is done. The Homeless Housing and Assistance Act mandates that a census be taken in an effort to count all homeless individuals living outdoors, in shelters, and in transitional housing. This census is conducted in accordance with the requirements of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The count takes place in January, specifically the 24th for the upcoming 2020 census.

In the last two years the methodology has shifted slightly. According to Sharon Stadelman of Catholic Charities Eastern Washington, the effort is now conducted over the course of 7 days. Before, outreach and the count took place all within one day. The homeless count still focuses primarily on the individuals housing status on one specific day, but outreach and contacting individuals take place over seven days. Additionally, in the last few years, volunteers are now utilizing a more mobile approach, using iPads and phones to reach individuals for real time data collection. Over the 7-day period, volunteers and agency workers spread out through the community. conducting interviews at places such as food banks and emergency shelters, and trying to get an accurate portrait of the number of individuals facing homelessness.

Starting this trend, in 2006, there were 1,592 homeless persons, of which about two thirds were sheltered and one third were not. Thirteen years later, in 2019, that number had steadily declined to 1,309, where three out of four were sheltered.

The rate has been falling as well. In 2006, Spokane experienced 3.6 homeless persons per 1,000 residents, sitting 0.2 above the state average of 3.4. By 2019 Spokane had improved its standing to the state, falling to 2.5 per 1,000, 0.4 lower than seen statewide.

As observed over the entirety of the trend, the absolute and rate of homelessness has fallen in our community. However, in the last three years that number has slightly increased from the 2016 low. The reasons contributing to the slight uptick since the 2016 low point can’t be pointed in one direction but rather a multitude of various compounding scenarios.

Kay Murano, of the Spokane Low Income Housing Alliance, states that in the aftermath of The Great Recession “emphasis on helping people out of poverty and additional funding was made available to social service agencies working to eliminate homelessness from 2008-2016. The funding worked and we saw decreases in homelessness.” The trend data certainly supports this notion. However, what she saw was that families were still struggling to make rent. This too is supported by the data, Indicator 6.2.3, shows that nearly one out of four renting households is paying 50% or more of their income goes to rent; leaving many households with very little income left for an emergency safety net. With the rental vacancy rates in the past few years the lowest they’ve been observed in nearly fifteen years, the upward pressures continue on rent; supported with data the American Community Survey, median rent price has jumped from $795 in 2015 to $921 in 2018.

In addition to compounding housing market forces, Sharon mentions that simply “shifting from conducting the count all in one day to conducting the count over the course of 7 (as mentioned above) plus the increased outreach to locations that have previously not been counted leads to gleaning higher numbers as well.” In other words, simply being more accurate in counting our homeless in recent years has added numbers. Though she does recognize this is not the only reasoning behind the recent increase, it does contribute to the recent growth.

Getting an accurate count of the issue is the first step, and in Spokane, it isn’t the only step. There is a multitude of agencies addressing this very topic. An initiative through Priority Spokane, the Community Health Worker Program, has been combating homelessness by partnering with families in schools. In addition to dialing 2-1-1 to obtain information on a variety of health and human services, 211 has launched a Facebook page that provides the community with updates on the nightly shelter bed availability. Through the Washington State’s Medicaid Transformation Demonstration, providing across Washington State are able to support people experiencing homelessness and behavioral health challenges regardless of their housing status. Catholic Charities is currently supporting close to 200 households through this program. For any additional information on services, Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners (SNAP) published a reference guide and map of emergency services available in our community.

Fighting homelessness has never been said to be an easy task. However, in Spokane County, the total number of homeless persons and the rate per 1,000 residents has been on a steady, albeit slow, decline since 2006. What is clear is that the way in which obtain information on homeless individuals has been improving, laying the foundation to accurately address the issues facing the homeless community. Whether it is through income growth, addressing affordable housing, or providing access to services through outreach, it’s important to recognize the good work being done to combat this issue.