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With homelessness on the rise, Spokane organizations welcome federal dollars, fear state funds may be in peril

Catholic Charities President Robert J. McCann shakes hands with Spokane Mayor David Condon on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, during a blessing and opening of the new Donna Hanson Haven housing community in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Catholic Charities President Robert J. McCann shakes hands with Spokane Mayor David Condon on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, during a blessing and opening of the new Donna Hanson Haven housing community in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Nearly $4 million in federal funding was awarded to Spokane-area organizations Thursday, dollars aimed at ending homelessness at a time when the number of homeless people is on the rise in Spokane and across the West.

But affordable housing advocates say partisan indecision in Olympia threatens far more funding, and warn the clock is ticking ahead of a Jan. 17 deadline imperiling $827 million of new affordable housing construction.

Thursday’s grant funding of more than $3.7 million by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development goes to the region’s Continuum of Care organization, which is led by the city of Spokane and is made up of homeless advocates and providers working together to prevent and end homeless. Locally, those organizations include Catholic Charities Spokane, Volunteers of America, Transitions and others.

Catholic Charities won the most grants, and will receive almost $1.5 million.

Nadine Van Stone, vice president of crisis response and shelters, said the money helps homeless individuals and families.

“We’re using some of that money to stabilize people who are just moving into the new Donna Hanson Haven,” a 51-unit high-rise on Second Avenue, Van Stone said. “The average length of homelessness for those folks is something like 10 years. We help them transition back into housing again, which can be very difficult.”

The HUD funding also goes to direct rental assistance by helping people find good landlords, locate houses they can afford and pay their rent. Catholic Charities’ grants will also be used in coordinated entry programs, which help people in a housing crisis quickly connect to services; and in transitional housing for homeless families, which is the step between staying in a shelter and permanent housing.

Volunteers of America Spokane also received a substantial slice of the HUD funding, with $1.3 million.

Jon Carollo, director of development and community engagement with VOA Spokane, said the majority of the dollars will go to housing chronically homeless individuals in 122 apartments in the Spokane area.

Its funding also goes to programs aimed at homeless youth. Two are aimed at pregnant and parenting homeless youth at Alexandria’s House, a state-licensed maternity home for 16- to 18-year-old girls, and the Aston-Bleck Apartments for 18- to 21-year-old pregnant and parenting mothers. About $20,000 goes to Crosswalk, which helps homeless and at-risk children between the ages of 13 and 17.

“For the chronically homeless, it’s the vast majority of money we receive. If we lost that funding, we would not be able to keep those apartments,” Carollo said. “For the youth programs, it’s the core funding.”

Rob McCann, president of Catholic Charities Spokane, said the federal funding was also necessary for his organization.

“The Continuum of Care funding that comes through the city is absolutely essential in our current strategy to try and solve homelessness in Spokane,” McCann said, noting that keeping homeless shelters open 24 hours a day is “dependent on this kind of funding.”

State inaction risks other funding

McCann said the federal HUD dollars stand in stark contrast to the risk such funding is experiencing at the state level.

Most affordable housing developers rely on the federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit program. To qualify for the tax credit, which has a Jan. 17 application deadline, all other financing must be put in place. Many of the projects that need the housing credit also rely on the state Housing Trust Fund, which is funded by the state capital budget.

“We’re on the verge of losing this necessary housing because the Democrats and Republicans can’t play nice in Olympia,” McCann said, noting that upward of $827 million of new construction will be lost if the Legislature doesn’t approve a capital budget by next Wednesday. “The clock is ticking on Jan. 17. For us, all the housing we were going to build in 2018 that is for the chronically homeless, right now, that’s in great jeopardy.”

The state House was scheduled to vote on the $4.3 billion capital construction budget on Thursday, but the bill was pulled before debate started.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said the delay was made “as a sign of good faith” after a request from House Republican leaders.

“However, we won’t postpone action for long,” Sullivan said in a statement. “Too much is at stake: $4.3 billion in project investments, 19,000 jobs and federal funding for low-income housing rely on passing the capital budget.”

Homelessness on the rise

Homelessness has continued to rise in the nation, and its most pronounced increases are in the West. The primary culprit is a lack of affordable housing, particularly in tight housing markets such as Seattle and Los Angeles. According to HUD’s 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, the increasing homelessness is driven by large West Coast cities, where soaring rents and stagnant wages have pushed people out of their homes.

The report showed that more than 550,000 experienced a homeless night in 2017, a slight increase from the year before. A recent count by the Associated Press found 168,000 homeless people in Washington, Oregon and California.

Spokane’s one-day homeless count in 2017 found an 11 percent increase from the year before, with nearly 1,100 people without a home. The point-in-time count is a federally mandated tally that takes place in January and has been criticized for being done in the depths of winter, which some say depresses the true number of homeless people in the region.

In fact, the House of Charity counted 3,257 individual and “un-duplicated” men and women who used the shelter in the first nine months of 2017, suggesting that the city’s count is far deflated.

“It’s been the source of heavy debate the entire time I’ve been here,” McCann said, noting that even without frigid temperatures, homeless people are hard to count because they’re “so transient and so hard to find.”

“Nobody knows how to count homeless. There are so many factors,” he said. “It could be what’s on the menu at House of Charity. Is it fish? And nobody likes fish so nobody comes.”

This year, the city plans to improve the way it counts homeless.

“We’re just radically rethinking how we do this,” said David Lewis, the data-minded leader of the city’s homeless count.

When the city performs its annual, one-day count on Jan. 28, it will have an expanded volunteer base of 85 people, up from just 20 last year. The volunteers will use a new smartphone app to facilitate the count and expand the area where homeless will be tallied.

“We have dwarfed our past volunteer recruitment efforts with where we’re at now,” he said. “We’re going to build a cadre of trained and seasoned point-in-time count volunteers that we can count on.”

Those volunteers will be the basis of a permanent program to help the homeless year-round.

“We’re trying to get beyond just the actual count,” Lewis said. Called Everybody Counts, the program has a donation drive and seeks to create long-term connections with the homeless. Lewis said it’s “more of education than a census count.”

“We have to do this well,” he said. “We just have to do this well.”


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