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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane County survey finds homelessness is outside the box

Bobby Moore has two kids and no job. The 34-year-old has relied on friends for a place to sleep, but he’s tired of couch-hopping and the imminent threat of living on the streets.

Moore is homeless.

Nicholas Limbaugh is autistic and struggles to find work because of his social awkwardness. The 20-year-old lives in a shelter that helps young men.

Limbaugh is homeless.

Jason Frear lives in a tiny trailer along a dirt road with two other men. The metal trailer is propped up on rocks and has no sewer or electricity hookups. Candles light the inside at night after someone stole the car battery that provided electricity.

Frear is homeless.

Only a fraction of Spokane County’s homeless population – fewer than 100 – match the stereotype of homelessness. Instead of single men living under bridges or in cardboard boxes, Spokane’s homeless are more reflective of everyone else: They are married couples with small children, single men and women, teenagers and single parents. And they live in a variety of shelters, including abandoned buildings, motel rooms, campgrounds, bus and train stations, and cars.

The federal definition of homelessness expanded after the recession to include people on the verge of losing their home along with young people struggling to find work and a place to live.

Those changes are pushing cities to rethink how they count and help the homeless.

A year-old Spokane program – Homeless Families Coordinated Assessment – is showing dramatic results as the city collaborates with charities to provide housing, clothing, food and health care to aid the vulnerable.

Wait times for shelter have been reduced from three months to 17 days, and more than 95 percent of those who enter the housing assistance programs remain stable.

Last year, at least 1,834 families were screened, 339 families were placed in temporary housing, 504 were helped through rapid rehousing and 92 were helped through prevention, according to records kept by the assessment effort.

“There’s been a lot of success in Spokane,” said Shawna Sampson, Salvation Army Spokane’s social services director. “All the organizations serving the homeless have worked hard and collaborated a lot to help.”

A recent countywide point-in-time count will indicate the gaps in service that government officials and nonprofits need to address, and whether enough people are being reached.

Definition of ‘homeless’ is evolving

City officials are tabulating results from an annual countywide homeless count that took place Jan. 23. The number is expected to be higher than the 1,030 sheltered and unsheltered homeless counted last year, a figure that seemed low to outreach specialists who work with the homeless every day.

Several think the Spokane number is closer to 5,000.

Counting efforts were better coordinated this year, with a variety of government agencies, more nonprofits and volunteers taking part.

Still, “It’s difficult to get an accurate count because not everyone will fill out all the information,” said David Lewis, who works with the city of Spokane’s homeless management information system. “We respect whatever people are willing to share.”

Nationwide, 633,782 homeless people were counted in 2012, although the actual number is likely much higher, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Washington’s homeless population stayed about the same from 2011 to 2012.

Anna Shevchuk is among those not counted.

The 23-year-old’s hands, tipped by chipped, black-painted nails, gesture as she describes going from “couch-surfing to under-the-bridge-surfing” after being kicked out by her mother at age 19.

She stays with different friends on different days while waiting to go through drug and alcohol treatment.

“Being homeless – it’s OK,” said Shevchuk, who waves her situation off as no big deal since she’s young. The definition of homelessness used by the federal Housing and Urban Development department has changed at least twice in the past decade, expanding from street dwellers and those living in shelters to the current, much broader range.

Spokane uses the federal definition.

“It used to be you had to walk in the door and say ‘I don’t have a place to sleep tonight’ before you could receive any help,” said Lee Jones, a Housing and Urban Development spokesman.

Expanding the definition is a “good move. In the end, we were waiting until someone fell through the cracks and fell to the very bottom,” said Rob Bryceson, chairman of the Spokane Homeless Coalition. “Helping a guy who is about to be evicted stay in his apartment rather than go out on the streets makes more sense.”

Moore falls into that category.

He’s borrowed places to sleep while he searched for a permanent place to live with his 2-year-old son, Marshall, and where his 6-year-old daughter can visit on weekends. He’s applied to rent a dozen different homes, each time paying a nonrefundable application fee of around $40, only to be denied.

Moore’s monthly income is around $700 in disability pay due to chronic migraines.

Many landlords want first and last month’s rent as well as a security deposit, and “I can’t afford that,” he said. Or they don’t want to take a chance on someone with limited funds.

“I’m just hitting walls left and right,” he said, just days before being forced out of a friend’s home. “I lived on the streets with my parents for eight years, and I don’t want that for my kids.”

This weekend, Moore’s luck is turning, with the help of Catholic Charities.

The nonprofit helped him find a two-bedroom apartment in north Spokane. His children will have their own room. They will have their own kitchen and food and family dinners. They will have stability.

Shevchuk fits into a different category. The age range for homeless young adults was expanded from 18-22 up to 24 years old in 2011.

The main reason is “because of unemployment issues for youth,” Jones said. It has become “harder and harder for them to get on their feet.”

Young adults make up about 1 percent of Spokane County’s counted population.

The under-18 group, however, represents 25 percent of the homeless population in Spokane and could be much larger.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 to provide funding to address homelessness, includes in the “homeless” definition K-12 students who are living with other families or friends, a practice called “doubling up.” The definition used by Housing and Urban Development does not include that group.

In Spokane Public Schools, the difference between those two definitions is nearly 500 students under 18.

“Despite the city and everybody saying they are doing a great job with homelessness, we are seeing the numbers go up and up,” said Sarah Miller, the district’s homeless liaison. There were 776 homeless students who fell under the McKinney-Vento definition as of Jan. 14, compared with 706 at the same time last year; that’s between 3 and 4 percent of the district’s student population.

Using HUD’s more restrictive definition, there were 273 homeless children in Spokane County at last count, or 26 percent of the homeless population. Almost half of them are below age 6, according to city of Spokane records.

Preventing homelessness the cheaper option

Spokane spends about $5.6 million in federal funds each year on homelessness, about $2 million less than in 2008. That money passes through the city to nonprofit agencies now participating in the assessment group. They include the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities’ St. Margaret’s Shelter, Spokane Neighborhood Action Partners, Volunteers of America’s Alexandria’s House and Aston-Bleck Apartments, Transitions’ Transitional Living Center, Family Promise and the YWCA Domestic Violence Shelter. The group’s goal is to identify homeless families’ needs and get them on their feet within 30 days. Services can include helping with housing searches and short-term rent assistance, an approach called rapid rehousing.

Preventing homelessness has proven cheaper than addressing it once it happens.

“We all understand the importance of putting a roof over their heads,” said Jones, the HUD spokesman. “There’s a much more soluble matter: helping them stay in their homes. If there was a way we could help them over the relatively small hump, that’s better than the alternative.”

Offering assistance costs about $2,506 on average, compared with about $7,780 for placement in transitional housing.

Sampson, from the Salvation Army, said, “The data is showing that short-term housing assistance helps people more quickly get on their feet.”

The federal government has beefed up its financial assistance in this area, she said.

Through the Homeless Families Coordinated Assessment program, “the families who are assessed and received some sort of housing placement are not re-entering the system. Whether that’s individuals placed in long-term housing or temporary shelters, only 4.3 percent are returning,” said Sheila Morley, a program coordinator for the city of Spokane’s Community, Housing and Human Services.

“I think what it’s showing us, from the data we can see now, is the screening and assessment piece is really working,” she said. “Getting families in the right place – housing or intervention – it’s proving to be a successful model.”

More resources available by reducing duplication of effort

Government officials and service providers recognize there’s still work to be done.

Spokane Mayor David Condon has convened a task force of representatives from business, education and social service agencies with the goal that “no child or veteran will be homeless.”

Officials say a facility for homeless people who abuse drugs or alcohol or who have severe mental illness would be a useful addition to the mix of services.

“Chronic homelessness is not a very common thing, but it is an impactful thing,” said Jonathan Mallahan, director of the city’s Community and Neighborhood Services department. “Chronic homelessness can be a drain on resources.”

A recent University of Washington study concluded costs are about $80,000 on average for a chronically homeless person who abuses alcohol to live on the streets versus $40,000 in a housing facility.

The difference takes into account the likelihood that the chronically homeless person would use more publicly funded medical services and end up in the criminal justice system more frequently.

“Housing reduces hospital visits, admissions and duration of hospital stays among homeless individuals,” as well as ambulance rides and jail stays, the study said.

Spokane has a group of about 15 people who city officials call “hot-spotters.” Those individuals are substance abusers or suffer from mental illness, or both. They make regular hospital emergency room visits and are routinely arrested, officials said.

“Some people are going to the hospital as many as 100 times per year,” Spokane Assistant Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said. “It’s about $10,000 just to walk into the ER.”

To help these people, there just isn’t a “straight line to social justice,” he said.

A facility for the chronically homeless would help address that group. It would be staffed with qualified personal to handle the issues that usually lead to chronic homelessness, Mallahan said. “We are working with our service providers and housing providers to bring that type of facility to Spokane,” he said.

Bryceson, the Homeless Coalition chairman, thinks better communication among service providers could help more needs be met by avoiding duplication.

“If I were to say there was an issue in Spokane I’d like to fix, it’s that more people knew what’s being done to help homeless people,” said Bryceson, who leads the coalition consisting of dozens of agencies and charities.

“Did you know you can get a free meal seven days a week in Spokane? There’s food everywhere,” he said. “People with cardboard signs on the corner aren’t hungry. They are trying to get money for beer or meth.”

Bryceson added, “Spokane is really compassionate. Spokane is really caring. We don’t communicate. We need to stop duplication of efforts.”

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