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Shawn Vestal: Study shows why we must take more action to reduce homelessness

A report prepared by the Spokane Regional Health District goes a long way toward quantifying what happens to people “downstream” of homelessness: worse health across many measures, from high blood pressure to arthritis, and less access to care.

This is true not only for people who are currently homeless, but for those who have ever been homeless. This adds a definite urgency to one of the report’s other conclusions: Too many of our city’s schoolkids are homeless or living in a kind of near-homeless limbo, teetering at the edge of lifelong consequences.

“It’s significantly worse health (among those who have been homeless) than those who have never been homeless,” said Lyndia Wilson, a division director at the health district and co-author of the report. “It just really screams to me: prevention. And trying to get upstream and prevent people from ever having to live in a shelter.”

Wilson is a leader of Priority Spokane, the communitywide collaboration that takes on civic challenges based on data gathered by Eastern Washington University’s Spokane Community Indicators project. For several years, Priority Spokane drove an effort that significantly reduced the dropout rate in schools. Now it’s focused on homeless prevention among schoolchildren.

“About 80 percent of kids who are identified as homeless in the schools are doubled-up with another family, and the No. 1 predictor for ending up in a shelter is being doubled-up,” she said.

Most of the money and programs aimed at homelessness focus naturally on people who need immediate help – shelters, housing, surrounding services. Wilson, Priority Spokane and others are looking for ways to bring prevention into the mix; they are asking the County Commission to consider placing a small sales-tax increase on the ballot before voters to pay for more affordable housing.

If it passed, that money would be used to provide more security for struggling families on the brink. If the commission declines to put the issue on the ballot, the City Council could place the tax proposal before city voters, Wilson said.

There has been a renewed energy and strategic direction around the city’s efforts to combat homelessness, ranging from some creative approaches at City Hall to the expanded permanent housing buildings Catholic Charities just opened on Second Avenue.

But attempting to get a concrete picture of the homeless population – to say nothing of the near-homeless population – is a slippery task, for many reasons. The SRHD report, titled “Missing the Foundation,” goes at it from several angles:

According to the city’s one-day “point-in-time” count, there were 1,033 homeless individuals in 2015, down from 1,229 in 2009. The number of chronically homeless people dropped from 270 to 219, and the number of homeless families with children dropped from 174 to 121.

These figures are limited for many reasons. Most service providers here believe 5,000 is a more accurate estimate for the total number of homeless people in Spokane at any given time.

The number of homeless children in Spokane County schools has risen dramatically in recent years. It’s important to note that schools define homelessness in part as living with another family – the “doubling up” Wilson referred to above.

In 2010, officials counted 852 homeless students in Spokane County schools, which represented about 1 percent of the student population. In 2014, that figure rose to 3,013, or 3.8 percent.

The report includes a sobering reminder of the link between combat veterans and homelessness. The total number of veterans in the point-in-time count was 101, up from 87 in 2009. More of them were sheltered – up to 91 from 60.

The measures of school-age homelessness showed another connection: Children of military veterans were homeless at a much higher rate than their peers. Among homeless youth in grades 8, 10 and 12, more than half had a parent who was a veteran, twice the rate of nonhomeless students. About a third had a parent who had been sent to a war zone, three times the rate of other students.

Using state figures to estimate the local population, the report says that around 23,000 people in Spokane have been homeless at some point in their lives.

Among that population, 39 percent have “poor” overall health, compared to 15 percent of those who have never been homeless. Nearly 60 percent say their activity is limited by a health problem, compared to 27 percent of the nonhomeless population. People who have experienced homelessness report more problems with blood pressure, cholesterol and joint pain, as well as more bad habits like smoking and drinking, and less access to doctors and other care.

All of which is reason enough for the whole community to join Wilson and head up that stream.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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