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Shawn Vestal: Homelessness is up, according to report, but that may not be a bad thing

UPDATED: Thu., May 18, 2017

Officially, Spokane’s homeless numbers went up significantly this year.

Rob McCann thinks that’s great news.

McCann, the head of Catholic Charities, and officials with the city of Spokane have been on a mission that some might consider quixotic: Sheltering every homeless person in Spokane. They say the city came close to that over the past winter, with its expanded 24/7 shelter program at the House of Charity, Salvation Army, Family Promise and Hope House.

With just a few exceptions, McCann said, every chronically homeless person in the city had a place to sleep indoors. And that, he said, is why the city’s latest “point-in-time” count of the homeless population is surging.

The city released its annual figures from the one-night count this week, and it showed an increase of 11 percent over last year in the total number of homeless persons counted. It showed a steep increase in the number of chronically homeless people – a 73 percent jump to 325.

Because more homeless people were in shelters, and fewer were outside in hard-to-find places, it was easier to get a count, according to McCann and city officials. That might apply particularly to the chronically homeless, who are more likely to use emergency shelters.

“We knew this was going to happen,” McCann said. “We’re not seeing more homeless people, but we are sheltering and serving more homeless people.”

Jonathan Mallahan, the city’s director of community and neighborhood services, agreed that the increased availability of overnight shelter during the past winter helped drive the numbers up, and city officials believe it is a more accurate count than in years past. But he said there were other factors as well, and that the city does not want to be complacent in its efforts to “solve homelessness.”

In particular, the city’s super-tight rental market – with an estimated vacancy rate of 0.7 percent – makes it very hard for people to find affordable housing and pushes the homeless numbers upward. Nearly 500 people are qualified for federal housing vouchers but can’t find a place to use them in town, said Dawn Kinder, the director of the city’s Community, Housing and Human Services Department.

The count also showed a large number of young homeless people: 19 percent were under age 18, many as part of a family; and 7 percent were between ages 18 and 24. The number of homeless veterans counted was up as well, and despite the expansion of overnight shelter services, 13 percent of those counted remained unsheltered, according to city reports.

“So it’s not ‘the sky is falling,’ but there are other things going on that we want to understand,” Mallahan said.

Mallahan and Kinder said the one-night count is imperfect, but that having more people sheltered over the winter improved its accuracy.

“I think we have a better snapshot than we’ve had in the past,” Kinder said.

The city’s approach to homelessness has evolved, and is continuing to do so, officials said. There’s been a big shift toward building permanent housing for the homeless, with federal money targeted toward those projects over shelters. Catholic Charities, Volunteers of America and other organizations have jumped on that, adding new apartment buildings downtown last year and working on more this year.

The city has emphasized more cooperation and collaboration across organizations, and has implemented a coordinated assessment system that evaluates people who are homeless or at the risk of becoming homeless, and directing them toward the services they need quickly.

Mallahan said the city is looking for ways to keep improving. Kinder is developing a new way for handling contracts the city enters with service providers; instead of giving one-year contracts, the city will extend five-year contracts tied to performance measures, which they hope will give organizations more time to find creative ways to get results while also setting expectations that homeless people are being well-served.

This also will free people at the city to focus less on the business of annual contracting and more on finding other ways to address the problem.

“This is really exciting,” he said. “It sounds totally bureaucratic and mundane, but it’s really exciting.”

Kinder and Mallahan agree that the city nearly reached “functional zero” over the last winter with the population that is persistently homeless, in terms of making sure there was a bed for anyone who needed one. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still some people who won’t go to a shelter for whatever reason, but the city was ready to take care of anyone who needed it.

But a big piece of the 24/7 shelter program took a hit when the House of Charity had to stop participating earlier this year because of a lack of funding. The city is seeking proposals to restart the program, and is trying to pursuade other local governments to help pay for it.

It costs about $1.5 million a year for the shelters to bring in everyone off the streets, and the city of Spokane pays about half that. The nonprofits involved had been covering the rest but need help going forward. The county and its other cities, meanwhile, aren’t helping at all, and McCann thinks they should be – with fixed, stable, budgeted funding.

McCann says the combined budgets of Spokane County local governments exceed $1.5 billion.

“For one-tenth of 1 percent of that total budget amount we can keep 24/7 sheltering of the homeless open,” he said.

McCann foresees the day in the not-too-distant future when Spokane is housing all of its chronically homeless people in stable, permanent apartments. Unlike Seattle or bigger cities, he argues, Spokane’s homelessness problem is solvable, and permanent housing is the key to that.

Eventually, he wants to see the shelters empty. But for now, they’re very much needed.

“We can shelter all of our chronically homeless men and women in this town,” he said. “We proved it this winter.”