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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

10 Years Later, Goal To Cut Homelessness By 50 Percent Falls Far Short

In 2005, Washington state set a goal: Cut homelessness statewide by 50 percent by 2015. Ten years later the results are in and they’re far short of the target. Homelessness was reduced by only 22.5 percent statewide.

“It’s definitely discouraging,” said Tedd Kelleher, senior managing director of the Housing Assistance program at Washington’s Department of Commerce.

Big jump on the Olympic Peninsula

A county-by-county breakdown reveals a more complex picture. Eleven of Washington’s 39 counties did succeed in reducing homelessness by 50 percent or better. They include Clallam, Snohomish and Clark counties west of the Cascades and Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Franklin and Benton counties east of the mountains.

Another 19 counties took a bite out of homelessness but did not hit the 50 percent reduction target. Among them are Grays Harbor, Whatcom, Yakima, Ferry and Spokane counties.

Nine counties actually saw their homelessness rates go up. From a 15 percent jump in King County to an eye-popping 80 percent increase in Jefferson County on the Olympic Peninsula.

“It was a big increase,” conceded Kathy Morgan, who leads Jefferson County’s efforts to reduce homelessness as the head of a non-profit called the Olympic Community Action Program.

She says 150 families are currently on a waitlist for the county’s homeless shelter.

Morgan attributes the jump in homelessness to a couple of factors. One is a more thorough point-in-time count in the last couple of years.

“I employed a huge force of volunteers to go out with me and actually start beating the bushes,” said Morgan, who notes that her rural county has a large homeless veterans population.

“We were able to flush them out where we hadn’t in the past,” Morgan said.

The other factor, said Morgan, is some homeless people are choosing to come to Jefferson County, which includes the charming Victorian seaside town of Port Townsend, from larger urban areas.

“We’ve had an influx of people we don’t know,” said Morgan. “They’ve kind of made Jefferson County their home.”

Morgan says the biggest barrier to addressing the homelessness issue is a lack of housing. Rents are high and vacancies are rare.

“Even though we have dollars to help people get into housing … it’s just very difficult to find the housing,” she said.

In the short-term Morgan says the county needs more shelter beds and transitional housing. Long-term there’s talk of experimenting with micro-housing, but that would require a change in zoning.

Rents on the rise

Across the state affordability is cited as the biggest hurdle for communities working to combat homelessness.

“Every $100 rent increase in an urban area leads to a six-percent increase in homelessness,” said Kelleher with the Department of Commerce. In non-metro areas that same $100 increase can increase homelessness by 32 percent.

It may seem counterintuitive, but Washington’s homelessness rate stayed roughly level during the early years of the Great Recession. Kelleher said federal housing assistance helped stave off a spike in homelessness.

In fact, the greatest strides occurred from 2010 to 2013. During that time Washington experienced a 27 percent reduction in per capita homelessness as interventions were more targeted to the individual needs of homeless people.

But now that the economy is recovering the numbers are climbing again.

“If anything, we’re feeling more and more urgency,” said Kelleher, who adds that the lack of affordable housing stock threatens to overwhelm any progress that’s been made over the past decade.

“Even when we’re doing our best work, it’s a problem,” he said.

The lack of affordable housing is also being felt in Washington’s orchard country. In 2005 Chelan and Douglas counties teamed to write a joint 10-year plan to reduce homelessness. A decade later the two central Washington counties can point to some success. Homelessness is down 22 percent. But Steve King, director of community and economic development for the City of Wenatchee, is far from declaring victory.

“It’s been a hard issue, no doubt about it,” King said.

King believes Chelan and Douglas counties are doing a better job of recognizing homelessness and coordinating services. He notes some improvements in access to temporary migrant farm worker housing over the decade. But he says service providers often find themselves stymied as they try to find permanent housing for families.

“It just comes down to a supply problem of housing being the biggest barrier,” King said.

Optimism despite crisis

Another challenge statewide is the lack of access to supports for homeless people who are mentally ill.

Nonetheless, Kelleher says even though Washington didn’t hit the target for reducing homelessness, progress has been made over the past decade. When House Bill 2163 was passed in 2005, only four counties reported their homelessness numbers to the state. Today all 39 Washington counties conduct homeless counts and report them.

Research, studies and pilot projects have also helped establish a list of best practices for helping the homeless. One example is rapid re-housing, which focuses on getting a person or family housing first and then access to services rather than the other way around.

Kelleher says he remains optimistic that Washington state can still find a way to dramatically reduce homelessness, but not without a solution to the housing crisis.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."