Teams of community members and officials worked together June 13 to discuss issues related homelessness.

As rents continue climbing and rental vacancy is at less than half of 1 percent, Skagit County is looking to create a plan on how to address homelessness issues that are plaguing hundreds of people countywide.

The county’s goal is to create a Homeless Housing Plan.

Along with consultant Kat Lohman, county staff worked with a task force made up of leadership from across the county in the fields of social work, health care, government and more. Groups providing services to the homeless also joined in.

The next piece of the puzzle is community feedback.

A community meeting on June 13 in Anacortes brought together several interested community members and city leaders to give that feedback on the issue and on possible ways to help.

A survey is also collecting community feedback.

After gathering all the feedback, the county will finalize its plan.

Lohman and Sarah Hinman, who works for the county health department, led the Anacortes community meeting.

The county defines homelessness as someone who is literally homeless, who is fleeing domestic violence or who is at imminent risk of homelessness.

For housing to be classified as affordable, a household must be paying 30 percent of its income or less toward housing.

In Skagit County, rents have gone up an average of $314 since 2012. That’s more than a 40 percent increase countywide.

According to a Journal of Urban Affairs study, an increase in $100 in median monthly rent can result in a 39 percent increase of homelessness in rural and suburban areas. In 2018, the average monthly rent in Skagit County was $1,072.

Skagit County had a vacancy rate of less than .5 percent last year.

“That has an immense impact on the homeless services continuum,” Lohman said.

As more people look for help, county money has to stretch farther, and it can’t reach everybody, Hinman said.

Several groups provide services and do the best they can with county money and federal dollars. Many also rely on private donations.

“There are some really great things happening in this community,” Lohman said.

Part of that is having a coordinated care system in place. Anyone who is struggling can visit Community Action of Skagit County and apply for all services at once. If they qualify, they are matched with the service that best fits them, Hinman said.

“They don’t have to go from service to service,” she said.

Last year, 1,622 people sought and qualified for homeless services through the county. Of those, 1,027 were adults, 606 were children, 790 had a disability, 473 were fleeing domestic violence, 285 were chronically homeless and 73 were veterans.

In 2018, 823 people found emergency shelter through the county, 154 found transitional housing and 323 people went into rapid rehousing.

Not everyone who qualifies receives help, though, because the money runs out.

“We serve less than a third of those that qualify for services with the funding we currently have,” Hinman said.

For the 2019-2020 county budget, a total of $1.47 million will go to assist with homelessness in Skagit County.

Of that, $250,000 is earmarked for coordinated entry and assessment, $22,000 is for diversion, $373,656 is for interim housing, $33,000 is for permanent supportive housing and $783,857 is for rental assistance and case management.

State House Bill 2163, passed in 2005, provided a funding sources and required a county to develop a 10-year plan to end homelessness. Homelessness is still prevalent on county streets, and those around the state, but Skagit County is updating its plan.

Part of that process is getting feedback from the community, like through the community meeting last week in Anacortes. The plan must quickly identify and engage people experiencing homelessness, prioritize those with the highest needs, identify effective and efficient services, project the impact of a fully implemented local plan and address racial disparities among people experiencing homelessness.

For racial disparity, attendees looked at some data compiled by the county to help them be aware of the issues in the community.

For example, the Native population here makes up 2.7 of the total population but 27 percent of the people who are living without shelter.

“That was really shocking to us,” Lohman said. “We know those disparities exist, but how does that happen?”

Councilman Anthony Young talked about years of distrust of the system and of those services. It’s about reaching those communities and letting them know that they can find help, he said.

Other table members talked about a fear of deportation among some communities that are struggling, about how racial disparity affects all aspects of life and how setbacks (like losing a job) could affect some more than others.

Community members also talked about how to get people connected with resources. For some, that could mean sending someone into the community to find them. The Mount Vernon Police Department has a resource person who approaches those in need in the street.

Other ideas were providing a safe location for people to park the vehicles they are living in or providing tents.

The Anacortes Family Center just hired a community resource person. The center also provides motel vouchers to people who are sleeping outside.

“Bottom line, we want to get people off of the street,” said AFC board member Vicki Stasch.

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