Homeless PITC at food bank

Volunteer Dian Shortt hands out a sleeping bag and “Heater Meals” at the Stanwood Camano Food Bank during the January Point in Time Count.

Timing was off, so just four Stanwood homeless people were counted during the 2019 Point in Time Count in January. Since it’s a one-day thing, it can be hit or miss, and it was a miss.

But that doesn’t mean that more aren’t living among us.

The federal and state government mandates that all counties count the homeless population one day in January every year. Stanwood counted on Jan. 23 and Camano Island on Jan. 24. Camano is still cross-referencing its tally and didn’t have a total yet.

Normally, those dates would have been perfect for the count because people would be running out of food stamps, said Wendy Foster, who counted at the Stanwood Camano Food Bank and manages the thrift store there.

“But we only had four people that day, due to the government shutdown,” Foster said. “They had just gotten their food stamps early, just the day before. That affected how many homeless clients we saw. When we get really busy, it’s when those food stamps run out. We’re already strategizing on a better way to get the count next year.”

“On our end, it’s all based on the people coming in on that particular day,” said Lynne Ayers, food bank director. “On the books we know there’s a lot more homeless.”

Typically, the food bank serves about 40 homeless people per month, she said.

Community effort

Joanna Dobbs, executive director the Community Resource Center of Stanwood-Camano led the Stanwood effort and coordinated with Island County.

Dobbs wants the homeless to know that “it’s their own community members that care about them.”

She said the counting team made a great effort. They gave outreach kits and snacks to people who needed them, even if they weren’t homeless.

Stanwood Library and the YMCA were counting sites with kits ready. Staff members were trained and available to help fill out surveys. Signs were posted to let homeless people know they could be counted there.

“Unfortunately, it was a slow day,” said Charles Pratt, managing librarian.

“We know some of those folks, but they didn’t happen to be in here that day. They use us as a resource regularly to come inside, use the Internet, get warm,” Pratt said, during the snowy weather. “When the weather gets like this, it’s tough for them.” Sometimes people think the homeless aren’t visible in Stanwood, “but we see them at the library.”

YMCA helped the effort by requesting that members donate things like socks, gloves and toothbrushes for hygiene kits, said Ann Scott, senior director at the Stanwood Camano YMCA. Grocery Outlet donated protein bars and MOPS put the bags together. Bags went to the Resource Center to be dispersed to the entire effort; leftover bags went to the Caring Place.

“It was great because the whole community came together and had stuff to give out,” Scott said.

Volunteers were trained at the Resource Center on how to talk to people and help them fill out surveys specific for homeless people who are sheltered, unsheltered and fleeing domestic violence.

Community outreach volunteers rode the bus and walked everywhere on foot, visiting places people were known to sleep. Stanwood Police Department and Public Works offered places to check.

“To count people sleeping in tents, it’s easy to miss them if the timing is off. Go too soon and no one is there, go to late and they’re asleep,” Dobbs said.

Because it’s rural homelessness, you don’t see it, she said. There are places to live out of sight.

Tim Schmitt is a resident who volunteered for the count in the field. He went out on a team but didn’t find anyone to count. The volunteers hit all the parks, church parking lots, under the bridge and other places where police and public works said the homeless congregate, but didn’t find anyone, he said.

“The homeless are around, they’re just not prominent,” Schmitt said. “We saw abandoned campsites. We did see one guy in the QFC nook (near the deli) who appeared homeless but didn’t want to be interviewed.”

Snapshot of homelessness

This year Island County conducted Camano’s count by collaborating with agencies in Stanwood, including the Resource Center, fire and law enforcement, said Joanne Pelant, housing resource coordinator for Island County Department of Human Services. She’s been the Island County PIT lead for some years.

“The homeless count isn’t accurate, but it gives a snapshot that allows us to look at trends year after year,” she said. The count gathers information that helps local planning to strategically deliver services to the people on Camano.

The survey asked things like what caused homelessness, how long have they been homeless. The data can help the community better respond to specific needs, Pelant said.

She said one problem is that there are few rentals on Camano.

Last year, they counted 14 unsheltered people on Camano, Pelant said. This year’s count should be finished in late February. They’re checking if people who are signed up for housing assistance have found a home or not.

“It’s a great time to educate the community about the complexity of homelessness,” Pelant said. When people think of homelessness, the stereotype is someone living in a tent or panhandling on the street.

“We don’t have large encampments, so it’s hard to find the folks who are struggling. The thing we find the most are people living in rundown RVs with no hook up to utilities,” she said. “It’s more like a vehicle that’s not fit for habitation. That’s what we found this year on Camano.”

The working poor

Another interesting thing on Camano, they found that many of the homeless are working, but earnings are low, about minimum wage.

“That income is not even close to being able to afford housing today,” Pelant said.

The disparity of incomes and cost of living, specifically housing cost, is what’s driving homelessness, she said.

The few homeless clients who came to the food bank on PIT day were willing to give their story and feedback, Foster said. One woman was living in her car, not doing drugs or alcohol, just trying to get housing so she can be a functioning part of society. But she can’t get back to work without an address or phone number.

Ayers said that the homeless among us might not look like you’d think.

“We have a gal that dresses for success, her entire wardrobe is organized in her car. She always looks like she’s going to a job interview, but she’s living in her car,” Ayers said.

“We have what you see in the movies, someone who is definitely carrying everything they own on their back or in a duffle bag.”

All sorts of people can be homeless — families, single women or men into their 70s, veterans, teens. Some just come in to get food and don’t want to talk to anyone. Others are looking for help out of their situation.

Sometimes churches, the Caring Place, the Resource Center and the food bank are the organizations that usually help homeless people that show up year-round.

In addition to giving out food, the food bank offers tarps, tents, sleeping bags, hats, gloves and coats. They give out “Heater Meals,” which has a self-heating pad that warms a precooked meal to 100 degrees in about 10 minutes.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have shelters here, and the ones in Everett and Mount Vernon have waiting lists.” Ayers said. “We can call, but there’s no room at the inn.”

For more about the Point in Time homeless count, visit: commerce.wa.gov/serving-communities/homelessness/annual-point-time-count

Contact reporter Peggy Wendel at pwendel@scnews.com or 360-416-2189.

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