The homeless jigsaw puzzle
Walla Walla has a plethora of social services, but the plight of some homeless people defy solutions.
Homelessness casts financial shadow across entire community
WALLA WALLA — An accurate breakdown of costs associated with chronic homelessness is an impossible figure to nail down, according to Harvey Crowder, interim director of Walla Walla County Department of Community Health.
So many systems are affected by the issue — legal, health care, judicial, housing, social services and shelter — he said.
“That doesn’t include the societal costs of lost wages and the result of less education for homeless children and so forth,” he added. “The costs are going to be spread across social services like the YWCA, faith-based institutions, Veterans Affairs, city, county, state and federal government agencies.”
According to information supplied by Washington Low Income Housing Association, the cost of supportive housing for people who meet the definition of always homeless is one the better deals to be found. Costs per day to house people at various facilities include:
*Supportive housing, $54
*Nursing home, $194
*Inpatient detox, $588
*Hospital inpatient, $1,089
*Inpatient psychiatric, $1,187
*Emergency room, $2,152
Health care is the biggest driver of costs in serving the chronically homeless, said Joaquin Uy, who works with the housing association. Per person Medicaid costs for high-cost user, about 10 percent of the homeless population, equals nine times the average annual per-person numbers, ringing up at $68,000, he said.
The three most costly service categories are acute inpatient, emergency department visits and medications — accounting for 70 percent of Medicaid spending for that top 10 percent of the homeless population.
In Washington, 2010 data from the Department of Social and Health Services indicates homeless clients tend to be African American and Native American, live in high-density urban areas, have mental illness and substance abuse problems, receive medical treatment for injuries and receive cash of food assistance from the state.
Out of 254,000 DSHS clients in Washington’s rural areas, nearly 21,000 of these were reported as homeless, according to the data.
— Sheila Hagar
WALLA WALLA — Spring has kissed away the last of winter from the Walla Walla Valley, putting into hibernation worries of keeping people who live outside from freezing.
On the coldest of nights in December and February, the community was galvanized into action by dangerously low temperatures. A warming center was quickly pulled together for people who don’t easily fit into more traditional shelter situations.
While that season is behind us, awareness was raised about a population of chronically homeless folks who will always need extra help — soup kitchens, sleeping-bag distributions and inclement-weather sheltering, local agency leaders agree.
The federal government defines “chronically homeless” as having been homeless for one year or longer, or having four or more episodes of homelessness in three years. At least one person in the household must have a disability, said Susan Kralman, homeless coordinator for Walla Walla County Department of Community Health.
According to a 2013 point-in-time count in the county, 12 individuals and three families with children — 20 people — met that description, she said.
Answers are fluid
Walla Walla County leaders continue to search for answers in how to best serve such folks.
The number of chronically homeless is small but persistent, said Jason Wicklund, executive director of Christian Aid Center. His agency runs the only shelter for single men and families in town — and people living in shelters are also homeless by legal definition.
Nearly everyone who stays unhoused, despite a plethora of services offered locally, has substance addiction issues, Wicklund said. They elude current answers here, which include government-subsidized, transitional, supportive housing and shelters.
As housing coordinator for Helpline, Kelsey Beckmeyer sees those instances at the agency’s housing for women.
Helpline has provided emergency social services in Walla Walla for 40 years, and founded the STEP shelter in 2009 to provide safe nights for women and children.
Some women, however, seem unable to use the shelter as it is intended.
“We’ve seen women who will come and may have been chronically homeless for years or there are current issues they are going through,” Beckmeyer said.
Those women don’t stick with the agreement they’ve hammered out with STEP workers to seek social services, employment or permanent housing. Appointments are ignored, resumes don’t get turned in, applications are left blank.
Some of those actions can come from mental-health issues or “just not knowing how,” Beckmeyer said. “But some behaviors we do have control over. So then those opportunities go away and sometimes the shelter gets blamed for not doing enough.”
She and her staff tries to go what Beckmeyer calls above-and-beyond care, offering to accompany women to appointments and help with paperwork. “But we have 10 to 18 women at any one time so it’s challenging to always catch that person that needs help.”
Shelter guests are expected to move on within 90 days. If evidence suggests that won’t happen, they go to Plan B: “We try to find family or friends they can stay with. There have been a small handful of people we’ve had to do that with,” Beckmeyer said.
In 2013, STEP staff was able to house nearly half of those who needed the shelter, and about 17 percent only needed the help for a week or less. About 7 percent moved away, while another 7 percent went to the YWCA’s shelter for women or Christian Aid Center. Nearly 4 percent were expelled, and 12 percent left without explanation, according to the agency’s statistics.
“We realize we’re not going to see homelessness end completely,” Beckmeyer pointed out, “but we can see it decrease and that’s what we want.”
A ray for veterans
Rhonda Lund is accustomed to seeing her clients succeed in getting housing. She manages CORD — Corps of Recovery and Discovery, a transitional housing program for up to 44 homeless veterans.
Through CORD, veterans get help with skill building, addressing their addictions, community involvement and stable housing.
Not everyone can manage the housing part once they’re ready to live on their own — addiction is a powerful pull, Lund said.
“Some of them just don’t maintain supports within the community,” she said. “They get in (housing), they have a small pension and they get lonely. And they just start using.”
Even without chemical dependency, finances can make paying rent difficult, she added. Veterans unable to get a service pension may have to live on as little as $700-800 in Social Security payments, “so that money is eaten up in rent. Now food stamps have dropped ... I don’t know how some of them do it.”
She does see people with signs on local street corners, asking for food or rent money, Lund said. “I don’t believe them, either. I’ve seen too much help in this community.”
There’s one factor that cannot be discounted in the homelessness picture, said John Lambert, a case manager for CORD. A former Washington State Penitentiary superintendent, Lambert has seen desire for help and incapacity to accept it, he said.
“Some of our clients are hard to serve because they’ve been homeless and have serious mental-health problems,” he said. “But (those) clients have a lot of resources, within the VA and the community. Some people just like to be homeless. It’s been that way throughout history, there is a different norm for them.”
Accountability an issue
Persistent homelessness affects everyone, from the person living on the street to those footing the bills for overburdened jails or the emergency room costs, Wicklund said.
In some cities, one attempt to end homelessness has been to build apartment buildings and “warehouse” people inside, without expectation their behaviors will change, he said.
That concept cleans up the streets and takes strain off some social service systems — plus gets people out of the weather — but does nothing to address underlying issues or demand accountability, Wicklund believes.
“You have to make up your mind,” he said. “Are you a flop house or a place for recovery? You can’t be a place that serves both in the same environment.”
People installed into housing that allows them to continue to drink and do drugs while not paying rent may look like they are in more humane circumstances, he said.
“But are we allowing them to shut themselves away even more? How does that help that person? They eradicate faster ... let them die behind a closed door somewhere, rather than out where we can see them. I guess, as a society, we’ve said ‘When they get that bad, we’re just going to put them away.’”
While she does not claim to know the solution to homelessness, one idea Kralman is eager to explore is parlaying the recent trend of tiny houses into one possible answer.
With plans she’s seen elsewhere, the little houses — ranging in size from 120-200 square feet — are situated in a communal setting. The residents inside share a central kitchen and bathing facilities.
“I think it serves a population that has a hard time socializing but needs shelter,” Kralman said. “It forces them to connect, but yet you have your own space.”
Research shows that when housing is in place, people have the mental space to work on other issues, she added. “Do we ask for accountability or cross that off the list?”
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322.