By definition, someone who is homeless is living somewhere considered uninhabitable. 

But gone are the days when that meant that most individuals struggling with homelessness were the ones sleeping on the sidewalks or in tents in the woods.  

Ruth Gutierrez, executive director of the Housing Resource Center of Lewis County, said many of today’s homeless are living in cars, couch surfing or doubling up with other families because of what experts call a housing crisis.

“When I first started doing this 28 years ago, someone could lose their job and they were homeless. Now it’s not the same,” Gutierrez said. “They can be working and living in their car because rents are going up and income is not.”

Meja Handlen, housing coordinator for Lewis County Health & Social Services, explained the housing vacancy rate in Lewis County is estimated to be about 1 percent. According to the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at the University of Washington, Washington State’s rental vacancy rate in 2017 was 3.7 percent. WCRER considers a vacancy rate below 3 percent to be an indication of a shortage of housing units.

“We are in an emergency crisis and we can’t keep the blinders on and say Lewis County is a good place to live because it’s not the big city. The problems of the big city are here,” Handlen said.

The 2018 Washington State Department of Commerce Point in Time survey, an annual count of homeless individuals that happens in all Washington communities in January, lists 132 homeless individuals in Lewis County. For those who are homeless, there is a multilayer, multi-agency wraparound system that starts with a limited number of shelter beds that are frequently at capacity. The HRC runs a low-barrier shelter with a chronic waiting list. Cascade Mental Health offers six beds for emergency housing of people who need mental health treatment for short periods. Reliable Enterprises has a shelter and transitional housing, also with a considerable waiting list. There are about 40 beds available on the coldest nights of the winter at the severe weather shelter run by the Hub City Mission. A lack of a year-round shelter with an adequate number of beds is a need often cited by those working within this system.

“A lot of communities have a 365 shelter, it doesn’t solve everything but it gives somebody a solid place to work from and it gives you a way to contact them,” said Josh Gering, director of the Hub City Mission.

In addition to the homeless population, somewhere between 14 to 16 percent of Lewis County households (more than 4,000 households) are estimated to live in poverty, meaning they have an annual income of below $24,339 for a family of four. The United Way of Lewis County lists yet another 33 percent (about 9,700 households) of households to be Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) meaning they make just enough income to not qualify for any kind of public assistance, but not enough to economically better themselves. 

The number of families living below the poverty and ALICE thresholds are significant, too, because it means that when there are vacancies, many families simply cannot afford them. The U.S. Census notes a median household income of $44,000 and gross rent of $822 per month in Lewis County compared to a median household income of $62,000 and rent of $1,056 average statewide. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that in 2017, an average person would need to earn a wage of $21.21 an hour to afford the median housing price, about $5 higher than the median hourly wage.

“Housing is at a crisis but we have to make people understand it’s not just housing,” said Danette York, Public Health and Social Services director for Lewis County.

Few people struggling with concurrent factors to homelessness, such as mental health issues, addiction and domestic violence, fit into those median-income categories. At Cascade Mental Health, director Dr. Richard Stride said about 25-30 percent of Cascade’s clients are homeless, often because mental health and addiction issues can affect someone’s ability to hold down a job that would supply a median household income.

“There is no way a person who has mental health issues can afford the rent here. No way,” Stride said. “Even on Social Security disability they can’t afford it. It’s just not possible.”

Yet many consider housing to be the keystone to successfully pulling people out of chronic homelessness. Housing is the one factor that touches all causes of homelessness, including mental health, addiction, domestic violence and work opportunities, Stride noted.

“We know if people don’t have a decent place to live, they’re not going to get better, period, they’re just not,” Stride said. “If you take a person who has been homeless, at the end of that treatment they often just go back to the homeless camp they came from or hook up with the same people.”

Someone who doesn’t have a way to bathe on a regular basis may not be able to keep a job. Someone who needs medical, mental health or addiction services may not access those services because they are too busy trying to find their next meal or overnight accommodation. Patty Beckwith, who usually volunteers for the 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift at the severe weather shelter with her husband, Ken, said one of the reasons she feels drawn to helping at the shelter is because of her own past. 

Her first husband was abusive and they lived with their children in homes that were essentially uninhabitable, some lacking running water and electricity. She wanted to leave but did not have the training needed to get a steady job and an income of her own.

“I couldn’t get out of my situation because in the 1970s there were no places like this,” she said of the severe weather shelter. “I eventually went to school and became a nurse and was able to get my kids out of that situation. But if there had been a place like this, I could have gotten out sooner.”

A severe housing shortage means that solutions to homelessness must focus not only on those who are homeless but also on people who are housed, but just barely hanging on. Gering said working with those on the margins of homelessness to keep them housed is extremely important.

“I think (people who have not been homeless) wouldn’t understand how hard it is to get rehomed once you’re homeless. Getting back into a place is extremely difficult,” Gering said. “Imagine not having any place to keep anything safe. It’s a tough world out there.”

Working with local landlords is one way agencies are striving to keep people who are on the brink from becoming homeless. At HRC, Gutierrez said they try to advocate on behalf of clients and can sometimes offer monetary assistance to landlords to prepare their rental for tenants, as well as to mitigate any damage after move-out. Reliable Enterprises also can help advocate for clients with landlords. Jennifer Humbert, housing services support for Reliable Enterprises said many local landlords have very real fears about renting to certain people and so the agencies attempt to help landlords see the resources available to help them.

“If you think about renting out your home you want to give someone a chance but if they destroy the unit, it can cost thousands of dollars,” Humbert said.

Landlords’ uneasiness is understandable, Handlen said. Many rental property owners are individuals for whom their rentals represent their livelihood. Many also feel they simply cannot take the financial risk of renting to anyone who has negative issues on their rental, financial or criminal history. 

“We’re working with landlords, helping them realize these are individuals and there are incentives in place,” Handlen said. “But the myth is hard to bust. If you start to let ‘those people in’ and they trash your place you’re less likely to want to do that in the future.”

“It’s a stigma, if they’ve been burned in the past it’s hard to get to them to continue to work with them,” York added.

Further complicating the issue, officials say, is the additional structure and staffing needed to offer these services. An area must have infrastructure including water, sewer, power, schools and emergency services adequate to serve more housing. 

And then there are considerable “soft skills” that need to be taught for rehoming to be truly successful, said Fay Tiernan, director of the Lewis County Gospel Mission. She pointed to the tent and tiny home cities popping up in larger cities such as Seattle. She said she has heard many people suggest the county simply build more apartments or site similar structures to combat homelessness. 

“Without some sort of structure that helps them to become successful living off the streets or out of their car, where they change and there is community, you’re just putting someone in a box and saying ‘you have to live here now’,” Tiernan said.

Long term housing must have some layer of oversight, at least for newly housed people. Simple things that many people take for granted can be devastating to a formerly homeless person who has just found long-term housing. For example, someone living on the streets is likely eating ready-to-eat foods instead of cooking; someone living in a tent is likely not mopping a floor or doing dishes on a daily basis; and someone living in their car may not understand to use a thermostat instead of a kitchen stove to heat an apartment. 

“Sometimes you have to start at ground zero. The analogy we use here is if I was homeless today, I would have no idea what to do,” said Brett Mitchell, executive director of Reliable Enterprises. “It’s the exact same thing, that knowledge gap is as big for us as it is for people who are homeless.”

And the oversight must be long term, Mitchell added. He noted that it took the first tenants in Reliable’s first low-income housing units about two years to reach the point where they were stable with their housing. Mitchell noted that this is one of the barriers to getting landlords to work with clients, the knowledge that it may take a lot of time and oversight for that renter to become successful. Mitchell said about 20 percent of their renters end up causing damage to units but the investment in giving opportunities for rehoming is worth it in the long run because it means clients have fewer barriers to accessing services for their other needs.

“You have someone in stable housing and all of a sudden the resources are getting to the right person at the right place at the right time, instead of a lot of times being wasted because you couldn’t get any continuity from someone,” Mitchell said.

Reliable Enterprises recently began offering a course called RentWell, which is a 15-hour program that is aimed at the tenant side of the rental process. Students learn everything from landlord-tenant laws and how to fill out a rental application to how to care for their rental and communicate with their landlord. The course also helps those who have issues on their records that may be a barrier to renting address those issues through a cover letter to landlords and letters of recommendation. 

“What we want, our goal, is for other landlords to recognize these people did this class and that’s worth something,” said Christi Lucas, Housing Programs and Services Manager, Reliable Enterprises.

Reliable just recently graduated their first class — three people who finished the RentWell training. It is a model staff hope will catch on and become useful in helping stem the tide of the housing shortage. Like many other efforts to stem the tide of homelessness, they believe it will be successful because it is about so much more than simply four walls and a door.

“It’s there to give them a chance to get their voice back,” Humbert said.

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