Annual tally shows decline in Cowlitz County homeless population, service agencies doubt

A yearly tally shows a decrease in Cowlitz County’s homeless population, but social service agencies say it’s lower than the actual number.

Cowlitz County’s point-in-time count recorded 271 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people, up from 328 in 2020. Last year’s count was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, the tally recorded a total of 406 homeless people, an increase from the previous eight years.

Of the 271 counted, 128 were in emergency shelters, such as Community House on Broadway or Emergency Support Shelter, 72 in transitional housing and 71 were unhoused.

The Point in Time Count, an annual one-day census of unhoused and housed homeless people, has never been considered comprehensive, but this year’s results are lower than what service providers have seen in recent years. month.

“I was shocked,” Maj. Phil Smith said with Longview’s Salvation Army 2022 results. “I can’t imagine it getting anywhere near accurate.”

Smith volunteered during the February count, distributing more than 100 meals at the Alabama Street encampment in Longview. The Salvation Army stopped distributing meals at the site a few months ago, but earlier this year residents were generally in the 80s, he said.

Although the count included everyone at the Alabama Street site, it does not include unsheltered people living by the Cowlitz River, Kelso or other locations, Smith said.

Zach Dreier, coordinated entry specialist for Community House, said that in 20 recent trips to the Alabama Street site, he spoke to 100 unduplicated people, the majority of whom were from Cowlitz County. There is also a large camp near Fishers Lane and often people at Lake Sacajawea, he said.

For comparison, a supplemental report from the Department of Health and Human Services reports that approximately 1,285 Cowlitz County residents were homeless in January 2021, based on combined Medicaid, economic services, and system populations. homeless management information. The 2022 report was not yet available.

The one-time count may have missed people because the method, time and location changed, said Community House executive director Frank Morrison. Washington State postponed the count from January to February due to the high number of COVID-19 cases, and Cowlitz County held the count at the Alabama Street site instead of its usual location in Longview.

Morrison said the total number of homeless may not have increased from last year, but the pandemic and the end of the eviction moratorium has led to people losing their homes. In November 2020, following the release of that year’s tally results, service providers said they expected an increase in 2021 after the moratorium was lifted.

“I feel like with inflation, gas prices, it’s harder for people to survive,” Dreier said.

Point method, limitations

State law requires each county to conduct an annual homeless count. Counties must complete the count to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the state Department of Commerce.

The state uses the tally of grant applications and the federal government uses the data to make funding decisions, but the tally isn’t tied to any specific county funding, said Gena James, deputy director of health and social services.

Prior to the pandemic, the county and partner agencies hosted an event offering services such as free food, haircuts and housing resources on count day and surveyed attendees.

This year, county staff and local volunteers interviewed residents of the Alabama Street site and the Woodland Action Center, James said. The state also counted those enrolled in programs using homelessness management software, such as Community House on Broadway and Emergency Support Shelter.

According to TDN records, some spot counts in the early 2000s included volunteers and police searching for homeless people throughout the county.

The county is using the count results as a snapshot of the local situation and a way to see trends, rather than an overall survey, James said.

“When we talk about the PIT numbers, we don’t represent the count as ‘all homeless people,'” she said. “We have to recognize that it’s not perfect and we’re not in a position to count everyone.”

Agencies and local officials have acknowledged that the count will not capture everyone since the county’s first count in 2003, according to TDN records. In 2006, Rick Kirk, manager of the Community House at the time, said the number of 571 people may be only 50% of the actual number, which could be as high as 1,500.

Variable definitions, forgotten populations

As a HUD requirement, the Point-in-Time Count uses that agency’s definitions of homelessness.

The tally includes people who identify as homeless, as well as those living in emergency shelters, transitional housing and places not intended for human habitation such as cars, parks, buildings abandoned and on the street. Not all people sleeping in motorhomes are counted, but it could be if the motorhome is in poor condition, parked in an unusual location, or if the occupants do not have access to sewers, water and electricity.

People living temporarily with family or friends are not included. Those who stay in hotels or motels can be counted if they pay for their room with a charity voucher, Dreier said, with Community House.

The limits of HUD’s definition become apparent when looking at the number of homeless students, Lisa Staudinger, former executive director of Family Promise, said in mid-July.

“It doesn’t reflect anything close to reality,” said Staudinger, who oversaw the Kelso nonprofit that shelters families.

The US Department of Education’s definition of homelessness includes students who do not have a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; who share accommodation with others due to economic hardship; or who live in cars, public spaces or substandard housing.

At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, 550 Cowlitz County students identified as homeless, according to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

In February, Longview School District staff reported that about 64% of the 218 homeless students were lined up with other households.

Cowlitz County’s tally also does not include those incarcerated.

The prison used to coordinate with spot count organizers to gather data on inmates, but has not been involved for a number of years, said Marin Fox, director of the Department of Corrections at the Cowlitz County.

As of Tuesday, 44 of the 185 inmates, or about 25%, said they were transients when booking, Fox said. It’s probably lower than usual and would be higher if “homeless” were better defined, she says.