Homeless count yields a few surprises in Island County

by JANIS REID,  South Whidbey Record Whidbey Crosswind

Jun 6, 2015 at 4:00PM

Bayley G, a member of the South Whidbey High School Associated Student Body, is one of this year's Holiday House volunteers. Here, she stands in the apparel section of the South Whidbey Holiday House. — Image Credit: Contributed Photo

Bayley G, a member of the South Whidbey High School Associated Student Body, is one of this year's Holiday House volunteers. Here, she stands in the apparel section of the South Whidbey Holiday House.

— Image Credit: Contributed Photo

Nearly half of Island County’s homeless are working.

This fact is one of several revelations discussed in recent weeks with Island County commissioners as the result of the 2015 point-in-time count performed in January.

“This year we feel we have come closer to what we consider a close coverage count,” said Joanne Pelant, Island County’s housing resource coordinator who organized the count.

The county switched up its methodology this year and recruited more than 100 volunteers who surveyed people who identified themselves as homeless for specific information.

“We can feel really confident about our numbers this year because of this strategy,” Pelant said.

Volunteers counted 147 total adult homeless designated as “unsheltered” and 38 designated as sheltered. The unsheltered definition includes people living in tents, vehicles, parks, woods and in abandoned or substandard structures.

Individuals were only counted as “sheltered” if they were living in emergency shelters or transitional housing associated with a state or county organization. People “doubled up” or living with family and friends, as well as those in hospitals or incarceration were not counted as “homeless,” but were recorded for the state, Pelant said.

When divided by region, 71 of the total homeless were in the Oak Harbor area, 28 were found on South Whidbey and 10 were found in the Coupeville area.

No homeless were found to survey on Camano Island.

Economic drivers are among the top causes of homelessness, Pelant said, something that is common throughout the region. 

“Other counties’ charts look very similar to ours,” Pelant said.

The top reason for homelessness in Island County was job loss, followed by a family crisis or break up, eviction from a residence and other economic reasons.

Around 42 percent of respondents said they had less than 4 episodes of homeless in the past three years. The remaining respondents reported they had been homeless for more than a year or had more than four episodes of homelessness in the last three years.

Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson remarked at a presentation in May how many people were newly homeless.

“Almost half the people are new to crisis, so we’re not stopping people from falling into crisis, we’re creating more,” Price Johnson said.

Around 45 percent reported having full- or part-time work, and closer to 50 percent are living in their vehicles, Pelant reported.

“So they have income but it’s not enough to afford housing,” Pelant said.

Surveys also revealed that of the 109 unsheltered homeless that were surveyed, 76 percent reported having a physical disability, chronic health condition or mental illness.

The count included 65 adult men and 44 adult women, and included 11 families with children, 11 adult households and 43 singles.

Ten individuals reported being veterans and 13 as domestic abuse survivors.

Commissioner Jill Johnson, who proposed that the board have future discussion about solutions, said that the numbers will assist local leaders to “develop some strategies on where we’re going to target.”