Circumstances leading to houselessness are varied, but the bottom line is, if you have nowhere to go to spend the night, you’re houseless. You might end up sleeping in your car, in a tent, a boat or an unheated building. If you wind up on a friend’s couch, you are considered “at risk of homelessness.”
In every county in Washington, there are unhoused individuals and families — even in the San Juan Islands, with a population of less than 18,000. While the situation here is compounded by an extreme shortage of affordable housing, the same problems that trouble communities across the country exist here: mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence and poverty.
The economic factors contributing to homelessness in the San Juans include both the low-paying jobs in the service industry (among the lowest wages earned in the state) and the high cost of housing. The median home price in San Juan County is $887,500. Finding any rental at all is challenging, and finding an affordable rental is nearly impossible.
The issue has not gone unnoticed by officials. The Housing Element of the county’s Comprehensive Plan observes that “meeting basic needs such as housing, food, childcare, transportation and healthcare is highly challenging for about one third of the county.“
With stiff competition for available rentals, the risk of houselessness is high for a significant portion of the population. There are no long-term homeless shelters or permanent supportive housing in San Juan County. When there is freezing weather, temporary cold-weather shelters are operated largely by volunteers.
The number of houseless people in San Juan County has varied only slightly from year-to-year over the past five years.
The annual one-day Point-In-Time (PIT) count of individuals experiencing houselessness required by the federal and state governments helps local governments understand the magnitude and circumstances of people who are houseless, and how to plan for reducing and eliminating homelessness.
Volunteers interview people mostly referred through service agencies such as family resource centers and food banks, as well as schools and the sheriff’s department. People are asked where they slept the night before, where their last residence was located and what may have contributed to their loss of housing.
In this year’s count on Feb. 2, volunteers tallied 146 people living in or at risk of houselessness. That included 58 identified as “literally houseless”— living in a car, tent or place not meant for human habitation. Eighty-eight individuals were identified as “at risk of becoming houseless”— living doubled up with family or friends or couch surfing.
Across the islands, 6 people had slept in a vehicle the previous night in February, while 37 stayed in an RV or boat, 3 slept in abandoned buildings and 12 people outdoors.
Regarding circumstances for homelessness, 13 people identified as having mental health issues, 21 with disabilities, 8 fleeing domestic violence and 18 as chronically houseless. Among them were seven military veterans.
Nearly 40 of those at risk of houselessness are age 20 or younger. Most were staying at other people’s homes. San Juan County and the State of Washington have both prioritized solutions for homeless youth this year. A plan to create some official host families was discussed by the county’s Homeless Task Force but is not operational.
Leave no person unsheltered
The state and county have homelessness plans that have a goal of leaving no person unsheltered. The county, however, is comprised of islands with a relatively small number of houseless persons on each of the major islands. Because it is not feasible to build one homeless shelter for the entire county, a variety of approaches is being explored to deal with the different circumstances of each unhoused individual.
“Our problems are a matter of scale,” said county affordable housing coordinator Ryan Page. “If you pulled together all the homeless people on all the islands, you might be able to create a limited shelter,” but it would be problematic to expect people to go to another island when their support system is likely in their own community.
“It would be very difficult to justify that type of facility,” he said. “Ideally there would be a range of options like short-term emergency housing, hotel stays and services for mental health and substance abuse.”
Page said that more people are stepping up to the challenge and more conversations about homelessness have taken place in the past year. There has been interest in developing a tiny home community, for example. The Housing Advisory Committee recommended a change in the county code to allow a group of tiny homes in the same land use designations where a “rural cluster” of affordable homes is currently allowed. The county council has not yet acted on that recommendation.
More need, less housing
“There has been a huge increase (in the past year) in local households seeking emergency rental assistance,” said Jennifer Armstrong, Executive Director of the Joyce L. Sobel Family Resource Center in Friday Harbor.
The year has brought in an influx of resources for rental assistance using COVID-19 funds, while the need was greater due to job losses.
Armstrong said most of those seeking emergency rental assistance already have a home, but in the past year or so she has seen a “significant increase in the number of people losing their long-term rental because the landlord decided to sell.” Clients have also told her that the only rentals available are only for a few months, which makes achieving stability difficult.
County council member Cindy Wolf of Orcas Island said that an increase in the number of vacation rentals has both reduced the number of long-term rentals available and driven up rents. Washington state’s strategic plan for addressing the homelessness crisis finds that increasing rents are the main driver of increases in homelessness. National research shows that an increase in rent of $100 is associated an increase in homelessness.
Public spaces, private property
When homelessness increases, it becomes more visible. Last year, a series of campers began to set up tents and occupy a park in the Eastsound Village center. When the Christmas season approached and it was time to decorate the Unity Tree in the Village Green, the sheriff’s department asked the camper to move; he complied.
Under existing local ordinances, the county can enforce hours of use in public areas like parks where hours are posted.
In public areas where hours of use are not posted, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court has ruled that unhoused people cannot be criminally liable for camping on public land unless there is another place for them to go (Martin v Boise).
The county, by virtue of its relatively small population of houseless people scattered across several islands, does not have shelter facilities for the houseless and, according to its Five-Year Homelessness Plan, “ceased enforcing any laws that did not comply with the court’s decision.”
Wolf said that an effort is underway to identify a potential piece of land on each of the major islands where homeless residents could legally camp, and she is hopeful this can be completed before this summer. Such camps would also be a way to discourage camping on public property.
Island economy, population and geography combine to make meeting houselessness in the county particularly challenging. County efforts are in place. Social services and rental assistance are available, and the community steps up when emergencies such as heat waves and winter freezes arise.
The actual construction of affordable housing and emergency shelters takes time. Proposals are being discussed for tiny homes. The San Juan Community Home Trust and the Lopez Community Land Trust step-by-step build permanently affordable housing. So has the OPAL Community Land Trust which has done more in the way of rental projects on Orcas Island.
For the houseless in the islands as for the houseless elsewhere, safe and secure shelter is an immediate need. But the true roots of houselessness — medical and mental health, addiction, domestic violence, poverty — go deeper. Until those are dealt with, the issue of homelessness will always be with us.
— Reported by Nancy DeVaux
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