POULSBO — Lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness.
That’s one of the key findings in a report released Nov. 15 by The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (www.nichp.org) as part of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, Nov. 12-20.
“Rising rents, historically low vacancy rates, and the continued decline of federally subsidized housing have led to a 7.2 million unit shortage of affordable rental units,” the National Law Center study reported.
“This means that for every 100 extremely poor households in the country, only 31 will find affordable and available rental units.”
People who have been looking for affordable rentals in the Poulsbo area know that all too well.
North Kitsap Fishline executive director Mary Nader said there’s a two-year wait for affordable rentals in the area. And the manager of the Hostmark Apartments said the wait is 2.5 years for affordable senior housing.
Meanwhile, according to that report, “Between 2003 and 2013, the number of Extremely Low-Income (ELI) households nationally rose by 40 percent, to 10.4 million, while the number of units renting for less than $400 per month only increased by 10 percent, leaving only 31 affordable units for every 100 needy households. 75% of ELI renter households are spending more than half of their income on rent and utilities.”
Putting those statistics into a more human context, consider the following findings from the National Low Income Housing Coalition: “Nowhere in the country can someone working full time at the minimum wage afford even a one-bedroom apartment at the federal affordability guideline of 30 percent of monthly income going to rent.
“In 2016, the average minimum wage needed to afford a one-bedroom unit is $16.35 per hour, above even the $15 minimum wage seen in a few progressive communities. Indeed, in many communities, a worker at the federal minimum would literally need to work every waking minute of their lives, 112 hours per week, 52 weeks per year, to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment.”
The most vulnerable of the homeless are the chronically homeless, “people who have been living on the streets for more than a year, or four times in the past three years, and who have a ‘disabling condition’ that might include serious mental illness, an addiction or a physical disability or illness,” according to NPR (www.npr.org/2015/ 12/10/459100751/utah-re duced-chronic-homelessness-by-91-percent-heres- how).
According to the reports and experts consulted for this story, creating affordable housing appears to be the greatest solution to homelessness, when compared to the high costs associated with legally penalizing those who have no permanent homes (violation of Poulsbo’s ordinance is a misdemeanor).
For example, a 2014 analysis by Creative Housing Solutions into the cost of homelessness in Central Florida found that a Housing First approach to the chronically homeless there would cost about $10,000 each annually, as opposed to the $31,000 apiece the region was spending on law enforcement and medical costs (shnny.org/uploads/Florida-Homelessness-Report-2014.pdf).
The concept is often called “Housing First.”
The goal is to provide people with a stable living environment (affordable housing) and support services and then help them find work, and treat their mental illness or drug addiction if necessary, instead of the other way around as governments have so often done in the past, explained Yurij Rudensky of Columbia Legal Services in Seattle. Rudensky specializes in homeless law.
Housing First programs across the country share critical elements, including helping individuals and families quickly find permanent rental housing; providing services that promote housing stability and well-being on a voluntary basis, and a standard lease agreement, as opposed to mandating therapy or services as a condition of eligibility, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (www.endhomelessness.org). Such services are not needed for most people experiencing homelessness. In most cases, clients pay some rent — either 30 percent of their income or up to $50 a month, whichever is greater.
One particularly successful example of the Housing First approach is the State of Utah, where by 2015 the state had decreased the population of chronically homeless persons by 91 percent, according to reports. (See www.npr.org/2015 /12/10/459100751/utah-reduced-chronic-homelessness-by-91-percent-heres -how or www.endhomelessness.org.)
However, the number of senior and low-income persons who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless in Utah still remains an issue, with the overall homeless population being around 14,000, according to the NPR report.
It could happen to you
While they have the greatest number of needs, the chronically homeless only make up about 20 percent of the homeless population, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The vast majority — 80 out of 100 homeless individuals and families — are people who become homeless after a housing crisis, such as being priced or taxed out of the market, or a personal crisis, such as a major medical expense.
The latter is a huge problem for seniors; a 2013 study in the Journal of Internal Medicine found that about one-quarter of all senior citizens declare bankruptcy due to medical expenses, and 43 percent are forced to mortgage or sell their primary residences.
For these households, the Housing First approach would provide them with short-term assistance to find permanent housing quickly and without conditions. In turn, such households often require only brief, if any, support or assistance to achieve housing stability and individual well-being.