Goal is to make homelessness a ‘rare, brief and one-time’ event

SILVERDALE — Kirsten Jewell’s goal is to “make homelessness rare, brief and one-time.”

SILVERDALE — Kirsten Jewell’s goal is to “make homelessness rare, brief and one-time.”

A “point-in-time” 24-hour count found 647 homeless people in Kitsap County, although the actual number is likely higher. About 4,500 people in Kitsap County experience homelessness every year, Jewell said.

It’s a topic that Jewell is an expert on, as she is human services coordinator for the Department of Human Services’ Housing and Homelessness Program. She spoke about homelessness during the May 19 Central Kitsap Community Council meeting.

There are resources and groups working hard to help people without homes, but there is still much work left to do.

Jewell said there were many causes of homelessness, “But when you really boil it down it comes down to poverty.

“If you are very poor you will have a much higher risk of homelessness.”

Lack of affordable housing is a problem at the county, state and national level, she said, and jobs often do not pay enough to cover the cost of housing. Untreated mental illness and substance abuse were also factors.

“At the end of the day, I think of homelessness as a symptom of the breakdown in our safety net for people needing help … I was really shocked to find that 27,000 people in our Kitsap County are living under the Federal poverty level. That means for a family of one, they’re earning less than $12,000 per year; for a family of four they’re earning around $24,000 per year. So imagine a family of four living on $24,000 a year. That’s not very much. It makes it very hard for people to be able to maintain housing.”

Jewell said there were three types of homelessness:

• People who are living unsheltered in vehicles or abandoned buildings or who are camping.

• People living in emergency or transitional housing.

• People who are “doubled-up” and couch-surfing with friends and family.

30 percent of people who become homeless are homeless for less than a week before seeking services. 60 percent are homeless for less than three months. 15 percent are “chronically homeless” for a year or longer.

Single men comprise the largest share of homeless people, followed by single women, then women with children.

“Domestic violence is really prevalent in people experiencing homelessness. 28 percent of folks have some kind of permanently disabling condition whether it’s a mental health issue or a physical disability or some medical condition,” Jewell said. 7 percent of the homeless are veterans.

Jewell said DHS tries to obtain benefits or job training for homeless people, since they often earn $700 or less per month. Increasing income is a major way to get someone into permanent housing.

Jewell said one question many people had was whether homeless people who were accessing services were coming from outside the area. According to Jewell, they’re mostly local.

“We look at this very carefully and we know that 89 percent of the people who are seeking assistance are Kitsap residents.”

Rents have been rising and for every $100 per month increase in rent, homelessness could be expected to increase 15 percent, she said. Some affordable units that were built using Federal funding are nearing the end of their contracted period of affordability and are now eligible to be sold on the market or to have their rents increased.

“What that does is it creates a situation where people are paying more than they can really afford for rent … we consider housing to be affordable for people when they pay no more than 30 percent of their income on housing.”

“It’s a supply and demand issue … we have to produce more units of housing in every income band.”

People that Jewell works with had average incomes of $838 per month, but the average rent in the area was $1,071 per month.

Jewell said one way to make more housing available was an emergency six-month county ordinance that could be used to allow homeless people to legally use recreational vehicles or tents for homes. The ordinance — Kitsap County Emergency Transitory Ordinance 531-2016 — covers case management, sanitation and safety.

Jewell said Washington’s tax laws also hit the poor harder than in Oregon or Utah.