New programs raise debate over ‘Housing First’ model

A worker unloads food into the storage garage of North Whidbey Help House during Oak Harbor schools’ “Fill the Bus” campaign last fall. - Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times
A worker unloads food into the storage garage of North Whidbey Help House during Oak Harbor schools’ “Fill the Bus” campaign last fall.
— image credit: Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

Those working closely with the island’s growing homeless population offer a resounding “yes” when asked if the island needs a homeless shelter.

They will also tell you that Whidbey Island will likely never have one.

And that is forcing the county to think outside the box.

“We’re all just seeing the need grow,” said Jackie Henderson, Island County human services director. “And, through our churches and communities, we’re seeing more people who are a day away (from homelessness).”

Stephen Haggan, a 51-year-old man who was panhandling near Walmart Friday, said that he hears that there are services for the homeless, but hasn’t seen them materialize for him.

While he isn’t homeless yet, Haggan said he and his family are about to get kicked out of their temporary housing.

“I keep hearing that (about services), but I don’t see it,” Haggan said. “There’s a lot going on out here, and everyone has a different story.”

In an effort to address the island’s homeless population, the county initiated a new program late last year that provides housing for 15 homeless and displaced people. They aren’t placed in shelters or temporary housing, but rather in subsidized apartments.

Most of those apartments are in the Oak Harbor area.

To fund the program, the county received a grant for $300,000 through North Sound Mental Health. That provides shelter for 30 homeless people over a two-year period.

The program, geared toward paying rent and utilities, can also provide assistance with one-time emergencies, such as a fixing a flat tire.

A majority of the area’s homeless suffer from some type of mental illness, according to those who provide services.

When the homeless are provided housing, they are assigned a case worker and required to attend counseling for their individual issues. These can range from addiction to depression to schizophrenia.

“This population has so many complexities to their needs,” said Joanne Pelant, Island County housing re- source coordinator. “At the heart of the program is dignity and respect.”

This emphasis on providing housing is an example of a philosophical shift that is happening nationally, according to Catherine Reid, the housing program coordinator for Island County. The initiative is called “Housing First.”

In the past, social workers focused on getting homeless people clean, sober and mentally stable before providing them with housing. Now, many communities are now focusing on getting the homeless off the street first.

Agencies that now receive federal money must commit to using the Housing First model as one of the conditions, Reid said.

Once these individuals are housed, studies show they get better, Pelant said.

“That’s a big key when there’s hope,” Pelant said. “It can help them become more productive, happy and healthy.”

The toughest part of housing the homeless population is finding landlords who are willing to relax their lease agreements to make room for those who may have legal problems or evictions, she said.

Incentives for landlords include providing a guarantee of rent and damages, as well as knowing that a case worker will be keeping an eye on the tenant.

Since Island County started taking referrals for this program, it has received 98 applicants. Of those, 34 didn’t qualify because they do not suffer from mental illness or they are able to obtain assistance elsewhere.

Many of those who do qualify for the program are on a waiting list.

“Clearly the need is greater than the resources,” Pelant said.

Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson expressed her hesitance to buy into the Housing First model. However, she said she wants to open a discussion with the community about how island residents would like to approach the issue of homelessness.

“I’m concerned that we, as a board, have not decided to use the Housing First model,” Johnson said at the board’s Monday meeting. “This Housing First concept is big, it is a direction, and I want to be very deliberate in our choices that we make to move that way.”

“This needs to be a board discussion so that the public can have the opportunity to weigh in.”

Johnson insisted Monday that language referencing the Housing First model be removed from a contract to purchase an Oak Harbor property containing five one-bedroom cottages.

The board of commissioners then approved the contract with Washington Home of Your Own, which would assist in maintaining the homes which would be used in the future for transitional housing for the homeless.

“I’m less worried about labels than the needs of our community,” said Commissioner Helen Price Johnson Friday. “It’s a challenging population. If you can house them and restore their dignity, they can become an active participant in their own recovery.”

Commissioner Kelly Emerson could not be reached for comment.


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