Fighting homelessness in Yakima County

Fighting homelessness in Yakima County

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. - Yakima County reported more than 1,000 homeless people living here in 2010, but as of last year that number has dropped to 572, almost half.

The final numbers of this year's homeless count won't be available for a few months but some local providers say they believe the numbers went up.

COO & Deputy CEO of Yakima Neighborhood Health Services (YNHS) Rhonda Hauff said she has seen a difference.

"In the last year I think the numbers of homelessness probably have gone up," Hauff said. "That's primarily due to a lack of available housing and it's certainly become more challenging over the last year."

Yakima Valley Conference of Governments (YVCOG) Executive Director Larry Mattson said the majority of the homeless problem here in the county comes down to housing.

"It all comes down to affordable housing," Mattson said. "We have super low vacancy rates in the valley. A lot of the key to solving homelessness is getting people into apartments and rental units and regardless of whether you're homeless or not, it's tough to find a rental in the valley."

Local organizations who work with the homeless said the government ends up spending about $40,000 per year per homeless person. Whether it's paying for their medical bills, food at a shelter or police calls, you may not feel it directly but your tax dollars are paying for it. That’s why many local providers are working to fight homelessness.

Transform Yakima Together is one local organization that houses the homeless. They set up a tent camp this summer, housing about 50 people and then moved indoors to a shelter last fall that now houses almost 100. They are also working on building tiny homes on church properties for families who are homeless.

Transform Yakima Together Executive Director Andy Ferguson said getting a roof over your head is just the first step to getting your life back.

"Getting them housed and in a safe environment where they can actually begin to address the other issues," he said. "Because when you're out on the streets or on the river or wherever, it's very difficult to plan your life, take steps to move forward."

YNHS helps around 60 people, but Hauff said it's more than just giving people a place to stay.

"We're working with them to help increase their self-sufficiency," she said. "Help them find employment, some of those folks will be able to move into the fair market housing."

Mattson said there are many organizations out there trying to help reduce homelessness throughout our community. However, there is not enough funding and many of these providers are competing against each other to run their programs.

He said YVCOG gets about $2.2 million each year to distribute. Last year, they received almost $5 million in requests from 20 different proposals, so not everyone can get all or any of the money they ask for. Mattson said it's important to make up the gap.

"We do have state and local dollars and if we could use those to match with a private sector, or philanthropic donations, I think we could leverage our dollars to go further," he said.

Many of these providers think the community needs to step up if we want to solve or at least reduce homelessness.

"So the solution is something that we all need to come together on," Ferguson said. "The homeless provider network is working hard and we want to invite other community members to come into that conversation because we can't do it alone either."

Ferguson said if the community comes together it will cost a lot less than $40,000 to solve homelessness. He said you can help financially or by simply volunteering your time at any of the shelters in our community.

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