With winter approaching, there aren’t enough emergency shelter beds for even half of the about 100 people now living in tents in a downtown Yakima encampment, which will close Nov. 15.
And housing has been found for just 19 of the camp’s residents since Yakima Neighborhood Health Service’s master lease program started in August.
Frustrated by the slow progress in addressing the homeless issue, the city of Yakima is considering establishing its own human service department, allowing overnight camping in city’s parks and acquiring homeless funds now given to the Yakima Valley Conference of Governments (YVCOG).
Each of those possibilities is more a quick response to complaints raised at a city council meeting last week than a specific plan. How or even whether the ideas are viable is the subject of review by city staff.
Much of the responsibility for dealing with the homeless problem lies with YVCOG, an organization that provides a variety of services and distributes funding to programs run by Yakima County, its 14 cities and some nonprofit agencies. To date, the agency has focused its attention on developing a long-term solution to the problem of homelessness.
That’s frustrated Yakima Mayor Kathy Coffey, who since May has unsuccessfully asked YVCOG for money and a short-term way to address the homeless encampment at the corner of South Third and East Walnut streets. She also questions what the agency is doing with $2.5 million in homeless funds its gets from local, state and federal sources.
Larry Mattson, YVCOG executive director, says the money has gone to organizations working on homelessness and other issues.
This year, it will give a total of $307,000 to Neighborhood Health, which has used the money to house 19 formerly homeless people and is working to find housing for another 11 people.
Neighborhood Health spokeswoman Leah Ward said her organization has had no trouble working with YVCOG,
Other YVCOG funding goes to programs treating addictions and homelessness across the Valley.
Mattson said efforts targeting underlying issues that cause homelessness are more effective in the long-term than simply placing people in housing; experience shows those people likely will become homeless again.
“The other things are long term and I know that’s not what Kathy Coffey wants to hear, but my board has said very clearly that they don’t want Band-Aids or short-term solutions,” Mattson said.
However, Mattson said he will begin talking with Neighborhood Health and the faith community in an attempt to find a place for more beds for winter weather shelters before they open Nov. 15.
There are about 45 emergency winter beds between the three churches offering cold weather shelters: The Unitarian Universalist Church of Yakima, Englewood Christian Church and Central Lutheran Church, said Ken Jones, minister with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Yakima. Those shelters are temporary, meaning they are open only during the winter months.
“If there’s 100 people out there and we don’t have that many beds, then we need to figure that out,” he said.
But there are still 100 open beds at the Union Gospel Mission, which is open year round and not classified as an emergency winter shelter. Many of the area’s homeless object to using the facility because staying there may include attending chapel services, which are held in same room as the shelter.
Mission services at 5 p.m., and prayers are said at all meal times.
YVCOG is working on a five-year plan to address homelessness and plans to send staff to other cities to learn “best practices” for dealing with the issue.
This five-year plan will, officials hope, be in place by March when winter warming shelters are still open, Mattson said.
Since YVCOG began heading a homeless program for the county 15 months ago, it participated in a 100-day challenge run by the state Department of Commerce to house homeless families — none of which live in Yakima’s encampment — and creating a manual for business owners that teaches them to deal with homeless individuals, there have been no concrete short- or long-term solutions rolled out.
The only member of the Yakima City Council to vote against looking at allowing night camping in Yakima’s parks was Maureen Adkison, who also represents the city on the 15-member YVCOG board.
Despite being a part of a council demanding short-term actions, Adkison said she has been one of the conference’s board members asking Mattson for long-term solutions.
“I think they’re within a month of getting the five-year plan and then the money will go out,” she said. “We’re working hard with our partners and eventually we’ll come up with a plan. Anything permanent will take time.”
An earlier version of this story did not include that the Union Mission Gospel Mission is not considered an emergency winter facility and therefore its 100 open beds are not included in official counts. In evaluating shelter availability for the winter, officials only count those shelters that are designated emergency winter facilities.