Does the Tri-Cities have a homeless problem? The answer could come soon

See how they figure out how many homeless are in the Tri-Cities

Shela Berry of the Benton-Franklin Counties Department of Human Services explains about the upcoming annual homeless count. Local volunteers and coordinators will fan out on January 25th to collect information used as baseline data to assist the h
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Shela Berry of the Benton-Franklin Counties Department of Human Services explains about the upcoming annual homeless count. Local volunteers and coordinators will fan out on January 25th to collect information used as baseline data to assist the h

Dave Burris has been living outside for about six months.

The 67-year-old said he lost his job at a food processing plant in Pasco early last year and by July had lost pretty much everything else, including his home.

Bewildered, he found himself on the street. Some days, he stands next to a Burger King on West 27th Avenue in Kennewick, holding a sign asking for help. Generous supporters pass bills and change through windows in quick, but friendly, exchanges.

But nights are different. Burris sleeps in a rotating series of locations. He changes locations when he feels threatened, which he said happens often.

How many Tri-Citians are there like Burris?

That’s what social workers and volunteers will try to find out Thursday when they fan out across the Mid-Columbia. The annual Point In Time Count tries to identify all people living in shelters or outdoors.

An Army veteran, Burris said he’d never been homeless before he lost his job, and he’s unsure how to reverse his tracks. It’s taking a toll on his health, he said.

He’s been robbed and no longer has a wallet or identification. He’s bunked in grocery store parking lots and open fields, always on the lookout for dry ground and shelter from the wind.

Burris said he visited the Union Gospel Mission in Pasco. He praised its work, but said he felt uncomfortable around the others staying there and isn’t interested in returning.

But he definitely does not want to be homeless.

I don’t ever want to be out here.

Dave Burris, homeless Tri-Citian

“I don’t ever want to be out here,” he said, pocketing a dollar from a passing driver.

Last winter, the Point in Time Count found 223 people like Burris in Benton and Franklin counties.

Counters identified 70 families living in shelters and 10 teens living at My Friend’s Place, a Kennewick shelter for youth ages 13 to 17.

The number included 28 living outside, about half as many as the previous year.

“This year, we expect to be more accurate,” said Shela Berry, a housing coordinator with the Benton-Franklin Human Services office and coordinator of this year’s count.

Volunteers are still needed to help gather information about homeless camps scattered in the region. Call 509-783-5284 for information.

On the day of the count, volunteers will gather for training and instructions at 8:30 a.m. at the Benton-Franklin Health District Building, 7102 W. Okanogan Place, Classroom 2, in Kennewick, then head out to designated areas.

The Jan. 25 count is Washington’s 13th annual census of the homeless, defined as those who live in shelters or outdoors. People who would be homeless but for a sympathetic friend or family are not counted in the effort.

TC Gospel Mission construct
Construction worker Terry Powell, an employee of Horizon Construction Services in Pasco, cuts pieces of steel stud framing Friday morning while working on the new Tri-City Union Gospel Mission men's facility in Pasco. The new $10.4 million 40,000-square-foot building being constructed at South Third Avenue near West Columbia Street is expected to open in October. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

It gives only a snapshot of a larger picture, but the results steer resources to agencies that serve the homeless and poor, and to identify the gaps that people like Burris slip through.

This year’s count is important locally because it’s a chance to get a more accurate view of the local scene. In 2017, results were skewed by snow that thwarted volunteers and sent homeless people into impromptu shelters, away from counters.

The state Department of Commerce oversees human services in Washington and coordinates the effort. State results in turn are reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of its efforts to combat homelessness, particularly among veterans.

The count paints only a partial picture, but the information is critical, said Andrew Porter, executive director of the Union Gospel Mission in Pasco, one of the region’s leading privately run shelters for men, women and children.

Porter takes the results with a grain of salt, though he supports the effort to gather data about a problem that changes depending of what is happening in the economy.

Still, he likened the attempt to pin down how many people are living in shelters or on the streets at any given time to trying to figure out how many people are wearing blue socks.

He estimates there are likely 1,000 to 1,100 people homeless in the Tri-Cities, and they come from all walks of life. The men’s shelter recently took in a microbiologist whose job and green card both expired. Sorting out his situation will take time, and money.

And the microbiologist isn’t the only unexpected shelter resident.

“I have lots of (people with) master’s degrees,” Porter said.

This week, the men’s dormitory was full and an additional 30 to 50 men were sleeping on floors. The women’s shelter had about a half dozen women plus children.

The mission is building an $11 million, 40,000-square-foot building at the edge of downtown that should be ready for clients this fall.

The new building is more than four times the size of the aging and inefficient men’s shelter on Second Street, room that will allow it to provide support services to help clients get back on their feet.

The old building will be lightly renovated and transformed into an overnight shelter for single women. The need is growing.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell

Point in Time

County homeless count of the Tri-Cities, Washington state