WALLA WALLA -- After several years of decline, Walla Walla County's homeless population jumped back up this year.
The number of homeless individuals, 583, climbed back up to the same number seen in 2008, said Susan Kralman, coordinator for Walla Walla County's 10-year plan for ending homelessness. Homeless households also rose after a three-year decline with 323 reported in this year's count.
The numbers of homeless men and women were almost equal this year, 292 men and 291 women, the survey showed. However, as in years past, single men outnumbered single women by a significant margin, 144 to 64.
Exactly why the numbers went up is not clear, Kralman told Walla Walla County commissioners Tuesday. The poor economy could be one culprit, but many other factors could come into play as well.
Taken the last Thursday in January, Jan. 26, the survey involved about 40 public and private entities at locations throughout Walla Walla County. The survey was started in 2006 as part of House Bill 2163, passed the year before, which required counties to draw up plans to reduce homelessness by 50 percent within 10 years.
One surprise in this year's survey was the change in the top cause listed as leading to being homeless, Kralman said.
"This is the first year that 'unable to pay rent (or) mortgage' topped 'alcohol (or) substance abuse' as a reason for being homeless," she told commissioners. However, what is not clear is whether alcohol or substance abuse problems played a role in a person's being unable to make rent or mortgage payments or whether other issues were involved.
Commissioner Perry Dozier commented that one thing that stood out in the survey were the numbers for mental health and substance abuse issues. He said he was curious to see if over time those figures might go down due to the county's enacting a sales tax to aid funding for treatment of those problems.
Commissioner Jim Johnson asked if the numbers might be up "because we're getting better at gathering data," but Kralman said that didn't seem to be the case. Overall, "this county has been very consistent" in gathering information on homeless numbers on the day of the survey, she said.
One factor that didn't seem to play a major role in this year's count was the weather, Kralman noted. Although the week before had featured an ice storm and low temperatures, on the day of the count the weather was dry with a high of 52 degrees and a nighttime low of 33 degrees.
"Actually on that day it was a pretty decent day," she said.