Homelessness

Homelessness is a more visible issue in urban environments. Our housing issues are mostly hidden from us, but no less heart-breaking.

One morning last week, the orb spiders arrived just in time for the fall equinox — Sept. 22. These industrious fat-bodied spiders string their foundational weblines across wide distances and then weave in concentric circles, one strand at a time. Then they return and attach each of those individual strands to a central hub, touching their abdomens (and their silk-producing spinnerets) to every line to strengthen their nets. They’re beautiful fall colors: oranges, browns, and highlights of blacks. I always welcome their return. Fall is my favorite season.

I have friends who squeal at the sight of spiders, but I rather like them. I know many of them individually and where they each hang out. Last fall, I even had an orb spider that somehow got into the house and made her web on the inside of my kitchen window. (Several years ago I spoke to an arachnologist who told me some spiders are in-house spiders and some are strictly out-of-doors types. Orb spiders are the latter.) This orb spider stayed most of the winter. I have to admit I even opened the back door from time to time to make sure she had a sufficient supply of flies.

I greeted her every morning. (She preferred to appear only after the sun came up.) After I’d been off on a road trip, her web was gone. I was sad, but somewhat relieved. Then the next evening she reappeared; though in the following weeks her web got stranger and finally failed. I had no idea how to help. Did she need spider hospice. (I’ve been told by a good friend absolutely not to write about this for fear I’ll be carried away in a tight-fitting white jacket. Too late.)

At any rate, I’m grateful to have a home where spiders can cohabit the high corners. As we head into our blustery gray season, it’s a good time to reprise a topic of several weeks ago: the problem of folks who can’t find an affordable home in Pacific County.

Invisible homelessness

After a recent road trip, I found myself waylaid in Vancouver and I noticed a large parking lot, which was a homeless zone. Scattered around questionable vehicles was the detritus of living, and a guy lying flat-out on the pavement at noon. The homeless are so visible in an urban area. That’s not the case on the Peninsula where there are plenty of places to hide. Our problem is less visible and easier to ignore.

A couple weeks ago I spoke with Darian Johnson, human services program specialist for Health and Human Services. “In our rural area it’s easy to assume that homelessness isn’t an issue. It may look very different than what you’d see in an urban area. The usual perception is seeing people on the streets. But here the homeless fall under the radar. But we definitely have a lot of homeless and it affects much more of the community than most of us think. So here in Pacific County we’re trying to raise awareness about it. We’re trying to address the issues and find strategic ways that we can make grant programs work for our rural county.”

“Just understanding how many homeless there are in the county is tricky,” she said. “We do know that Driftwood Point Apartments in Long Beach — there are 27 units there of low income housing — is completely full. There is Timberland low-income housing in Raymond. That’s six two-bedroom units. And Eagles in Raymond has 16 units. Those are all full. And there is a long waiting list of close to 300.” (More of the story is covered in the Chinook Observer: tinyurl.com/bfe2wsxj)

“Part of the problem comes down to housing stock. It’s pretty limited and very competitive, even for folks who have an active rental history and can pass background checks and all the other barriers that come into play. We just have an actual lack of housing units. Willapa Center in Raymond will provide 30 units of affordable housing with non-profit space on the ground floor and a childcare center. I don’t know when it will be completed, but it’s exciting.” (Full story: tinyurl.com/3jr9z59f).

A network of services

But having enough housing units is only a part of the problem. Darian’s job involves a set of “wrap-around services.” As she says, “Often substance abuse is the key problem for someone. So we try to get them connected with services that will help eliminate that barrier. If somebody comes in with a lack of employment, we wouldn’t screen them out of housing, but we know that employment assistance is going to be key if they’re going to be able to work and eventually pay for their housing.”

The grants that Darian writes and manages attempt to address these interrelated aspects of what keeps an individual or family from being safely housed. Funds coming into our county for homeless and related services total close to a million dollars.

Jennifer Westerman, CEO Housing Opportunities of Southwest Washington, addresses the housing needs of families in Longview, unincorporated areas of Cowlitz County (excluding Kelso and Kalama), Lewis, Pacific and Wahkiakum counties. She reiterates that the homeless problem is complex. The process of actually finding property, funding, designing, citing, and building a new low-income housing facility is long and cumbersome. As she says, “The process to create new housing requires seven or eight layers of funding.”

Late in June of this year, groundbreaking for the Raymond Willapa Center took place, but just to get it to that stage took years. Jennifer was there and cheered on the gathering of people responsible for the effort, “This project has been decades in the making. You guys don’t quit. You just don’t quit.” As she wisely says, “We have to take the long view.”

The ranchette county

Rebecca Chaffee, co-founder of the Willapa Community Development Association, has great ideas and a passion for tackling housing issues. “It’s really scary how many people are searching for low cost housing. But there’s a need beyond the homeless. There’s also a need for affordable housing for working people, what I call ‘work force housing.’ I’m frustrated — we need some alternatives and we really don’t have a plan. Sometimes funds come with lots of strings attached. Even local building requirements are out of date. Where I live there’s a five-acre minimum. Why? I wanted to cut off an acre and build a home for my son’s family. I could babysit, they could keep an eye on us. Not possible — they have to move. And we’re going to stay in our large five-bedroom house, which is dumb. We can’t just be the ranchette county!”

“I really want to see us come together. We need a strategic coordinated effort. Everyone has a housing crisis — it’s nationwide — but it’s especially critical in our area. We need tiny house villages, shared space, modular units.”

Think about it. To create more low-income housing in the current environment, land must be acquired or donated. (Several folks I spoke to talked about the many derelict or crumbling buildings on the Peninsula which, under the right circumstances, could provide property for new housing projects.) Then funds — local, state, and federal donations and grants — must be found to promote such a project. Often tax credits are involved. Permits and zoning must be revised. Criteria for housing placements and a long-term management and maintenance plan must be put in place. Building costs are skyrocketing. Whereas, tiny homes can be had for around $40,000 a unit.

Building a housing network

It will take a network of individuals and organizations working together to solve this. (Can we just say that spiders understand the strength of a network?) It’s easy to understand why the Willapa Center took 10 years just to get to the groundbreaking stage. But that’s one facility when we probably need ten, or several villages of tiny homes.

Low-income folks and working families need our advocacy. They are mostly invisible and powerless. Bravo to all the agencies and people working on their behalf. But this problem needs a more concerted and thoughtful effort. Who will take up the banner and create the kind of coordinated, cooperative solutions Rebecca suggests?

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