Homelessness in Spokane County Sees 15% Decrease, Survey Reveals

Jun. 10—A recent census conducted in Spokane County indicates a notable decline in the homeless demographic, marking the first reduction in eight years, albeit with certain limitations to the data.

The 2024 Point-in-Time Count, executed each January by numerous volunteers who spread out across the county, recorded 2,021 individuals on the streets and in shelters, a decline from the 2,390 reported in the 2023 survey.

Within the overall homeless cohort identified, there was a significant drop in individuals who are not utilizing any shelter and are forced to survive on the streets. The figure for those lacking shelter access plunged from 955 in January 2023 to 443 in January 2024.

Annually mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for counties to secure federal aid, the Point-in-Time Counts in Spokane County have chronicled ascendant homelessness every year since 2016, when the homeless tally stood at 981 individuals.

“The downward trend is encouraging, especially the substantial decrease among those unsheltered,” Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown stated during an interview on Monday. “I believe the closure of Camp Hope contributed to this decline.”

On June 9, 2023, Camp Hope was officially dismantled, evacuating the final residents from an abandoned plot in East Central that once served as an unstable refuge for upwards of 600 individuals at the height of the 2022 summer.

The current downturn in reported homelessness arrives on the heels of a pronounced surge in 2023 when volunteers observed a 36% increase in homeless individuals relative to the 1,757 documented in 2022.

Yet, the figures raise numerous concerns that hinder precise analysis, including persistent skepticism among experts on homelessness data questioning the accuracy of the Point-in-Time counts. A 2017 study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty labeled the method as “severely flawed.”

“Regrettably, the techniques employed by HUD to administer the (Point-in-Time) counts yield a significant under-representation of the actual homeless population at any given moment,” the authors of the report explained. “In addition, irrespective of their methodology or execution, the one-time counts do not accommodate the transient characteristic of homelessness and consequently portray an inaccurate depiction of the predicament.”

The report emphasizes that success in the Point-in-Time Count is contingent upon volunteers successfully locating all homeless individuals and references a New York homeless shelter study which detected that on the night of the count, 31% of its patrons would otherwise rest in areas deemed ‘Not-Visible’.”

Estimations from the state Department of Commerce, through its Snapshot of Homelessness, suggested that in 2022, Spokane’s homeless populace was more than eightfold larger than the figures from that year’s point-in-time summary.

Other specific complications with the Spokane County figures stem from the closure of Camp Hope, previously the state’s largest encampment, as numerous former occupants may now be more elusive, possibly resulting in an understated count of individuals living without shelter. The city admitted in a press release on Monday that congregating hundreds at a single location simplified the counting process for volunteers.

Brown acknowledged that this predicament wasn’t exclusive to the 2024 assessment. Such counts are typically plotted to pinpoint and assist known homeless habitation zones.

The breakdown of how many homeless individuals have shelter access might be distorted due to the January timeframe. The Brown administration expedited emergency shelter openings during a severe cold wave, temporarily reactivating the Cannon Street Shelter and collaborating with local faith-based organizations to offer refuge for an additional 100 people during the perilous weather conditions temporarily.

“Both the augmented sheltered populace and diminished unsheltered populace mirror the temporary reinstatement of the Cannon Shelter in January 2024 amidst an em”>ergency cold outbreak and a boost in emergency shelter accommodation to tackle the immediate crisis,” the city declared in its press release from Monday.

Moreover, as authorities phased out Camp Hope last year, many dwellers transitioned to low-barrier shelter beds at the Trent Resource and Assistance Center and to more structured supportive living arrangements at the Catalyst Project. Nevertheless, as the Brown administration aims to decrease reliance on communal low-barrier shelters, there has been a reduction in available beds at the Trent shelter, declining from 400 in January during the survey to 250 by March.

Altogether, if the enumeration occurred at present, it’s indicated that the number of homeless individuals utilizing local shelters would be much less than the January figures imply.

This summer, the Brown administration will pursue agreements with local entities and service providers to implement the mayor’s newly proposed methodologies for tackling homelessness. These initiatives encompass a $3.85 million pact for a housing navigation service operator to assist homeless persons in accessing pertinent services; $9 million aimed at affordable housing projects; and an extra $4.5 million allocated for diversified housing aid not solely for the homeless but also for seniors, veterans, and other eligible groups.

The financing for these programs comprises a Commerce grant, unspent COVID-19 relief funds, and funds from the city’s affordable housing sales tax reserve established by the Spokane City Council in 2020—known as 1590 funds, a nod to the authorizing state Legislature’s House Bill 1590. Accumulation from the 1590 funds has remained significantly untapped.

Amidst ongoing deliberations about a joint regional strategy to combat homelessness, involving Spokane city and county, Brown is hopeful that the innovative programs, particularly the navigation center, will yield more robust data.

“We indeed aspire and plan for this to become a part of the broader regional discourse, with regional colleagues set to make meaningful contributions,” Brown commented.

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