EDITORIAL: Homeless in Pagosa, Part Two

Read Part One

To accomplish its mission of ending homelessness, the [National Alliance to End Homelessness] uses data and research to identify the nature of, and solutions to, the problem.

— From ‘The State of Homelessness in America, 2016’ published by the National Alliance to End Homelessness

I arrived at the Seattle airport on Sunday morning, expecting to ride a Shuttle Express van to my sister’s house — as I’ve done many times before. Shuttle Express offers a “shared ride” van service; typically, you share the ride with two or three other unrelated individuals headed for the same general part of Seattle, meaning that the trip takes longer than a taxi ride would take, and the cost is proportionately less.

So I was surprised when my name was called, and a young man escorted me to a black luxury car, explaining that there were no other airport passengers headed to North Seattle at the moment, so he would be driving me — just me, alone — to my sister’s house.

Turns out, the young man was a contractor for Shuttle Express; he actually owned the car, and paid the gas, insurance and maintenance and so on, but obtained his customers — and his paycheck — through Shuttle Express. I guess this type of arrangement allows Shuttle Express to compete with Uber and Lyft?

We chatted as we made the 30-minute drive to North Seattle, and I learned that he’d bought a house in 2010, during the Great Recession — a house that, he said, is already worth considerably more than what it cost when he bought it. He noted that Seattle’s population is growing by about 1,000 newcomers each week, and that the job market is getting tight; with all those eager newcomers looking for work, it’s getting harder find employment. Housing is also getting harder to find.

Meanwhile, it’s getting easier to find homeless people.

According to a Seattle Times article from January 31, 2016:

More than 4,500 people were sleeping outside in Seattle and across King County during the region’s annual One Night Count, with a sharp increase seen in South King County, organizers said Friday. Volunteers in small teams walked the streets from 2 to 5am Friday, clipboards in hand, scanning the pavement, peering into tents and cars.

The 2016 estimate of people without shelter showed a 19 percent increase over last year, and the 2015 tally of 3,772 was a significant increase over the count in 2014.

According to the chart included in the Seattle Times article, the number of people sleeping “unsheltered” in Seattle — sleeping in cars, under bridges, in cardboard boxes, in January, in the dead of winter — has nearly doubled since 2012.

The volunteer-driven One Night Count has been an ongoing program in King County for 37 years, but this year, the counting process was handed over to a new organization, who planned to revise and improve the count methodology. The 2017 January count found about 5,500 homeless people sleeping outdoors.

In November 2015, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine jointly declared a civil state of emergency over homelessness. Murray said it would come to an end only after a “significant reduction in the number of people dying on our streets… and a significant reduction in the number of school-age children who are homeless.”

Everyone involved in the counting process and the analysis knows that these “point-in-time” counting efforts produce “minimum numbers”.. and that many homeless people are going uncounted. But… just how many… are going uncounted?

The National Alliance to End Homelessness published its annual report in 2016, The State of Homelessness in America, which is also based on data collected during One Day Counts each January, in many cities and town throughout the country. The data is submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by local and regional organizations that provide services to homeless populations.

So we have this data. But is it accurate?

I found this section of the 2016 report to be somewhat fascinating in that regard:

The number of unaccompanied children and youth8 found to be experiencing homelessness in the January 2015 point-in-time counts was 36,907. This number is not likely to be accurate, as youth are thought not to be enumerated effectively with point-in-time counts methods..

Nationally, youth made up 6.5 percent of the overall homeless population, but, in Nevada, where Las Vegas undertook an extensive youth count, unaccompanied youth were found to account for 26.4 percent of the overall homeless population. Because of this, changes in youth homelessness from 2014 to 2015 are not presented as the data is considered less complete than data for other subpopulations.

Translation:

If you do a better jobs of accurately counting the number of homeless children — as was apparently done in Nevada in 2015 — you find four times the expected number of “unaccompanied youth” living in homeless situations.  You find that more than a quarter of your homeless population consists of children.

Which brings us, finally, back to Pagosa Springs and the primary subject of this editorial series.

How many people, in Pagosa Springs, are sleeping in cars, tents, cardboard boxes? If you live in a town where the average rental house costs $1,200 a month, and you are making $10 an hour — where do you end up living?

Does anyone know the answer?

Yesterday, in Part One, we took a quick look at the “summaries” included in the rough draft of the 2017 Archuleta County Housing Needs Study produced on behalf of the Town of Pagosa Springs and Archuleta Board of County Commissioners.

You can download the draft report here.

Much of the report consists of “data” and charts that look something like this:

There are at least a couple of ways to understand the term “housing needs.” For those of us who already have housing — and I am part of that group, at the moment — the idea of “housing needs” might be somewhat abstract, and distant from our daily experience. “Housing needs” might imply “a need for more housing at some point in the future, when we actually have a growing population.”

If we feel that way about “housing needs” — that it’s something we ought to consider, at some point in the next few years — then these charts and this data are well suited for the purpose of making the problem seem abstract and distant.

There’s nothing like a simple, linear chart, like the one below, to make us feel that… well, apparently, things are going along just fine in Pagosa Springs:

But for some of the workers in our local restaurants and motels and stores… working two jobs… paying for childcare and student loans… and living in their cars…

…the term “housing needs” must have a very different meaning. A very real and immediate meaning.

Luckily, we can find examples of communities where the leadership is right now, today, working to address those very real and immediate needs. We can find communities where groups of volunteers are stepping up to provide housing for those most desperately in need of shelter.

Real housing, for real people.

In other communities, of course, the leadership might be glancing at the charts and the graphs, and then looking the other way — eyes glazed, dreaming about $100 million reservoirs, or $27 million jail facilities…

Read Part Three…

Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.