Almost every community in the United States has and increasing number of unsheltered homeless people. Walla Walla is no exception.
The latest annual point-in-time count was around 180 unsheltered people living outdoors, in vehicles, in temporary shelters or in places without basic utilities. Such counts often miss some people and do not reflect fluctuations from season to season. However, the documented 7 percent increase suggests continued growth.
A big factor in public perception is the number of people holding signs asking for money. Most homeless folks do not panhandle, but those with signs certainly draw attention. Are there really more homeless or just more folks seeing a way to get money?
One persistent rumor is that people are coming from other areas because Walla Walla has shelters like the Sleeping Center, soup kitchens and other services many communities lack. The Sleeping Center is not experiencing that influx. Eighty-five percent self-identify as being from Walla Walla or neighboring counties, and we seldom have anyone from Seattle.
So if they are not coming from Seattle, what else might be happening? And why so many?
The researched answer can be found in a recent “Drivers of Homelessness” video by Ted Kelleher of the Washington State Department of Commerce. (Google it.) His graphs show that since 2010, in spite of more state money for homeless intervention strategies, the number of homeless people still increased. How come?
It does not seem to be the economy, since unemployment is low. Overdose deaths grew only slightly, suggesting little increase in addictions. Family instability and breakup is better in our state than many others. Serious mental illness situations are fairly low compared to most states. Such drivers continue to be major factors, but they do not seem to be increasing.
However, the dramatic increase since 2010 is the shortage of rental units — especially cheap rentals — and their escalating cost.
More people chasing fewer vacancies means higher rent. Although the state population increased 21 percent over eight years, new housing units increased only 17 percent.
Most of these new units are way out of reach for the very-low-income poor. As high rents drive more tenants to cheaper units, competition intensifies at the bottom of the market.
Walla Walla is no exception. Rent prices are rising faster than wages or benefits, especially for the lowest income groups.
Whereas the healthy, “natural” vacancy rate is about 7 percent, the current state-wide rate has shrunk from 5.8 percent to 3.7 percent, and Walla Walla’s vacancy rate is below 2 percent. Even the cheapest rentals for a two-bedroom unit typically run over $800 a month — the entire paycheck for someone on minimum Social Security benefits.
We certainly see this reality at the Walla Walla Sleeping Center. Most clients have been seeking an affordable place for many months.
Even with a voucher, landlords want assurance that no more than one-third of a person’s income will go for rent once the voucher runs out. Clients may receive basic monthly benefits and occasionally land a short gig that pays, but getting housed is beyond their reach.
So why so many homeless? A growing number are just locals who can’t afford rent. Giving to panhandlers isn’t likely to change that, but giving to agencies like Helpline and supporting shelters and adding subsidized housing can.
Chuck Hindman is board chairman for the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless which helps manage the Sleeping Center and has created other programs to reduce homelessness in the Valley.