Homeless outreach guest op

Camp Hope Director Mike Kay talks to a couple living in an SUV while doing outreach on Feb. 14, 2019, in Yakima, Wash. (Evan Abell, Yakima Herald-Republic file)

‘Damaged goods” usually refers to objects, but recently we’ve heard it said of our unsheltered residents, people with traumatic and exploited pasts.

I heard someone say an expert is “a person from out of town with a PowerPoint.” But the real experts are those who have left homelessness — individuals contributing to the economy and social diversity of Yakima. You may not recognize them. They don’t wear a red “H” indicating they survived on the streets, by the river or in the alleys. They don’t tell you they got hooked on meth to stay awake at night to avoid attack and to curb their hunger. They huddle at night under well-lit buildings with cameras for security. We know that people who experience homelessness are more often preyed upon than the perpetrators of violence.

Many individuals have trauma in their past but possess the resilience to persevere and even laugh. Given the right supports, they often choose a safer and healthier path. This is where Permanent Supportive Housing and Supported Employment come in — evidence-based practices in Yakima County, this state and nationally. It’s a high-return investment. The National Alliance to End Homelessness found the average cost to a community of an unsheltered person is roughly $40,000 a year in police, emergency room, treatment, jail, ambulance, and shelter costs (often repeated), compared to an average cost of Permanent Supportive Housing with intensive case management in Yakima County of $14,500 per year.

In 2011, a Yakima County partnership of service providers was named a Promising Practice by the federal Department of Health and Human Services because of our collaborative effort to house unsheltered individuals and families. Hundreds of people — including families with children — no longer live in shelters or their cars and in parks. We still have homelessness, but a realistic goal is to have more people coming out of homelessness than entering — called Net Zero. No one is immune to sudden misfortune — be it a job loss, family breakup, unexpected medical bills, mental health crises and substance use disorders. We can’t assume people have hard times because they aren’t responsible. A psychotic break doesn’t just happen as a result of a personal weakness.

People are without homes because we don’t have enough affordable housing. Look at the housing crisis in Seattle, one of the wealthiest cities in the country. Homelessness has risen dramatically. While household incomes went up 12% from 2010-17, rents jumped 52% during the same time period. Poor people didn’t rush to Seattle or suddenly become irresponsible. But while some enjoyed the booming economy, others fell through the cracks. In a simulation of musical chairs, more people got added to the game, and chairs were taken away as we saw low-income housing demolished for those beautiful condos. When the music stopped, the most vulnerable were left standing.

Yakima’s rents have not increased as drastically, but the competition for housing is fierce. A recent study from the city of Yakima reported that our city needs to issue one building permit a day in order to keep up with the current demand. Nearly one-third of residents spend more than 30% of their income for housing — a standard considered unaffordable.

Achieving Net Zero means more affordable housing in Yakima County and cost-effective supports for individuals struggling with chronic disabilities, mental illness and substance use. They are not “damaged goods” but people with whom we have a shared humanity.

Rhonda Hauff is chief operating officer and deputy CEO of Yakima Neighborhood Health Services. She is a board member of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.