Community Services staff ready to help our homeless population
January 27, 2022
There are three variations of homelessness that Wahkiakum Health and Human Services Community Services Manager Julie Johnston sees in Wahkiakum County.
There are those who are literally on the streets, or living in cars, without easy access to anything; another version the school usually sees are families doubled or tripled up in housing, or couch-surfing, where they might have a roof over their heads but it’s not permanent, or it may be more than one place over and over.
The third, or what Johnston sees the most frequently, is people living in substandard housing.
“People shouldn’t live like that,” Johnston said.
“We don’t really see a lot of people who are out on the streets,” she said, “there are a few that come through though. They may stay for a few days and then leave. They head toward the beach or to Longview, which has more resources than we do.”
When they do arrive, the Wahkiakum County Sheriff’s Department usually hears about it.
“Sometimes we’ll get a call because they’ll sit down on a sidewalk in front of a merchants and just sit there for hours with backpacks and dirty clothes,” Sheriff Mark Howie said.
Deputies will see homeless people walking along SR 4 or find them on other roads in the county. They might be staying in the woods nearby.
“We’ll go and make contact with them,” Howie said. “A lot of times it’s not an issue, it’s just someone calling about a suspicious person, or a welfare check on someone that might not be in their right mind.”
Sometimes it’s just someone who wants to be left alone.
“Usually we can converse long enough to get they are either just walking though or have been camping in the woods or staying there,” Howie said. “They might be walking all the way through or hitchhiking to the beach, or they don’t know where they are going. They usually don’t stay long.”
The deputies just want to talk to the individual. They want to find out where the person is headed and what their needs are. If they are a danger to themselves, then the sheriff’s department might try to identify them. Rarely, Howie said, do they run into a criminal who is homeless and transient.
“Usually there isn’t a confrontation,” he said. “Most of the time, the transient and homeless population aren’t looking to commit crimes, they are just trying to survive.”
The deputies might transport them closer to their next destination, or get them on the local bus service, Wahkiakum on the Move.
Sometimes they will hear of or see someone living in a car near Strong Park or some other place they might easily blend into.
“Eventually someone from the sheriff’s department will talk to them, ask them what they are up to and tell them they can’t park there forever,” he said.
If there is a mental health issue, it can put a strain on already limited resources.
“With only seven deputies to run 24/7 day a week shifts, it’s normally a mandatory two person call for a mental health call,” Howie said. “So we have to call somebody out to standby till we can figure out what to do to help this person, and sometimes that means we have to take them to St. John. It’s been difficult.”
There are resources in the county, but not as many as a homeless person might find elsewhere if they want help. There is an emergency warming center for cold nights, run by volunteers, and Community Outreach has a working list of everything that is available locally and in counties nearby.
When they do want to stay, Community Outreach does everything they can to try and help.
After a conversation about what the person needs, they begin to problem solve together, while doing what they can to encourage the person to take responsibility for solving the problem themselves.
“Maybe they need a bus pass, or a hot meal,” Johnston said. “Do they need a doctor? What are their goals?”
What natural supports do they have? Do they have family or friends in the area?
“If they want to stay, we get them sheltered and then try to find them long term housing, and talk about what they would need to do to sustain long term housing,” Johnston said.
It can be problematic, because affordable housing is limited in the community and there aren’t many jobs.
"Where are you going to work? Where are you going to live?” Johnston said. “We don’t have that here.”
Now and then they have Section 8 vouchers available.
“If you can find a place that will accept it, then the individual only has to pay 30 percent of their income and the housing authority will pay the rest,” Johnston said. “That includes all the utilities. The vouchers can be life saving if they can find a place that will accept it. It’s permanent, long term. You do yearly reviews to make sure you still qualify. It’s very needed.”
Another potential obstacle for someone who is looking for a change is the amount of information they will have to provide in order to get housed. Sometimes they just don’t want to.
“Some of the people that are out there have been through this before and sometimes it’s just too overwhelming and it’s just easier for them to migrate from place to place,” Johnston said. “They have the freedom to do whatever they want to.”
Substance abuse and mental health issues can go hand in hand for some people who are struggling with homelessness.
“It’s a hard chicken and egg situation,” Johnston said. “You’re never quite sure, but typically that’s the hardest population to reach out to and assist to do better.”
“We can’t force anyone to want to get the help,” she added. “People in the community might think we haven’t done anything. That may not be true, but we can’t talk about it.”
Still she says, they are trying.
If you are homeless and would like help, you are encouraged to call 360-795-8630, option 4 to speak to Kelly Patterson. Leave a message with good contact information and give them a good time to call or a preferable contact method. And please set up your voice mail.