Affordable housing key to keeping ‘small town charm’

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

In the community news business, numbers can do more harm than good. When we talk about how many were injured in an accident or how many were killed in a storm, we leave readers with a sense that they can’t relate to the story. And why should they? After all, who can relate to “70 injured”? But give us, “mother injured saving life of 5-year-old son” and we get it. We can empathize with her. We can feel her panic and know the feeling of wanting to protect someone we love more than ourselves.

This is why it can be very difficult to write about homelessness in the community. More often than not, we don’t have stories, just numbers.

We know, for instance, that during the Council for the Homeless’ most recent, county-wide “one-day homeless count,” which is the most accurate record of unhoused people in Clark County, there were 228 unsheltered people living in this county in 2016, but that the number jumped to 269 in 2017.

We know that, of these unsheltered folks, 78 of them — from this year’s count — were living in family units that included children under the age of 18.
But what does that tell us? How can we connect if we don’t know their stories? If we made new year’s resolutions as an editorial staff, one of them would be to do a better job gathering these stories in 2018 and helping readers connect to the issue of homelessness.

We also need to do a better job talking about those on the front lines of battling homelessness, such as the kind leaders at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Washougal, who offer a safe place for people forced to live in their cars. These leaders know the importance of being able to use a regular bathroom, find some warmth and enter a real kitchen — even if it’s just for a few moments each day — and deserve our praise.

There are no easy solutions to homelessness, but some areas have had success with a program known as “Housing First.” Boiled down, this approach says that finding immediate, safe, long-term housing for people living on the streets is the most critical part of ending homelessness. Instead of requiring the unhoused to fill out dozens of complicated forms or prove they’re not taking drugs or give up their companion animals, “Housing First” simply wants to get them in a stable home before tackling things like addiction and mental illness. The strategy has proven effective at keeping formerly homeless off the streets and is more cost-effective for taxpayers. For places like Vancouver and Portland, this “Housing First” approach could go far in solving a problem that left 17 dead on Portland’s streets last year.

The Camas-Washougal area doesn’t yet have the number of homeless that our neighbors in Vancouver and Portland do, but we should still resolve to help solve and prevent homelessness in our community.

Washougal leaders’ plan to open a severe weather shelter is a step in the right direction, but city leaders will soon need to confront the area’s rapidly rising housing costs if they hope to prevent more people, including full-time workers, from living in their cars, couch-surfing or sleeping on the streets.

We not only need more multi-family housing in this area, we need more affordable multi-family housing. A search for rentals in Camas shows that nearly all of the 2-bedroom units available rent for more than $1,000 a month.

Let’s say that a single parent needs a 2-bedroom apartment, and works in retail in Camas. Like most retail workers, she makes a little over minimum wage at $12 an hour. If she works a 40-hour week, her take-home pay will be about $1,560 a month. If she pays the going rate for a 2-bedroom apartment, around $1,100 a month, that leaves her with $460 a month to pay for utilities, food, clothing, medical bills and transportation. Who among us could afford food, gas, car insurance, clothes and utilities on less than $500?

City leaders in Camas-Washougal can no longer ignore the fact that housing costs — combined with wages that aren’t keeping pace — are forcing many workers out of the area and contributing to the rising number of unhoused families.

To keep that “small town feel” everyone loves so much about Camas and Washougal, we have to insist that the very people who make small town life so rich — the preschool teachers, shop workers, newspaper reporters, school bus drivers, farmer’s market vendors, paramedics and restaurant servers — can also afford to call this area “home.”