Editor’s Note: The following op-ed was written by the City of Centralia officials listed at the end.
$22,000,000. Roughly speaking, that is the amount of money that Lewis County has allocated to social service providers in our area to assist people who have housing needs. That’s a big number. And right now, we have reason to think that there are ways to significantly improve how that money is utilized.
The Centralia Housing Sub-Committee has been meeting for more than a year. We’ve gathered data, conducted numerous interviews, toured facilities and taken field trips to see how other communities are addressing housing concerns. We are diligently working on the full spectrum of housing, but this article is focused specifically on how money is utilized for addressing homelessness.
We follow two guiding principles:
• Staying rooted in compassion and serving those in need
• Ensuring fiscal stewardship of public funds by establishing clear performance outcomes
Housing insecurity has many faces. Many people associate homelessness with people struggling with mental health challenges or addiction, and then further associate that with crime and unwelcome public behavior. We must address criminal behavior and activity that keeps other people from wanting to be in our shared spaces. But we have to understand that this is a small portion of the people struggling. We need to broaden our understanding of who needs housing help to include the community college student struggling to make rent, the elderly person on a fixed income dealing with rising property taxes and household repairs, the family whose breadwinner had an injury, a person fleeing domestic violence and other individual stories. Many of these people have jobs, work hard and still struggle to stay in housing. Our rental market is tight and our cost for home ownership has skyrocketed. Everyone deserves a safe place to live and sleep. That is a non-negotiable human necessity.
We are committed to addressing housing issues and improving the quality of life for all Centralians. Here are some of the people who need help in our community: Jacqui, living in an RV after fleeing domestic violence and losing her food service job during COVID. Now she can’t get into rental housing because she doesn’t have credit history. Her last home was in the name of her violent partner. Merri lives in a one bedroom apartment, earns lower than the average median income and her rent has increased 50% in the last 12 months. She is still in housing, but, with no protection against further rent hikes, her housing is insecure. A local family has five kids and lost their home. The family is now split up and couch surfing with different relatives while trying to find an affordable rental. Randy, who lives on the street right now with a fear of being in a shelter.
We also care about the business owners downtown who regularly wash their sidewalks of human waste, the mom of toddlers who has stopped going to the library and a retired woman who was told by strangers that it is no longer safe for her to walk by herself downtown. We want Centralia to be a place where all people thrive. We need the housing system to be more efficient and more effective.
Our current system for helping people with housing insecurity is not working well. Recent data from the Washington State Department of Commerce shows that we’re failing to meet targets in many areas. In Lewis County in 2021, 33% of people served moved into permanent housing. This compares to 40% overall for Washington state, 43% for King County, 49% for Thurston County, 66% for Cowlitz and a whopping 77% for Kittitas County (Ellensburg). Only 17% of people in emergency shelters moved into permanent housing in Lewis County (Commerce target is 50%) and only 58% of people in Lewis County receiving rapid rehousing assistance moved into permanent housing (Commerce target is 80%).
There are more indicators that we aren’t making the strides we need: the county contracts with service providers do not have adequate measures embedded in them to set expectations for the results we should be getting from those contracts. The money simply doesn’t have enough strings attached. We also don’t have local data that is easily accessible on a routine basis for leaders to review. And we have a system with too many actors that creates coordination costs.
There are several things we can do to improve the system and achieve better results. Some of the actions we support are:
• An integrated system operated by a single entity. This would reduce coordination costs and create a single point of accountability.
• A public dashboard that provides regular data points on how many people served, how they are moving through the system, clear targets and our progress toward those targets.
• Establish the county shelter and include space for people to be there during the day. This would provide a centralized location for services and also a resource for law enforcement to utilize when working to address issues associated with loitering.
• Improve the county contracts to include contractual performance expectations.
• Adjust how we invest money in the system: Reduce investment in emergency shelters. Right now, about ½ of the available beds are utilized. This is true even during bad weather. Let’s right-size our emergency shelter beds so we can put the money elsewhere.
• Invest in long-term shelters and transitional housing. These are the next steps in the housing pipeline and we have very little available in these. This is potentially one reason why we have such a large percentage of people exit back into homelessness or not exit at all.
• Invest in permanent supportive housing. This is housing that helps people who may never be able to live fully on their own in market rate housing. Permanent supportive housing is shown to be one of the most successful solutions implemented in recent years and reduces other costs like emergency and institutional care.
With all of these proposed actions, it is imperative that we all continue to care deeply and speak with compassion. Each person has a story and many are invisible in our community. Despite common opinion, most of the people receiving services in Lewis County are from Lewis County. We don’t have more people in need because they primarily come from elsewhere. There are simply more people in need in every community right now. We need good fiscal stewardship of public funds. We should be investing in places that produce the most results for the most people. Millions of dollars are going into providing services for people with housing needs. It is time to change how that money is used.
Centralia Mayor Kelly Smith Johnston
Centralia Mayor Pro-Tem Cameron McGee
Centralia City Councilor Mark Westley
Centralia Planning Commission Chair Jakob McGie
Centralia City Manager Rob Hill
Centralia Community Development Director Emil Pierson