Sunday, January 12, 2014/lk
OMAK Despite the snow, Okanogan County Community Action Council saw dozens of people turn out for its “afternoon of services” event Thursday to help the homeless and others in need.
“I think it went great,” Executive Director Lael Duncan said.
Although an exact count wasn’t available by Chronicle press time, “we had more turnout than we’ve had in recent years, and we were able to identify a number of people who were homeless and help them,” she said.
Eighteen local and state organizations set up booths at the Community Presbyterian Church, 9 S. Birch St. — from Okanogan County Public Health to WorkSource, the state Department of Licensing and the Oroville Housing Authority.
Expressions Hair Design sent two stylists to provide free haircuts, and volunteers served sandwiches, coffee and chili donated by Subway, The Pumphouse Coffee Co. and St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, respectively.
St. Anne’s Episcopal Church member Jody Olson said she volunteered for the afternoon of services when it first began several years ago.
“I think it’s an incredible opportunity for people who are struggling to come and find the resources that they need and to get a hot meal,” she said. “I wish more people could take advantage of it.”
Susan Zierlein of Omak, who is not homeless but came to browse the clothes for her privately run children’s free clothing bank, Open Wings, said she heard of the event through word of mouth.
“I was kind of interested to see how they did this,” she said, glancing around the room. She said she thought the event was a good idea.
Some people took the opportunity to get information on potential jobs.
“We contract through various agencies to help people find work,” Career Path Services employment associate Lee Root said, adding that “we usually make connections with a few folks” at these events.
“I do want to commend Okanogan County Community Action for spearheading this event,” WorkSource employment-outreach specialist Nancy Nash-Mendez said. “Homelessness is a problem that we have to look at as a community, and this is a great place to be a community and provide for our community members who are in need.”
Shane Barton, a representative for Okanogan County Veterans Services, said that within the first hour of the event he was able to help a veteran find an apartment.
“It’s really not a high population because most veterans don’t like to ask for help,” he said concerning the number of people he has helped connect with benefits.
However, he said Veterans Services helped bring $1.9 million in benefits to Okanogan County veterans last year, and $80,000 already this year.
“There are a lot of people who are service connected and don’t even know it,” said George Crossland, who helps veterans through WorkSource. “Many, many people have not ever asked. It was not the culture of the time.”
The Support Center, which advocates for crime victims and provides temporary shelter if needed at a house in Omak, was on hand with pamphlets. Executive Director Margo Amelong said only a handful of people had stopped.
“It’s information that sometimes people are reluctant to pick up,” she said. “Many women and children who are homeless are due to domestic violence, so I think it’s important to be here to tell people about our services.”
Part of the purpose of the event was to gather information for the annual point-in-time count for the homeless, which officially begins Jan. 24.
Information collected from the county’s homeless population goes into a statewide system. Duncan said the Community Action Council surveys food banks the week the count begins, and help also comes from housing providers, emergency agencies and school districts.
“Our biggest challenge is the signatures for release of information. A lot of people feel insecure about releasing their information to the government,” she said.
Local agencies can use the information to qualify for funding to help people who either find themselves without shelter or in an insecure living situation, such as sleeping on a friend’s couch.
“Once housing is stabilized, then everything else tends to fall into place in terms of finding employment, getting restful sleep,” Duncan said. “The normal range of activities for people becomes easier.”
Okanogan County has kicked in $30,000 this year to help Community Action Council with emergency housing.
“They’re the funds that come to us by virtue of recording fees, when people record a marriage or a mortgage,” Duncan said. “It’s a direct benefit to clients who need housing, who are at imminent risk of homelessness. In the past, we’ve used some for rental assistance to keep people from being evicted.”
She said $30,000 doesn’t cover the total cost, nor do the funds from other sources, but it helps.
“We always need more. It seems like there’s never enough,” she said. “We have definitely seen a reduction in homelessness as a result of all of our efforts. There’s not as many homeless, but there still are people struggling to stabilize their housing.”
The county also provided funding to the Oroville Housing Authority, $30,000; The Support Center in Okanogan, $25,000; Okanogan County Behavioral HealthCare, $30,000; and the Housing Authority of Okanogan County, $40,000.
“Homelessness is a growing issue that we all need to be more aware of,” Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy said. “The treasurer’s report to the commissioners, the recent tax foreclosure sale was the largest number of parcels in our history, 37 of the 40 parcels sold. That reality is shocking to me and should make us all concerned of the stability and future of our county.”
Duncan said other service-providing events for the homeless will be hosted around the county in the coming months. The last afternoon of services, Oct. 22 in Tonasket, drew about 50 people.