Cold weather in Yakima Valley emphasizes the need for shelters to serve the homeless

YAKIMA - Steve Gaulke knows first-hand of the need for affordable housing in the Yakima Valley. As a mental health outreach worker for a new Central Washington homeless program, it's Gaulke's job to make contact with the homeless and help them make contact with service agencies.

Gaulke is an outreach worker for Central Washington Comprehensive Mental Health's PATH (Project for Assistance in Transition from Homeless) program. Admittedly, he said it is sometimes difficult to connect the homeless long enough to help them find a place to sleep during the inclement winter weather.

The job can be overwhelming, he said, especially when the homeless face so many barriers.

While his focus is in helping the homeless with mental health issues, during the past year the Yakima man has found that housing is nearly an insurmountable barrier for those persons classified as homeless.

"This past month we've seen a lot of new people at the shelters or just hanging around the missions," he said.

Yakima County's homeless were among at least 46,000 homeless people included in a 2003 housing survey conducted by the Washington Coalition for the Homeless. The survey only includes figures for the period of July 1, 2001 through June 30, 2002, the most recent figures available. According to the Yakima County Coalition for the Homeless, the actual number of homeless people in Yakima County may be as high as 5,000 people, including families with children, homeless veterans and transients. This past January, Central Washington Comprehensive Mental Health hired Gaulke as a PATH outreach worker and charged him with locating and helping to put homeless individuals into contact with the appropriate social and health services agencies.

But so far with only one outreach worker and limited funds, the regional mental health agency's new program has been able to identify only 200 individuals as homeless with mental health issues.

"I believe there are more out there," Gaulke said. In addition to his contact with persons in need of Comprehensive Mental Health's services, Gaulke is seeing more families among the homeless population.

Like many state homeless advocates, Gaulke is also finding that the limited stock of housing for extremely low income families is creating a lot of the homeless situations.

In the Yakima Valley, one of the major barriers is low income versus the expense of damage deposits, first and last month rent, as well as utility deposits.

"These are families who face large deposits for rent and utilities, who simply can't come up with the money," he said.

Gaulke said the biggest problem for some of these people can be barriers such as a lack of good credit, or other issues such as brushes with the law or mental problems, he explained.

During the past month, Gaulke has seen an increase in the number of people seeking emergency shelter. He said he is seeing more families at the area shelters, even those who have jobs, he said.

"It's hard to come up with $470 for rent when you may be only receiving $500 a month," Gaulke said.

The state homeless coalition reports that households with annual earnings of $18,816 can barely afford a monthly rent of no more than $470, while the fair market rent standard for a two-bedroom unit is ranging in the neighborhood of more than $780 in some areas of the state.

Despite the lack of affordable housing, there are missions and shelters established for those seeking temporary lodging.

Everyone who requests a warm, dry, safe place to sleep should be able to find one at any time of year, in any weather condition, said Marion Hogan, executive director of the Washington State Housing Coalition. But Hogan said the recent sub-zero weather across the state has put a strain on already full shelters.

The situation has emphasized the need for more units of permanent, affordable housing. Because of that shortage the demand for emergency shelter will continue to increase, Hogan said.

"We must provide more permanent housing linked with supportive services," he said.

Meanwhile, the local demand for emergency shelter continues to increase, a situation which Gaulke is acutely aware. "We are trying to get these people into affordable housing as soon as we can," he said. But keeping them in housing can also be a challenge, he added.

"We have to meet with some of these folks twice a week as they get used to handling their new surroundings," he said.

"We're making small steps toward meeting the need," Gaulke said.

. Julia Hart can be contacted at

(509) 837-4500, or you can e-mail her at


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