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Survey shows many homeless in Sunnyside

One hundred and seventeen people homeless in Sunnyside, 57 in Grandview, even three in the tiny outpost of Outlook.

That's just a sampling from the final results of the Point in Time homeless survey conducted in January.

The nationwide survey was conducted throughout Yakima County on Jan. 26 to get a clearer picture of the extent of homelessness in the area. The results were released last Friday.

This year's Point in Time survey was just the second in Yakima County. It was conducted by the Yakima County Coalition for the Homeless and the Homeless Network of Yakima County.

Homelessness, for the purpose of the Point in Time survey, was defined as residing in an emergency shelter, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing or living with family or friends.

It was also defined as living in a place not meant for human habitation, such as outdoors, in a vehicle, in parks, abandoned buildings, garages or under bridges.

The second go-round in Yakima County was fine-tuned after lessons learned from the first survey in 2005, notes homeless network Project Manager Shon Hilton.

"It wasn't as concise last year," he said. "We took the same survey form and added more detail this year."

The two most noticeable changes were the ability to track the homeless by zip code, and changing the term from "substance abuse" in 2005 to "Alcohol or drug use" as a cause for homelessness.

The result, noted Hilton, was a dramatic increase from 30 people in 2005 who said substance abuse was the cause of their homeless to 237 this year who said alcohol or drug use was the source of their homelessness.

While alcohol or drug use topped the list for Yakima County, other significant causes of homelessness were loss of a job (163 people), medical problems (161) and mental illness (160). Also figuring prominently in homelessness were break-up of the family (149) and the inability to pay rent or mortgage (148).

"People seemed more comfortable answering the question when it was framed as alcohol or drug use," he said. "There may have been homeless people who weren't sure what substance abuse meant."

As a result, the survey's second year may not be showing that alcohol and drug use has increased dramatically as a cause of homelessness, but was underreported as a cause last year.

Overall, there were 75 more homeless people in Yakima County counted in 2006 than in 2005. This year's total homeless count was 1,265, representing 940 households.

The 2006 survey showed there are 65 homeless families in Sunnyside, or who reported Sunnyside as their last permanent residence, representing a total of 117 individuals. That's more than a 300 percent increase over 2005's survey, which estimated 18 Sunnyside households were homeless.

There may have been more in the 2006 survey, notes Hilton, as about a fourth of the survey respondents did not provide the zip code of their last residence.

"We try to get a gender and birth year, and we don't force the issue past that," he said of the lack of zip code information on some survey forms.

Whether Sunnyside's homeless was underreported last year, or has grown dramatically, Hilton expressed alarm.

"Sunnyside's homeless rate seems awfully high," he said. "We've re-opened Bienestar (a homeless shelter in Sunnyside).

Located near South Hill Park in Sunnyside, Bienestar was closed by the Salvation Army last fall due to lack of funding.

Hilton said the housing coalition re-opened Bienestar just two weeks ago, and is still in the process of hiring and furnishing the home.

He said Bienestar is transitional housing, which gives people up to six months to get back on their feet.

Hilton said a better turnout of volunteers was another reason for the spike in survey numbers, especially in the Sunnyside area.

"We provide training every year, and we did a lot better for Lower Valley this year volunteer-wise," he said.

One of the Sunnyside volunteers in the Point in Time survey this year was Suzi Carpino, who said she noticed more younger children among the homeless.

The final tally provided last week reflected that trend.

The number of homeless children in Yakima County from ages six through 12 more than doubled, from 109 in 2005 to 229 in 2006. Ages 13 through 17 saw a homeless increase from 114 in 2005 to 160 this year.

Hilton said the homeless survey results will help agencies better target the use of resources where they are most needed, and assist in drafting grant applications.

With survey results now tallied county-wide, the figures will be forwarded to the federal government for future grant consideration.

Hilton said 50 percent of the homeless coalition's funding is through state and federal grants. The other half, he added, comes from private donations.

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