The Orcas Island Community Foundation, in partnership with OPAL Community Land Trust and Orcas Community Resource Center, hosted Greg Winter, executive director of the Whatcom Opportunity Council, as he presented the 2018 San Juan County Community Prosperity Report, which features findings from a 2017 survey of San Juan County residents living in poverty. Winter demonstrated a detailed and quantitative understanding of the critical needs facing this segment of the community at Emmanuel Episcopal Parish Hall on May 31.
Access to affordable housing was identified as the greatest need by survey respondents who were not already homeowners. The key barriers to accessing housing are availability and affordability. Fifteen percent of respondents identified themselves as homeless, and about half of the respondents were reported as renters. Among the renters, eight percent live in shared and transitional or emergency housing.
Access to and affordability of dental care is still identified as a high need in the survey group. Participants cited lack of insurance and high costs as the top obstacles to consistent care. Costs of health care, including dental, medical and mental health, were reported as being barriers to proper care. Medical bills were also reported as a key factor in the surveyed group’s inability to save money and reduce debt.
A lack of living wage jobs and availability of affordable and nutritious foods were other critical needs in the community. The majority of surveyed individuals reported using food assistance to feed themselves and their family and almost half reported having to skip meals or go hungry in the last 12 months.
The group then heard about some of the supports that are available on Orcas to address these needs. Erin O’Dell, director of the Orcas Island Community Resource Center, described programs available through the resource center to assist community members with rent, utilities, medical and mental health support.
Lisa Byers, director of OPAL Community Land Trust, reported on the April’s Grove project, a 45-unit affordable rental development planned for Eastsound. She announced that 85 percent of the funding for the project is in place and OPAL hopes to raise the rest from community donations this summer so that they can start construction early next year.
There was further discussion about dental care continuing to be a high need despite having a free dental clinic program. The Orcas Island Community Foundation launched the clinic six years ago based on the 2011 Prosperity Report findings. While the dental van makes quarterly visits and has provided care to more than 600 patients, the need remains high, likely due to those experiencing dental issues in times between clinics.