Orcas Island coalition to end homelessness

Submitted by Orcas Island Community Foundation.

The Orcas Island Coalition to End Homelessness is a consortium of San Juan County government, public and private agencies, nonprofit and faith-based organizations working in collaboration to provide people who experience chronic homelessness on Orcas. The Coalition provides safe shelter, and connects people to the resources they need to transition to stable housing and self-sufficiency. We have come together as community partners to develop and implement a plan to meet these goals. Our lived experience during the pandemic has underscored how much we rely on the island network to provide a safe and inclusive community. We are committed to ensuring this extends to our unhoused neighbors on Orcas.

How big is the homeless population on Orcas Island?

The Point-In-Time count is taken each year on a single day in late January. For San Juan County, the latest count in 2018 identified 42 homeless on Orcas Island. Most of these individuals have lived on Orcas for a decade or more. Many of these individuals are living with complicated health care concerns, and behavioral health needs. As a result, they become “familiar faces” to our first responder systems and crisis intervention agencies, including the County Sheriff’s Department and Emergency Medical Services.

What is the cause of homelessness?

The primary causes of homelessness include a lack of affordable housing, challenges with mental illness, disability, and a loss of community. Wages have not kept up with rising housing costs for the last several decades and many workers simply do not earn enough to pay market rate rent. Similarly, support for those with mental illness or physical disability lags behind the increase in challenges faced by those in need.

Why now?

When the Governor required that all residents stay home to stay safe during the pandemic, those neighbors living unsheltered were left out in the cold, quite literally. The bathrooms and showers at the park were closed, as was the library. The mental health programs went virtual requiring a device and internet to access support. Many of the essential supports that these individuals relied on to piece together a manageable living situation were suddenly and abruptly unavailable.

The Community Emergency Response Fund Advisors worked with skilled social workers and several community groups to establish temporary shelters with access to cooking and hygiene facilities. As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, addressing a long-term solution to end homelessness on Orcas is critical to coming out of the crisis a more resilient community.

Please join us.

We welcome you and your organization to join the coalition. The goal of the Coalition partners is to develop a community-based program on Orcas that provides viable solutions for individuals who are unhoused. We are inspired by work of the Whatcom County GRACE project (Ground-Level Response And Coordinated Engagement) which draws on existing county and nonprofit programs to offer intensive, coordinated services to these “familiar faces” whose needs span beyond any single agency.

The GRACE Program provides intensive case management and coordination of services for people once they become a GRACE member. GRACE Intensive Case Managers work in a team, drawing from the services provided by community partners. They develop a Community Support Plan for each GRACE member to ensure members get coordinated services and ongoing support.

The following organizations and businesses have joined and welcome you to do so as well:

The Community Church, Con’s Pit Stop, the Food Bank, Island Life on Orcas, OCRC, OICF, OPAL Community Land Trust, the Orcas Coop, Orcas Center, Ray’s General Store, Safe San Juan’s, Thero.org.

For more information, contact Hilary Canty at hilary@oicf.us, or 360-376-6423