Suffering in the San Juans: Homeless in paradise

Fifty-eight. That’s how many people were identified as homeless in San Juan County by the point in time census this past January. An additional 46 people were at risk of becoming homeless.

“You really can’t say, ‘It’s not my problem,’” said Erin O’Dell, executive director of the Orcas Community Resource Center. “People need housing to be able to live and work here.”

Most of those listed as homeless or at risk have one or more part-time jobs.

“We start getting really busy toward the end of October, early November,” said Jennifer Armstrong, director of the San Juan Island Family Resource Center. “We see a big increase in assistance needs from late October through the middle of April.”

Summer is usually when the island resource centers can take a break from the increase in assistance requests that winter brings, but Armstrong says this year was different.

“It felt like it barely happened this summer,” said Armstrong. “Things continued to be busier than normal.”

The point in time count, conducted annually in the month of January, is a census of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people performed by local agencies and is a requirement of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (commonly referred to as HUD). San Juan County Health and Community Services Director Mark Tompkins said the county works with the Washington State Department of Commerce to administer the count each year. Censuses are distributed to the resource centers, food banks, churches and senior centers to be filled out by those experiencing homelessness.

In 2015, 74 people were counted as being homeless, with an additional 60 at risk in San Juan County. Last year the number of homelessness reached a record high for the county, as opposed to there only being 11 homeless people counted in 2007.

“You can’t compare numbers from year to year because it is a specific point in time,” said Tompkins. “A lot of variables go into that.”

Because of variables such as job availability and an influx of transient workers, the homeless population ebbs and flows with the tide of tourists. Local resource centers don’t have a definitive amount of how many people in the islands are homeless at any given time outside of the count.

“It’s a hard number to peg because we aren’t out there surveying. Those numbers do fluctuate depending on the season,” said O’Dell. “It’s only when people come in that we learn about their housing situation.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines someone who is homeless as “an individual who lacks housing (without regard to whether the individual is a member of a family), including an individual whose primary residence during the night is a supervised public or private facility (e.g., shelters) that provides temporary living accommodations, and an individual who is a resident in transitional housing.” This broad description covers shelters, staying with friends, sleeping in abandoned buildings, in a car, or even on a boat.

“Boats are kind of the equivalent of cars in more urban areas,” said Armstrong.

However, during the 2016 point in time count, Armstrong says that people living on a boat were not considered homeless.

“I know there were some interesting changes in the data that came out in the count this year,” she said. “It used to be those (living on boats) were included in the count but they no longer are.”

According to the department of health and human services, a person living in a location that lacks basic amenities such as clean drinking water, a restroom and shower, heat and the ability to cook hot food is considered unsheltered. It also counts people who are “doubled up” – when more than one family is inhabiting a single-family dwelling, including staying with family or friends – as homeless.

“There’s homeless, and then there’s under-sheltered and under-housed,” said O’Dell, who explained that it’s difficult to get an exact number of how many people in the community are homeless because there are no set parameters.

Barbara Gurley, executive director of the Lopez Island Family Resource Center, said they are currently working with 13 families who are homeless, and five who are on the verge of eviction.

“The dilemma is that we don’t have the housing to put people into,” said Gurley, who added that as far as she’s aware there are no private rentals on Lopez that take assistance programs or qualify for HUD assistance. “Our staff are constantly scouring – watching – having their ears open.”

To be able to receive help from HUD, a residence must meet various government-defined housing quality requirements.

“There’s a pretty thick housing inspection checklist you have to go through to qualify for the subsidies,” said O’Dell, who added that subsidies are usually for apartments, which the islands lack. “It’s complicated and frustrating.”

O’Dell said that there are affordability limits on government-funded housing. A three bedroom house has to cost less than $850, and occupants have very low-income requirements to meet. A family must typically make less than 50 percent of the median income for the county or city they live in to qualify. She that many of the people the government assists are living on the streets and unemployed.

“Anyone working usually doesn’t qualify,” said O’Dell.

While the government does not usually assist people on the verge of homelessness, the resource centers fill that gap with donations from the community.

Community support

Earlier this year, Orcas resource center was gifted $25,200 by the Orcas Island Community Foundation. In August, the San Juan Island Community Foundation garnered $5,928 in donations for San Juan resource center during the 2016 county fair. Matching the donations it raised from the public at 50 cents on the dollar, the community foundation added $3,500 to the donation. On the last day of the fair, a donator was drawn from a raffle and chose the resource center to be the recipient of an additional $1,000. A total of $9,428 was given by the foundation.

“We get different sources of revenue to help low-income households with housing,” said Armstrong. “We’re very lucky to have our community foundation, which has been really supportive.”

Another source of funding that has helped the San Juan resource center is The Opportunity Council. The Bellingham-based nonprofit helps low-income and homeless families and individuals residing in San Juan, Island and Whatcom Counties.

“The Opportunity Council has been a wonderful source of homeless prevention and rental assistance funding for our area,” said Armstrong. “They have been extremely fair in how those funds are disbursed.”

Tompkins is on the board for The Opportunity Council along with County Councilman Rick Hughes, who serves as vice president.

Homeless students

The schools also see a handful of students who are living in unstable housing each year.

“A lot of our ‘homeless’ students are living with a family member, maybe ‘couch surfing,’ living with a grandparent or are in foster care,” said Orcas Island Superintendent Eric Webb. At the beginning of the school year, each child is sent home with a packet containing a student housing questionnaire.

“The school is probably the best place for us to be able to offer a lot of different things for the students,” said Margie Sabine, the school district’s Primary Intervention Program. “We just want them happy to be here, have a full tummy and be successful.”

During the school year, families of students who are experiencing difficulty financially can sign up for the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced lunch. The school also gives students weekend food packages if needed, said Sabine.


Across Orcas, San Juan and Lopez, the resource centers’ primary purpose is prevention. They help families who are struggling with their rent rather than those that are already homeless.

“We have a rental assistance program funded by donations,” said O’Dell. “We usually help anywhere from $500 to $1,000 for back rent or deposits.”

Armstrong also stressed the importance of direct donations and property owners who are willing to work with the foundation to help families in need.

“That’s a really important piece,” said Armstrong. “Just getting the informal word out there, seeing who in our community might be able to help.”

O’Dell noted that there is an overall lack of landowners willing to work with the resource centers.

“It’s hard because having renters is less income and more work than having a vacation rental,” said O’Dell.

She also said many times families are unable to pay the full cost of rent, are late with rent or have poor credit and wouldn’t typically have a rental history that landlords are willing to work with.

“That’s where having productive collaborative relationships with private landlords becomes very critical,” said Armstrong.

Getting help

Tuck Sleep, a nonprofit organization out of Seattle, has aggregated a complete list of homeless shelters in the nation, you can find the list for Washington at