Health director takes the reins of homeless fund

MONTESANO — By the end of next year, Grays Harbor County is expected to have about $2 million in the bank to help the homeless. But despite accruing dollars for seven years and a formal plan sitting on a shelf since 2010, there still hasn’t been a serious effort to figure out how to spend the funds.

County Commissioner Terry Willis says she hopes that Public Health Director Joan Brewster will be able to make a difference, team up with local providers and finally solve the dilemma. Last week, the commissioners officially tasked her with the job.

The homeless fund accrues money from a surcharge on recordings made at the Grays Harbor County Auditor’s Office. The county implemented the surcharge in 2005.

By the end of this year, there will be $1.7 million in the fund and it should build to about $2 million by the end of next year, according to current budget figures.

Besides the homeless dollars, the county also has an Affordable Housing fund, which gets its money through a separate recording fee, geared to help low-income residents. The fund is expected to have $504,981 in revenue next year.

The county commissioners are ultimately in charge of both pots of money.

Former Planning & Building director Lee Napier had been in charge of the fund since it’s implementation. She resigned from her job last month to take a post in Lewis County. Before she left, however, she told The Daily World that she was always reluctant to go on a spending spree using the homeless fund because she had been waiting for local social service groups to bring her a “big idea.”

“This is a lot of money and it shouldn’t be used to just pay for operating costs,” Napier said.

In September of 2011, Napier admittedly didn’t object when the fund needed to be tapped for operational costs of various social service groups. A $292,855 grant application from the state Department of Commerce would have been in jeopardy if the county didn’t step in and use the fund to provide a dollar-for-dollar match. The grant was able to sustain the Coastal Community Action Program’s family shelter, provided operational funds for the Catholic Community Services youth shelter, the Domestic Violence Center of Grays Harbor and the Salvation Army. Besides the grant, the fund has paid under $10,000 a year to the Coastal Community Action Program to do an annual point-in-time homeless count.

Napier said she told the social service groups not to expect to dip into the fund for operational expenses in the future. And she encouraged them to get together and form a continuum of care group to figure out the best way to manage the fund.

It’s taken about a year for the groups to come together, hold meetings and get bylaws done, Napier said.

Before leaving her job, Napier budgeted to spend about half a million dollars out of the fund. But, she said, that was just a place holder in case anyone did figure out what to spend the money on next year.

In essence, the homeless fund is at almost the same position it was a year ago at about this time.

Gary Rowell, the director of the Union Gospel Mission in Aberdeen, said that when Napier left and it became clear that two new commissioners would join the county commission next year, the continuum of care group decided to take a break.

“We’ll begin in earnest next year,” Rowell said. “I can speak with experience that there are needs in this community to help the homeless. The goal is to end homelessness. That’s the hope. It will never happen, but it’s the hope.”

The county funded a plan in 2010 to help figure out what to do with the homeless dollars. It has since sat on the shelf, since it lacks the full support of the social service groups and no staff support from the county to implement it, Rowell points out.

The plan speaks in generic terms of helping residents learn how to garden, to build a locker facility for the homeless and to expand shelters.

“Well, to me, that kind of encourages someone to be homeless, doesn’t it?” Rowell asks.

The homeless fund could be used to expand beds at a shelter, if that’s what the group wants to do. The Friendship House, a shelter for children and women, has 38 beds. The Union Gospel Mission has about 40 beds, although they’re currently filling about 30 of them, Rowell said.

Rowell says the group would like to tear down the shelter in Aberdeen and build a new one, but that would cost upwards of $5 million. It’s been a need for years, but Rowell says with the recession, “we figured the economy just got so bad and thought we’d hold off.”

Brewster said she’s looking forward to the challenge. She said she’s prepared to assign a planner to specifically work with the local social service groups. Although the homeless fund allows for some of the dollars raised to be used for administration and staffing, Brewster says she doesn’t plan to tap it unless it becomes absolutely necessary.

“I want to save as much of the fund as I can for construction,” Brewster said. “We’re going to talk about big projects. We’re going to talk about small projects. The goal is to get together and find what we can do to help the homeless.”

On Monday, the county commissioners authorized Brewster to hire a new planner to work with the homeless fund and do other community planning work for the county.

In an email to the county commissioners, Brewster noted that she and her staff have looked into what other counties are doing.

“It is clear to us that other counties have more robust homeless housing programs and that they are able to better coordinate resources across their county,” Brewster wrote.

Brewster has been successful in gathering diverse interests in the past. In 2009, she led a task force of law enforcement, health educators, judges and businesses and helped convince the county commissioners to implement a one-tenth of 1 percent increase to the county’s sales tax to fund more substance abuse and mental health programs.

Those funds have been building for a couple years, and the county is just starting to see the fruit’s from a new diversion program in the Prosecutor’s Office.

“The hope is that a similar group can find success,” Brewster said.