Homeless Crisis in Yakima County: We need to do better! (1of2)

man in black crew neck t shirt and white pants sitting on concrete floor

The people of Yakima County are getting extremely concerned, and honestly fed up, with our county’s homeless problem. What are our county officials doing to remedy this? It’s easy to forget that we do have good services available, for those who want them. Even still, the growing number of homeless are driving out local businesses in multiple areas all over Yakima County, occupying hotels on 1st Street, and threatening public safety with trafficking, garbage, feces, criminal activity, used needle syringes, and drugs. It got so bad that on October 5th, 2022, over nine tons of rubbish and fecal matter from homeless encampments was airlifted from areas around the Yakima River and Yakima Greenway. This is in addition to dozens of clean-up efforts led by Ladon Linde, The Department of Human Services, The Yakima County Health District, and many local volunteers, to whom we are very thankful! 

Although the homeless crisis seems out of control, did you know that organizations throughout Yakima County have a powerful toolbox of services they utilize to help reduce and prevent homelessness? It’s true! Yakima Neighborhood Health coordinates numerous services to help citizens keep their home or find a new one, assists with utility deposits, etc. Other local organizations provide meals, clothing, coats, and blankets. While many of Yakima County’s services play a synergistic role in the battle to get people back on their feet and treat the whole person/family, there have been glitches in the system at the county office that have hindered some of our best community service providers.  

Yakima County’s Camp Hope, run by Grace City Outreach, is our county’s largest homeless encampment, emergency shelter, and serves as one of our local outreaches. In case you aren’t familiar, an outreach program is where an organization goes out into the community to offer services to the homeless on the streets and on the rivers within the whole Yakima county, even the lower valley. They facilitate substance abuse treatment services through Triumph Treatment Centers, mental health services through Comprehensive Mental Health, medical care, case workers, monitoring, and more.  All this is provided on-site at Camp Hope 5 to 7 days per week.  They are always more than happy to open their doors, hearts, and services to anyone in need. 

Camp Hope shared, however, that local and state governments have made it difficult to provide these services while at the same time asking them to increase bed capacity. Due to multiple financial obstacle courses created by the Yakima County office, grant money has not been reimbursed in a timely manner. As a result, the Camp Hope director and even some willing employees have had to agree to reschedule their payday more than once just to cover the bills. They feel these delays are unfair due to the challenging nature, safety, and care needed to operate this amazing facility in our community.

I asked Mike Kay, the director of Camp Hope, how the process for the funds works. He stated that each year they submit a “Request for Proposal” (RFP) to ask for the funds they will need for the year, and then the Human Services Department divvies up the county’s budget and issues a grant for what the county will cover in that year. Once Mr. Kay knows what kind of budget he is working with, he then has to determine cash flow. As we all know, the sky-high inflation rates and labor costs make budgeting extremely challenging with constant moving targets.

Like other service providers receiving county grant money, Camp Hope is required to spend their cash flow upfront before submitting a detailed expense report for each grant accepted.  Mr. Kay says that it can then take the county up to 60 days or more to reimburse them with the grant money. One reason for the delay is because our county is issuing paper checks in large sums of money and snail-mailing them. In March of this year, Camp Hope’s monthly check was mailed to Detroit, Michigan by mistake. Then their August check was mailed, but somehow returned to the courthouse, where it couldn’t be located, and a replacement check had to be issued. At that point Mr. Kay resolved to pick up the grant checks in person for this particular check.

I asked Mr. Kay, going forward, if the county could notify them when their check was cut, and then he could sign for it and pick it up himself, to which the county told him they didn’t have the manpower. Mr. Kay also didn’t have any answer as to why their monthly payments haven’t transitioned over to wire transfers or ACH payments from the Yakima County Auditor’s Office directly, since they are responsible for issuing these payments. 

We all know that accidents happen, but where is the resolution? This level of incompetence is really disheartening, especially given that these large sums of misplaced money are depended upon by struggling citizens in our community and the good-hearted servants working so hard to make a difference in people’s lives. 

In 2019, Commissioner Vicki Baker assisted Camp Hope in applying for a Covid-related grant for additional shelter space. Mike Kay stated that Baker told him they would be able to purchase portables to house additional new beds and that the grant would even provide additional funds for operating costs. Camp Hope was awarded the federal grant in November 2019, in the amount of $1.1M; $800,000 for the portables and construction, plus an additional $210,000 for operating costs. The construction took about a year, and then the additional funds for operating costs weren’t available for months after that. The county also decided that Camp Hope was not going to own the portables, but rather the county would own them and lease them to Camp Hope for free with the stipulations that Camp Hope is responsible for all maintenance and repairs, plus they will need to ask the county every 2 years if they can still use them. After additional construction costs were tallied, the total remaining operational funds were reduced to around $173,000. Why is this all so important? In short, Camp Hope had to find a way to “foot the bill” for the power and operating costs in the meantime. 

When the contract was eventually finalized on these remaining funds, Camp Hope was forced to “draw down” on these additional operational costs as a completely separate expense report each month. This means that there is now twice the administrative tracking just for the portables, plus the rest of the camp’s operations. Every individual lightbulb, roll of paper towels, and hour of labor must be tracked separately in order to access those funds – AFTER Camp Hope has already spent the money on it! 

 When you add 100-150 beds to a facility, your expenses go up quickly and Camp Hope has had to scrounge up scarce funds. When they don’t receive their checks from the county on time, it hurts. As Mike Kay stated, “A thousand dollars can break us!” Truthfully, a thousand dollar error can break anyone right now. Kay stated that if it weren’t for their amazing donors and his faith in God’s provision, they would be in a much tighter situation right now. 

Proper accounting is important and administrative procedures must be followed,  but what can we do to improve these processes for the good of our community? 

On top of Camp Hope’s grant payment delays, they have also faced dwindling annual grant totals. In 2019, Yakima County established a new Department of Human Services program, led by Esther Magasis, to spearhead aiding the homeless and to disperse the county’s grant money appropriately. This department started out with a $9M budget and has grown to approximately $33M. Unfortunately, our homeless counts have kept growing. 

YearEntity Running Camp HopeNumber Of Beds HostedCamp Hope RFP Annual Operation GrantOutreach RFP Annual GrantCommissionersIn OfficeDept. of Human Services BudgetHomeless in Yakima County(Individuals / Households)
2019Sunrise Outreach(GCO in Aug.)120$475,000$15,000Norm Childress
Ron Anderson
Vicki Baker – Dec.
$9,000,000(first year dept, was created)439 / 328
2020Sunrise Outreach(GCO in Oct.)120$314,000No funds availableNorm Childress
Ron Anderson
Vicki Baker
662 / 523
2021Grace City Outreach250$269,000$50,000(granted late in year)Ron Anderson
Ladon Linde
Amanda McKinney
663 / 553
2022Grace City Outreach250$222,000$53,000Ron Anderson
Ladon Linde
Amanda McKinney

670 / 554

While I applaud Ms. Magasis and her team’s administrative efforts to keep all these contracts, grants, rules, and regulations straight, I firmly believe they need more assistance from the commissioners and law enforcement to find a multi-pronged approach to solving our homeless situation.

In a recent debate Amanda McKinney, Yakima County commissioner Dist. #1, stated, “We need to get to the root cause. Throwing more money at the problem is not the answer, and how we spend that money matters.” McKinney argued that the homeless problem continues because we allow them to choose this lifestyle by providing free services without accountability.  McKinney also mentioned that only about 10% of Yakima county’s homeless actually took advantage of the county’s abundant resources to resolve their homelessness. She voted against  the handing out of more homeless hotel vouchers, unless there is evidence of domestic violence, because this makes drug use and other illegal behaviors too easy. When the homeless are admitted to a shelter, they are searched and supervised, which makes this kind of illegal behavior much more difficult. 

The director of Camp Hope stated they do not allow firearms or drugs on campus and regularly utilize random drug-dog searches. Prescription medications are even locked up in the office where each resident can safely store their medication and sign a record sheet for administration. 

We at Accurate Perspective agree that these hotel vouchers are a waste of our county’s dollars, unless warranted in domestic violence cases. Why would anyone get sober and get a job when they can get a free hotel room on the county’s tab and head to the mission for their free meals?

LaDon Linde, Yakima County commissioner Dist. #3, has been taking the lead on tackling our homeless crisis since before he took office, and has been quoted saying he is “pleased with our effort so far”. However, the public health and safety issues and numerous and expensive clean-up projects, including the recent Operation: Airlift 9 Tons, will continue to be a painful obligation unless we are able to change our strategy to get ahead of this. Linde did not respond to any of our requests for comment or information. 

As our homeless counts keep rising, many of us are wondering what is being done about it? The answer, just like the problem, is multifaceted. While not all people who are suffering homelessness are troubled, we need to take action on the 90% of the homeless population who continue to choose squalor, drugs, and criminal activities as a lifestyle.  Increases in homelessness over the last few years have also been due to factors such as mental health issues, separations or family trauma, tenancy moratorium ending, insatiable inflation rates, and inept political leadership. This is an important time to stay engaged and keep your elected officials accountable.  

Perhaps you, or someone you know, has at one time experienced homelessness? None of us are immune to life’s curveballs. Fortunately, there is a lot of amazing help throughout our community from churches and food shelters, to Camp Hope and UGM, and all the various government orchestrated services. 

Stay tuned for Part II in our effort to unpack our options in tackling the Homeless Crisis in Yakima County.

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1 Comment

  1. RV says:

    In spite of what commissioner Linde says, he seems to be one of the major holdups for moneys getting out for care of the homeless.

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