Volunteers outnumbered the folks they were there to serve at the Island Church of Whidbey, during the annual Point in Time count Jan. 25, where unhoused people trickled in throughout the day.
The count was held at SPiN Cafe in Oak Harbor, Ryan’s House in Coupeville, and The Island Church of Whidbey in Langley—places where those without stable housing are likely to gather. Besides welcoming folks with warm clothes, food and personal care bags at the centers, Island County employees and trained volunteers visited camps where folks live to collect data.
Annual Point in Time counts are mandated in each state by the Federal Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. HUD coordinates with the Washington State Dept. of Commerce to gather the numbers. The numbers collected determine the amount of funding agencies receive, such as the Island County Housing Authority, which, according to its website description is “…the first stop for individuals or families who are struggling with homelessness or at risk of losing their housing.”
This year marked the tenth anniversary of the annual Point in Time count on South Whidbey, held this year at the Island Church, which runs a soup kitchen Tuesdays and Thursdays. About 30 folks gather daily for a hot meal, some of them without stable housing. A number of volunteers from the Rotary Club of Whidbey Westside were available to provide outreach and resources.
Spring Roehm, a volunteer with the Rotary Club of Whidbey Westside, set up a hair salon—she is the owner of Salon Spring in Freeland—and during this visit cut and styled the hair of Ashleigh Jacobson, a full-time staff member at The Haven, an emergency shelter in Coupeville run by the Whidbey Homeless Coalition. Ashleigh said most nights the shelter—whose capacity is 30 guests—is full.
Roehm was joined by Amiee Tucker, who, with her husband Mark, volunteer regularly with the Whidbey Homeless Coalition.
“My husband and I are part of a 12 step program,” Tucker said. “We are active with people who are in recovery. It is the heart of service. Once you get to the other side (of addiction) you want to give back. You take your darkest days and turn them to your greatest assets.”
Donations are welcome to the Whidbey Homeless Coalition.
“We can always use food donations, canned food, fresh, toiletries, paper towels, socks,” Ashleigh Jacobson said. “We’ll take in a family from time to time.”
Point in Time counts, taken each year on Jan. 25, also marked Judy Thorslund’s birthday which was celebrated with a cake a Island Church’s event. She is an in-the-trenches advocate for people living on the margins. Thorslund was a founder of the South Whidbey Homeless Coalition, which was born following the original south Whidbey Point in Time count.
“In 2014 there were a few of us on South Whidbey talking about the need for shelter for our unhoused people,” Thorslund recalled. “There was a woman, a former veteran sleeping in the bin at Good Cheer. The homeless advocate from the county asked if we would be willing to hold a ‘Point in Time count’ on the south end of the island.”
With Good Cheer volunteers, the group held its first Point in Time Count at Bayview Hall.
“It was at this gathering where our group gathered and elected me as chairperson for our work,” Thorslund added. “We went on from this day to establish the South Whidbey Homeless Coalition, so you might say that the Homeless Coalition was born on our first Point in Time count day.
Nowadays the South Whidbey Homeless Coalition has merged with the Whidbey Homeless Coalition, led by Executive Director Tanya Stager-Gran, who experienced being homeless with five children years ago, before meeting Thorslund and her outreach group, an event which turned her life around.
Stager-Gran later joined the Rotary Club of Whidbey Westside in 2021 and volunteered for that year’s Point in Time count. She said the experience influenced her into working with the Whidbey Island Homeless Coalition. Stager-Gran received an award for her selfless service at a Rotary event last June.
“I fell in love with them,” Stager-Gran said of her work with the Rotary, which led to her job as executive director of the Whidbey Homeless Coalition in May 2023. “We are so thankful for Rotary and Island County for going the extra mile to get this amazing group of community members to hold this event.”
Coordinating volunteers at Island Church Jan. 25, , Stager-Gran organized teams to visit south Island encampments, and took a moment to chat with a reporter. She referred to those she helps as ‘guests.’
“We have identified four encampments on the South Island,” Stager-Gran said. “There were previous guests at the Clinton Ferry Terminal. And there are always people in and out of Dan Porter Park. Recently people have stayed at Bayview Park and Ride with motor homes.”
Visits to the encampments are made in teams, Stager-Gran explained, because the residents may object to to the visits.
“We are disrupting their space when we visit,” she noted.
An encampment guest stopped in at Island Church.
Jon Kosa, stopped by to try on a pair of shoes. He lives in a nearby encampment with eight others, who preferred to stay away, and he gathered supplies to bring back to them.
When asked if senior citizens are among the unhoused, Stager-Gran said about a quarter of the guests at the Haven can be seniors. She added that guests experiencing domestic abuse are housed in locations that ensure their safety.
This year’s Jan. 25 snapshot of Whidbey Island’s unhoused can take a year before the numbers are reported.
According to the HUD report released in December 2023, the January 2023 Point in Time Report, “[Nationally there were] found more than 650,000 people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January 2023, a 12% increase from 2022.”
In Island County, the Washington Dept. of Commerce recorded 131 sheltered and unsheltered people from its 2023 count, down from 152 in 2022.
Based on those figures, counties receive funding toward resources to help their citizens living on the margin of life.
“We us these numbers to determine funding levels,” said Emily Wildeman, housing program manager with Island County Housing Assistance. “[At the Jan. 25 PIT count we are] looking for people experiencing homelessness to come to the event, get resources, and see if there’s anything we can do to help them on the path to finding housing.”
Island County’s Housing Assistance agency can help those in need with providing resources, assisting with rents, deposits and finding housing.