In just a few years, the number of chronically homeless people in Pasco has increased nearly 40 percent, according to statistics released this week by the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County.
"It's a staggering number," said the Rev. Dan Campbell, president of the coalition.
In 2008, 1,141 people were defined as chronically homeless, which means they've been homeless for more than a year or been homeless at least four times in their lives.
This year that number has increased to 1,585. There are an estimated 7,988 homeless people in Pasco, if you include children and families sleeping in cars and on couches of friends and in motels, and kids waiting for foster care, Campbell said.
The count was done Jan. 26. Campbell said hundreds of volunteers go into the woods and out on the streets, counting the homeless. Numbers also come from the school system. These statistics are needed to apply for funding for homeless programs.
The coalition is trying to fight the increase in homelessness with a 10-year plan, which is still in the beginning stages.
"We are trying to identify where to start. You don't just do this overnight," he said.
"How in the world do you fund it?"
Campbell said the goal is to move people from homelessness to self-sufficiency, which includes housing and support services for physical and material needs, as well as others: emotional, educational, substance abuse, mental health, budgeting, employment.
"You have to create a plan for a family and you have to provide support for a family," Campbell said.
He said it's a myth that most people choose to be homeless.
"There certainly are some," he said, who would rather live in the woods than in a house, among society. "But most of them don't, especially families who lost their home and live in their car; trying to hold life and limb together."
He said the economy and loss of construction-based jobs had much to do with the increased numbers.
The numbers might shock some residents because, other than seeing some people panhandling, the homeless are in the background in Pasco, Campbell said. He said most live in the woods. There are at least 60 encampments in Pasco — and 36 of them are in west Pasco, he said.
He said these people, living on the fringe, cost the community dearly, even if most people never see them. He gave the example of one man he met who needs dialysis. He never sees the doctor. Never gets his dialysis done.
He just calls 911 when it gets really bad — so there is the cost of the ambulance and the lengthy hospital stay.
"People don't realize, they are going to pay a bill and it's going to be significant," Campbell said.
He said hospitals in Pasco are losing "around $60 million" in unpaid bills each year.
One of the ideas in the plan is to have "a mobile medical van to provide medical services to people to take some of the load and cost off of the hospitals," he said.
He said working to decrease homelessness "is going to be a whole lot cheaper to do support and housing than to leave people stranded with hopelessness and no realistic pathway to get out of the situation they are in."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.