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A common thought during the first winter a person lives in Kittitas County is: This would be a tough place to be homeless.

Whether it is the cold and snowy Upper County or the bitterly cold lower valley, the conditions are inhospitable to those living exposed to the elements. Yet, as tenuous as their existence would seem at points of the year, there have always been people experiencing homelessness in Kittitas County.

Over the years this situation has improved. The cold weather shelter in Ellensburg was a huge step forward, offering overnight accommodations in churches during the coldest months of the year.

As much as a lifesaving measure this provided, at 7 a.m. each day people would leave the shelter. Throughout the day people would find shelter elsewhere — a task made far more difficult during the period of COVID restrictions that eliminated locations where people could gather out of the cold.

According to the 2018 Point in Time Homeless Count for Kittitas County, at any given time an estimated 10 people were living on the streets, in vehicles, and in the woods in Kittitas County.

Chances are this was an undercount because the report also pointed out that the people experiencing homelessness in Kittitas County are less visible than those experiencing homelessness in urban areas.

That aligns roughly with the numbers seen each night at the cold weather shelter — an average of eight a night in 2020. The shelter sees a mix of people including people just passing through for one night.

There is a unique story behind every person and family experiencing homelessness, but the one commonality is that each person requires shelter of some sort. As a species, we’re not designed to live rough.

The hard-to-resolve question has been how to manage a population experiencing homelessness in a community. Ideological, political and philosophical arguments aside, the most cost-effective solution is to house people experiencing homelessness.

In cities where people without shelter camp out on sidewalks in front of businesses, it drives customers away, discourages workers and attracts a crime element of people who prey on those experiencing homelessness. The financial hit downtown Seattle is taking is significant.

Cities that render the lack of shelter a crime pay a premium to house a person experiencing homelessness in a jail cell.

Kittitas County’s issues with people experiencing homelessness do not compare with Seattle’s which is why the purchase of the former Nites Inn in Ellensburg to be used as a mix of affordable housing and accommodation for people experiencing homelessness makes sense.

The Nites Inn building has been vacant for several years. It is located on South Ruby Street, a block off of South Canyon Road nestled behind car lots, fast-food restaurants and assorted commercial businesses. At some point in the undefined future, it may be roughly proximate to a large housing development.

The plan is to convert it into 11 units for affordable housing and five units set aside for people experiencing homelessness. Within the context of Kittitas County, it fits the needs.

Homelessness is not an easy issue to resolve and as housing prices continue to dangerously escalate, shelter will become farther out of the financial reach of more and more people.

Where we’re at right now, the Nites Inn project makes sense. Where we’re headed overall in terms of housing prices does not make sense and if that becomes our destination, a few transformed hotel rooms will not get the job done.

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