Communities across Washington State are facing a crisis. Homelessness has grown dramatically in our state in the past few years, and every city, every county and the state as a whole need to address this together.
This is why the Bellingham City Council and I have asked Governor Jay Inslee and state policymakers to address this state of emergency around the issue of homelessness.
Bellingham is not alone. Even though our community has found success since 2008 when we began implementing our 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, our numbers increased by 17.7 percent between 2014 and 2015. This trend has been reflected across the state, with an increase of 13 percent in unsheltered homelessness statewide over the previous year. This state-wide need requires state-wide solutions, and I believe our lawmakers in Olympia play a significant role in ensuring that all communities have the tools and resources needed to provide shelter.
Bellingham's actions around homelessness
We hear from community members daily on this issue, and I share many of our residents' concerns about homelessness in our community. We need safe spaces for all people in Bellingham. I also share concerns about camps being cleared with nowhere for people to go, which results in people moving to another open space in Bellingham. That is one of the reasons why I have directed staff to work on a coordinated approach to address not only the immediate effects of homelessness but also the underlying causes. I encourage residents to inform the City of camps that you come across, but unless there is an eminent safety concern, I have asked staff not to immediately clear camps unless there are adequate shelter alternatives available.
We get a lot of questions about who the people experiencing homelessness are, and the City of Bellingham is a partial funder of an annual “Point in Time” census count that compiles data on this issue. We know, for example, last year at this time, at least 651 people in Whatcom County were homeless, and they are old and young, male and female, individuals and families. This included 92 families with children, which many of us find troubling.
In 2013, I convened a Community Solutions Workgroup on Downtown Health and Safety, which was made up of various stakeholders and partners including business owners, residents, social services, City staff, Police officers, the Liquor Control Board and the Whatcom County Health Department. We prioritized a list of recommendations, almost all of which address issues around homelessness, and the vast majority of those recommendations have already been completed or are funded and underway.
Working with community partners
One of the important recommendations from that workgroup was to create a Homeless Outreach Team (HOT). The team, partially funded by the City and operated through the Homeless Service Center, just completed its first year. This is a great resource for the community, and if you come across someone who appears to be in distress, in need of services, or could use help navigating systems to find housing, please contact the Homeless Outreach Team at (360) 312-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org. I encourage you to utilize the HOT team if you encounter individuals in crisis, and call 911 if anyone approaches you in a harassing or threatening way.
The City of Bellingham also works cooperatively with social service agencies to provide services for individuals experiencing homelessness, providing funding to Dorothy Place, the YWCA, Lydia Place, Interfaith (now called Unity NW), Francis Place, Northwest Youth Services, Pioneer Human Services, The Opportunity Council and the Homeless Service Center, and Whatcom Alliance for Healthcare Advancement (WAHA), among others.
The City is also working toward helping to create more affordable housing, as well as transitional and emergency shelter for homeless persons. Bellingham is one of the only communities in the state to have enacted a Housing Levy, and the 2012 levy authorized $21 million over a seven-year period to provide, produce, and preserve affordable housing in Bellingham and to assist low-income tenants. Some of this funding goes toward the creation and preservation of homeless and other low-income housing projects. The seven-year goal was initially to create 417 new units, but we have already exceeded that goal and currently have 510 units under contract and 226 of those are completed. Another seven-year goal was to provide rental assistance and supportive services to at least 1,098 individuals. Currently, we have served 2,025 individuals. We are meeting or exceeding many of our Housing Levy goals and I am encouraged by the success of these programs.
State-wide solutions are needed
Despite all of the efforts we have undertaken here locally, we still face a large number of people without homes or secure access to housing, and this endangers the health, safety and welfare of the people, including families and children, and poses a barrier to environmental protection and community development. We need a collaborative approach that includes swift and decisive action from all levels of government — cities, counties, state, and federal — to prevent further suffering from this humanitarian disaster. This issue is not a simple one to solve. Therefore we welcome any solutions that the community may have in addition to the actions that the City is already undertaking. We will need the best solutions from all our partners to address this critical problem.
This editorial was published in the Bellingham Weekly on Jan. 27, 2016