Layers of Concern
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
LAYERS OF CONCERN: The City of Bellingham will soon release its exhaustive Community Survey, a periodic study of the stated needs and attitudes and issues of Bellingham-area residents in an effort to better shape public policy. The latest study—prepared with assistance from Western Washington University—drills a little deeper than past surveys in assembling a narrative, but its results should surprise no one:
The top three issues of concern for Bellingham are all of a package, each one serving as a layer for the next—economic insecurity, its subset housing insecurity, and its subset homelessness.
The survey verifies the 2014 ALICE survey conducted nationally by the United Way, which defines a population Asset Limited, Income Constrained, but Employed—an acronym that describes individuals and families who work hard, earn above the federal poverty level, but not enough to afford a basic household budget of housing, child care, food, transportation, and health care. This is a group often characterized as the “working poor,” but more accurately it describes a faded middle class that has been ignored politically and uncared for by public policy. The ALICE report suggests about one person in five falls into this category in Washington, or about 510,342 households. For Bellingham and Whatcom County, the portion is much higher—41 percent of the population struggles to afford basic needs, according to 2013 data.
Circling back to the Community Survey, economic insecurity describes many things, including the job market, but also the nature of those jobs.
“The Pacific Northwest now faces an economy dominated by low-paying jobs,” the ALICE report noted. “Across the Pacific Northwest, more than half of jobs pay less than $20 per hour.” About 54 percent of jobs in Washington fall into this category. “A full-time job that pays $20 per hour grosses $40,000 per year, which is less than the household survival budget for a family of four in all Pacific Northwest states.”
Limited income is attended by and worsened by limited assets, the cushion by which job insecurity might be lessened.
“The second defining feature of ALICE households is their lack of savings. Given the mismatch between the cost of living and the preponderance of low-wage jobs, accumulating assets is difficult in the Pacific Northwest,” the report authors noted. “The lack of assets makes ALICE households more vulnerable to emergencies and it also increases their costs, such as alternative financing fees and high interest rates, which limits efforts to build more assets,” producing a spiral.
Both of these factors of course feed the issue of housing insecurity, in which incomes cannot match or keep pace with home prices and in which limited assets cannot produce the down payment and affordability metrics banks and lenders require for home ownership. Housing affordability—defined as housing costs centered around 30 percent of income—is ranked “poor” in Whatcom County by the ALICE study.
When the bottom falls out—when the job that paid nothing vanishes, when the living space that cannot be afforded is foreclosed—looms the issue of homelessness.
“Ultimately, if an ALICE household cannot afford their home or it becomes too unsafe and has to be vacated, they can become homeless,” the report authors admit. “This starts a downward spiral of bad credit and destabilized work, school and family life. Some households move in with relatives. Others move to public assistance housing and homeless services, adding to government costs.” In Washington, there were 18,442 homeless people in 2013, including 1,433 homeless veterans, for a rate of 261 per 100,000 population. Overall, more than one-third of the homeless in the Pacific Northwest are homeless as families.
Yet of the three issues of top concern to Bellingham residents, the third—homelessness—might be the one least encumbered and readily addressed. The city has gone a long way to find housing and shelter for those who can demonstrate means and needs, who fall into particular categories for which resources exist to assist them. The hardest nut has been that last class for whom there are few resources to assist, typically single adult men who find themselves on the street.
The mayor appears to have found this final piece, the location for a low-threshold homeless shelter that she has been searching for for more than four years. The city is partnering with Lighthouse Mission Ministries to build a 24-hour, seven-days-per-week, year-round easy-access shelter serving up to 200 people. The shelter will be located on city property near the marine trades industrial zone in Old Town.
“Like nearly every city in Western Washington, the City of Bellingham has seen a significant increase in unsheltered individuals,” Kelli Linville said. “While the city has taken significant steps to address this through outreach programs and working with housing providers, it has become evident that the community is in need of an easy-access shelter that can address short-term needs. The proposed shelter will provide a place to spend the night that is preferred over our city streets and doorways.”
Providing a safe, humane place where homeless may go also assists enforcement policy.
“We were missing the piece that when people were told to move along, they had some place to actually move along to,” Linville said. “It was cruel to push them from place to place without a preferred alternative.
“Addressing homelessness in Bellingham is a very high priority for me and for the community,” Linville said. “We know it’s a complex issue, and there is no single fix. The city continues to invest in housing and health care services and innovative court programs to address the issue. While we continue to invest in permanent housing solutions, I believe we need a shelter to address immediate needs.”