The Last, Best Solution
Wednesday, August 9, 2017
THE LAST, BEST SOLUTION: Sharper pencils, more penetrating analysis appears to have returned results in the City of Bellingham’s search for the location for an easy-access night shelter for those experiencing homelessness. Mayor Kelli Linville and her staff have been working with community partners including the the Lighthouse Mission Ministries, which has been operating an interim easy-access shelter in Old Town since last October, to identify a location for a long-term shelter that operates with services 24-hours-per day, seven-days-per-week, year-round for up to 200 people.
The search for a shelter location has become an obsession for COB as a collision of forces have increased the presence of homeless individuals downtown. On one side of the social justice scale, these forces include new awareness that these people don’t belong in jail, aren’t served by jail, and increase the crowding in jail; on the other side of the social justice scale, forces include soaring rents, vanishing vacancy rates, stagnant wages and insecure employment that make clear the distance between Us the Housed versus Them the Unhoused is small and perilous.
A proposal to site the shelter on city property near the old Colony Wharf facility on the central waterfront evaporated in May after Port of Bellingham commissioners exercised their option to purchase the property to secure the integrity of their nascent marine trades center. In doing so, commissioners rejected the city’s partnership offer of $300,000 in capital contribution and marine trade investments; additionally, the agency paid an estimated $780,000 to purchase the property, for a total of more than $1 million in lost opportunity costs. The news last week that the port had spent another $500,000 on a project to replace the decayed roof on a warehouse at their adjacent Bellingham Shipping Terminal for an as-yet-undetermined new tenant therefore arrived on a flat note.
City officials meanwhile were out of their easiest options but not entirely out of all their options, and assembled a set of criteria for a shelter for the city’s hardest hard-luck homeless population. Five locations were studied and ranked for their general fitness. The results of the study and staff recommendations will be presented to Bellingham City Council later this month.
One potential site is near the Lighthouse Mission, which assists that organization in providing services and management to the shelter. The site presents the corollary drawback of concentrating—in tandem with other Mission operations—a great deal of the homeless population in a very small area in Old Town.
Another property would require partnership with Whatcom County, but would be strategically central to government services—including police and fire service medics—while not being central to the downtown commercial business district. It is within walking distance of Lighthouse Mission without being at its doorstep.
Unlike the Colony Wharf site, none of the options offer a ready-made building for retrofit into a shelter, which will increase the public cost, perhaps doubling the initial estimate; but likely the new proposed sites offer a better fit than squeezing the homeless into the center of marine heavy industries.
Ultimately, the last, best solution to homelessness is homes.
“Homelessness is a crisis experienced by communities across Washington, including Bellingham,” Linville wrote to the governor in January, requesting a state of emergency on an issue pummeling communities around the state. The declaration could free up state and federal funds to help address the problem.
“In our community, the 2015 Point in Time Count found at least 651 people in Whatcom County who were homeless,” Linville noted. “Throughout the year, hundreds more face the prospect of losing their homes due to economic reasons, family breakup, mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, and domestic violence. People being released from psychiatric hospitalization and incarceration face challenging community re-entry issues. Furthermore, the rising cost of housing and stagnant wages increases the risk of people losing their housing and makes it increasingly difficult to find affordable housing. Even though our community has found some 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.”
The Opportunity Council—a local non-profit community agency serving low-income families—presented information to City Council this week on issues related to subsidized housing. In their presentation, the agency also presented data on homelessness.
The link is iron between costs of housing and the incidence of homelessness. Models in the Pacific Northwest market suggest a 5 percent increase in rents could add as many as 250 people to the homeless population—an estimated 6 to 32 percent increase in homelessness for every $100 rent increase.
For a town with more than half its households as renters, it’s a very real concern for Bellingham. The average wage of renters is less than $12 per hour. As of June 2017 the average one-bedroom rent is $832, and $1,350 for a two-bedroom dwelling space in Bellingham. Affordability models suggest the appropriate rent for Bellingham’s average wage should be more on the order of $615 per month for a single-bedroom apartment. For those on fixed incomes, the imbalance is even more dire. In the past six months, one-bedroom rents have increased on average by $151 (9.9 percent) and two-bedroom rents by $385 (18.1 percent).
It’s a fragment—a pointed and razor-edged fragment—of the much larger existential crisis for a city that once prided itself on affordability, and the diversity of culture and lifestyles that implies. Can public initiative file down its edges? We’re about to find out.