Shelter From the Storm
Wednesday, January 29, 2020
SHELTER FROM THE STORM: In welcome news, Whatcom County and her cities are teaming up in a coordinated response to homelessness—expanding both the size and scope of the Homeless Strategies Workgroup to include greater representation. The workgroup represents a comprehensive approach to strategies to create housing opportunities, housing security and added capacity for year-round shelters.
Homelessness is growing sharply in Washington, spurred by a lack of affordable housing and a poorly funded mental health and substance abuse system. The Whatcom County point-in-time census of homeless residents indicates that from 2012-2019, the county’s homeless population grew from an estimated 493 to 700 people. Meanwhile, median home values increased 138 percent since 2000, and one in four working families can’t afford their basic needs. The Lighthouse Mission served approximately 1,800 people last year, according to data presented at the last session of the workgroup.
It’s an issue not just for Whatcom County, but throughout the state. A Crosscut/Elway public opinion poll earlier this month found homelessness is at the forefront of voters’ minds, with a third of poll respondents identifying the issue as the state’s most pressing matter in 2020.
“Despite a strong state economy, growing incomes, and above-average and improving family stability, Washington has the fifth-highest prevalence of homelessness in the nation. The count of people living unsheltered has increased every year since 2013, and now totals over 10,000 people,” the state’s Department of Commerce noted in a 2018 report.
Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood set the tone of his administrative response to housing insecurity early, agreeing to use city resources to help find a new site for a tiny homes encampment for the homeless when the permit agreement ends for Unity Village, the current encampment of HomesNOW! The permit is set to expire in April, but the city is also considering a provisional extension of an extra two or three weeks beyond April to help in the organization transition to the new site. Mayor Fleetwood and Planning Director Rick Sepler reported the agreement in their remarks to Bellingham City Council this week.
HomesNOW! has operated two temporary tent encampments on city property—Winter Haven behind City Hall and Spring Haven in the parking lot at WhatComm off Alabama Street. Unity Village is a “tiny-home” cluster on McKenzie Avenue near the Post Point in Fairhaven.
The announcement represents a policy shift from that of former Mayor Kelli Linville, who had informed HomesNow! the Fairhaven location would be the last piece of city-owned land that would be made available for an encampment for the homeless. The city had hoped the private sector, charitable organizations or other municipalities would step up to provide additional encampments.
To facilitate the search for a new site, and the siting of other housing solutions, City Council this week considered tandem ordinances for interim housing and temporary shelters on public land in expanded zones throughout the city. The ordinances are designed to reduce encumbering requirements to site such temporary housing, allowing the city to be more nimble in its response to housing insecurity. The changes were reviewed and recommended by the Bellingham Planning Commission in November, and unanimously adopted by City Council.
Unity Village currently holds capacity to house 20 people, according to Doug Gustafson, chairman of HomesNOW!, the charitable organization at the forefront of finding temporary shelter for the homeless.
“We are extremely thankful to the city for continuing to be a valuable partner with us,” Gustafson said in remarks to City Council. “HomesNow! and Unity Village represents emergency housing. It provides actual stable housing for people while they get back on their feet and find permanent housing,” he explained. “It does not interfere with other housing programs that are currently being implemented. Because these structures are temporary, they can be moved around as the homeless situation changes.”
The organization fills an important niche in the ecosystem of housing, specializing in temporary but non-emergency shelter that provides a degree of privacy and personal security. Other groups—like the Opportunity Council and Bellingham Housing Authority—focus on providing permanent housing. Their tiny homes project builds a pathway from the streets and drop-in centers to larger, more permanent dwellings. Gustafson reported that about 30 percent of the residents who have come through Unity Village have found secure housing.
Just one volunteer organization is doing this work, and gaps still remain elsewhere in the comprehensive response to housing insecurity.
The tragic news at the height of January’s severe cold snap that a homeless man was found dead in Bellingham after suffering from exposure and hypothermia serves to underscore the consequences of our society’s failure to solve the causes and conditions of homelessness.
“We need to continually acknowledge there are victims everyday to our inability to get enough people doing things that are needed in enough places and manners of doing so to keep people from dying or being injured or becoming ill,” Blaine resident Dena Jensen noted in a recent comment to the Homeless Strategies Workgroup. “Acknowledging these casualties is one thing that allows those people to be granted dignity.”
The continued and coordinated efforts of many county agencies working together may be a start.