Study: County Homeless Numbers Fall
by Jennifer Moon
There are 24 percent fewer homeless people living in Whatcom County than there were in 2008. That is the finding of the June 2015 “Point-in-Time Count” report, a study conducted annually in fulfillment of state and federal requirements associated with the receipt of funding for homeless services.1
This year’s count was conducted on January 29 by the Whatcom County Homeless Coalition, the Whatcom County Health Department, the City of Bellingham and the Whatcom Homeless Service Center in partnership with representatives of more than 40 other organizations in the community. In addition to the overall decrease in homelessness, the study found that, compared to 2008 data, 9 percent fewer families with children are homeless, and there has been a 27 percent decrease in chronic homelessness.
As an annual “snapshot” of homelessness in our community, the Point-in-Time methodology undercounts homelessness. It captures only those homeless families and individuals who are encountered on a single day by volunteers conducting the census. It may not account for seasonal variations in homelessness or for those who cycle in and out of homelessness over the course of a year. That said, it provides valuable information about the demographics and life experiences of homeless individuals in Whatcom County and enables policymakers to plan and evaluate efforts to address homelessness.
That uncertainty is reflected in the experience of The Lighthouse Mission, located on West Holly Street and the county’s only walk-in shelter. Executive Director Ron Buchinski said The lighthouse hasn’t noticed any reduction in the number of homeless coming for meals and overnight shelter. The shelter can house up to 160 men per night and serves nine meals every day.
“I’m not sure how accurate it is,” Mr. Buchinski said, referring to the study. “I didn’t sense that in the last year there were less homeless in Bellingham.”
This year’s study identified a total of 651 homeless individuals in Whatcom County. These individuals comprised 449 homeless households, including 92 families with children. There were 116 individuals meeting the federal definition of “chronically homeless,” meaning that the person has been homeless for at least a year or has been homeless for at least three periods in the last three years. In addition, the person must have met the criteria of having slept “in a place not meant for human habitation” or in an emergency shelter and have a disabling condition, such as a physical disability, a mental health condition, or a substance abuse issue.
Homelessness affects Whatcom County residents regardless of age or gender. The ages of those counted this year ranged from an infant less than a year old to a 73-year-old. A quarter of those identified were under 18 years of age. An approximately equal percentage of women (51 percent) were homeless as men (49 percent).
The report highlights some of the life circumstances that result in homelessness. Thirty-nine percent of those interviewed reported a mental health condition. An equal number indicated that they had a permanent physical disability or a chronic illness. Thirteen percent of homeless individuals reported a substance abuse problem, and nearly a quarter (21 percent) of those with a mental health condition reported a co-occurring substance abuse disorder. Among 80 youth households that were either literally homeless or unstably housed (e.g., couch surfing), 20 percent reported that they were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ).
Those released from an institutional setting are particularly vulnerable to becoming homeless. Nearly a quarter (21 percent) reported that a household member had recently been released from jail or prison, juvenile detention, an inpatient substance abuse treatment center, or a psychiatric hospital. This has proven to be a fairly intractable problem, with only a 4 percent decrease since 2008 in the number of individuals becoming homeless after exiting such institutions and a rising number of individuals becoming homeless after being released from jail or prison.
Not surprisingly, insufficient income puts people at risk of homelessness. Nearly a quarter of those interviewed reported no income. Approximately two-thirds rely on some form of public assistance. Demonstrating the challenges of being among the “working poor,” 13 percent of respondents reported that they were employed either part-time or full-time.
Despite the significant decrease in homelessness in Whatcom County since 2008, there was an uptick in the number of homeless individuals encountered in the Point-in-Time Count over the past year, as was the case in other counties to the south.2 This year, nearly 100 more individuals were homeless in our community than in 2014, including 73 new homeless households, 10 of which had children present. These numbers have increased despite a drop in the local unemployment rate from 10.6 in February 2010 to 5.8 percent in May 2015.3 At the same time, however, housing prices, particularly in the rental market, are rising, and the rental vacancy rate hovering between 1 and 2 percent. For those with poor credit history or with past felonies on their record, securing housing in a tight housing market becomes particularly challenging. And, according to Gail de Hoog, Housing Program Specialist with the Whatcom County Health Department, “the populations we serve are the last to benefit from the [economic] recovery we now see.”
One thing is clear. The answer to homelessness is to house the homeless. This is what communities across the country implementing a “Housing First” approach have discovered. “Housing First” focuses on the immediate provision of housing, with needed services to follow, without the prerequisite of the individual being “housing ready.” This has been the approach taken in places such as New York City and San Francisco, but Salt Lake City also recently made news with its “Housing First” model. Salt Lake City has reportedly cut its chronic homelessness rate by 72 percent in 10 years. How did they do it? They provided housing. As one Utah state official put it, “If you want to end homelessness, you put people in housing.” 4
Whatcom County’s success in reducing homelessness among veterans proves the point. Through targeted efforts and the pooling of a number of funding sources over the past few years, homelessness among Whatcom County veterans has been cut in half (54 percent) since 2008.
In 2012, Bellingham voters passed the Bellingham Home Fund, a property tax levy increase to fund affordable, low-income housing construction, rehabilitation, rental assistance, first-time home buyer assistance, and supportive services. To date, the Bellingham Home Fund reports that 238 new housing units are in development.5 Forty-two new permanent supportive housing units will become available this summer with the completion of St. Francis Place, sponsored by Catholic Housing Services.
But more work is needed. “People need housing in order to achieve stability in other areas of their lives including gaining and keeping employment,” says de Hoog. “We do not have enough housing units or funding for supportive services for people who are in need of longer term or supportive housing.” A number of projects are in development or in the planning stages, but, as de Hoog states, “Construction nearly ceased for a period of time. It takes time to catch up.”
And the perception exists that providing housing and supportive services to the homeless only invites more homeless individuals into our community. The data do not bear that belief out. The Point-in-Time Count found that the last stable residence of more than two-thirds (69 people) of homeless households was Whatcom County, and there are now 6 percent fewer homeless households who have come from outside Whatcom County than there were in 2011.
As de Hoog concludes, “It seems so simple, provide housing for all your citizens so that they can contribute more meaningfully to the community.” 6
1. “A Home for Everyone: Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness 2015 Annual Report,” June 2015.
2. Rates of homelessness increased in King County and Skagit County, for example, although Snohomish County witnessed a decrease this year. http://www.homelessinfo.org/what_we_do/one_night_count/2015_results.php; http://www.commerce.wa.gov/Documents/PIT_2015_Rollup_Summary.pdf; http://www.commerce.wa.gov/Documents/2014-PIT-Summary.pdf.
3. http://www.bls.gov/eag/eag.wa_bellingham_msa.htm; https://fortress.wa.gov/esd/employmentdata/reports-publications/regional-reports/county-profiles/whatcom-county-profile/
6. Interview with Gail de Hoog, Housing Program Specialist, Whatcom County Health Department, July 9, 2015.