The growing presence of displaced and unhoused individuals and their expanding footprint into residential neighborhoods has shocked and bewildered others in the community. While people experiencing homelessness rely on temporary shelters and makeshift encampments, the urgency of the problem threatens to distract from understanding the underlying realities perpetuating this crisis.
In Washington state, the number of homeless individuals has increased 22% since 2007, according to the 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.
In Whatcom County, the number of people experiencing homelessness is up 43% over the last decade, according to Whatcom County’s annual homeless counts.
While solutions are discussed in terms of policies and programs, those who are experiencing homelessness each have their own stories.
‘Not really sure how long’
The rows of mats laid out across the floor of Bellingham’s Lighthouse Mission were a frequent resting place for R.G.A. (identified by his initials to protect his privacy) as he tried to make his way off the streets. He slipped into substance abuse and gained a criminal record, digging a deeper hole as he attempted to climb out of his already disadvantaged situation.
Spending months or even years waiting for subsidized housing is all too common for those living without shelter across the county. As a disabled veteran with behavioral health challenges, R.G.A. was unable to afford local rentals on his own and few landlords would accept his Veteran Affairs housing voucher.
“It took me a long time to look for an apartment that I would qualify for,” he reflected. “Not really sure how long, but it felt like a very long time.”
While everyone faces different obstacles to escape a life on the streets, aspects of R.G.A.’s story are shared by the hundreds of other homeless individuals who sleep in parking garages, greenways, cars and makeshift shelters across Whatcom County every night.
Misconceptions from outside
Despite stopgap measures funded by increased municipal spending, public understanding is confused and conflicted about the origin of this humanitarian crisis and impatient with the seeming lack of progress.
Teri Bryant, head of the Whatcom County Opportunity Council’s Homeless Service Center, addressed one prevalent misconception about the origins of homeless individuals.
“It’s relatively rare to see people from out of state,” she said. “I’ve been in affordable housing for over 10 years. No one comes here for the food banks: they come here for jobs, the culture, the beauty of the environment.”
Bellingham, however, with availability of temporary housing and other resources, draws homeless individuals from across Whatcom County. Bryant described Bellingham as the “last major stop” on the way to the border, with the next closest drop-in, night-by-night shelter located in Everett.
“This is a problem 40 years in the making,” said Bryant, referring to the massive cuts to the public housing budget that began during President Ronald Regan’s terms in office. By the 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush, the Office of Housing and Urban Development, the primary agency that distributes Section 8 federal subsidized housing money, had seen its budget reduced by over 60%.
At the same time, income disparity and rising housing costs redefined affordable housing.
Economy ‘only one factor’
The City of Bellingham’s Consolidated Plan fact sheet paints a bleak picture: stagnating incomes in Whatcom County have collided with exploding living costs to create an environment where homelessness and unemployment are no longer correlated. From 2012 to 2017, the median home price climbed by 27%, while median family income climbed only 3%.
“The contemporary wave of homelessness has not subsided during good economic times. This suggests that economic performance is only one factor in a constellation of many other causes,” wrote Walter Leginski, retired researcher for the Department of Health and Human Services, in his 2007 paper for the National Symposium on Homelessness Research.
Indeed, in Whatcom County, economic success, one of the factors in Leginski’s constellation, is exemplified by ever-rising rental prices and the increased number of homeless individuals on the streets.
According to the 2020 Whatcom County Point-in-Time report, a wage worker earning $13.50 an hour (approximately minimum wage in the county) would have to work 52 hours per week to afford an apartment at a Federal Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Market Rent index local rate of $811 a month.
Demand outpaces supply
“We have less than 1% rental vacancy here in Bellingham,” said Bridget Reeves, associate executive director at Bellingham’s Lighthouse Mission Ministries, the nonprofit agency that manages the 24-hour Base Camp shelter downtown. Even though most new construction is comprised of high-capacity multifamily dwellings, demand for affordable rental units still outpaces supply. Extremely limited availability of rental units only adds to the challenge for those hoping to afford a home.
Homeowners face fixed mortgage payments, but much of Whatcom County’s most vulnerable populations are forced to contend with rental prices that rise every year. “Non-owners are being forced to deal with increased payments and housing costs — especially challenging if you are living on a fixed income,” said Bryant.
Seniors with fixed social security incomes are among those struggling to adapt to rapidly increasing rental rates. According to the 2020 Whatcom County Point in Time (PIT) count, people over the age of 55 account for over 21% of the local homeless population.
Competition for available rental housing that is subsidized with federal housing vouchers is fierce, with recipients caught in a web of increasing rents and fixed incomes that keep them from owning a home or making more money and losing their subsidies.
Building more subsidized housing would create more vacancies, and increasing subsidies would help address underlying income inequalities. But even then, finding landlords who will accept housing vouchers, as was the case for R.G.A., could remain a problem.
For many individuals, income is not the only cause of their homelessness. Issues such as re-integration after prison, domestic violence and untreated mental illness rank high as causes of homelessness in the 2020 PIT report.
“There is a lot of preventative work that we could do,” said Reeves. “We could do better with early behavior health support for kids and teens, preventing abuse at young ages. We have people tell us that they were abused as a child but never told anyone and they might be 50 years old. What if we could get upstream a bit?”
Inpatient psychiatric capacity and utilization are other upstream preventative measures in need of attention. A 2015 Washington State Institute for Public Policy report (WSIPP) ranked the state 46th in total psychiatric beds per capita, with only 9.1 beds available per 100,000 residents. Washington state psychiatric services face significantly above average demand for what few psychiatric beds are available, with average daily occupancy rates of over 80% — a substantial difference from the 64% national average.
“With behavioral health, homelessness and addiction, it’s really a web. For some folks it’s really hard to determine which came first,” said Reeves. According to the same WSIPP report, Washington state ranks near the top in adults with non-addiction-related mental health disorders.
No privacy, poor sanitation
Behavioral health challenges and substance abuse problems are hardly unique to homeless individuals, but their visibility warps how they are perceived. “Drug use or mental health problems appear to be pervasive, but these people just don’t have privacy,” said Bryant.
For those on the streets of Whatcom County, basic living concerns often precede seeking out care or treatment. In a world where all services are lacking, even poor dental hygiene create unique challenges.
“Dental care is the most neglected service,” said Bryant. “A donation of granola bars might be extremely difficult for many people to eat.”
Discussions over approaches to the homelessness crisis have taken on a new sense of urgency after recent protests and city park tent removals.
At the Feb. 23 open session of the Whatcom County Council, eight of the 12 speakers referenced homelessness. They called for “no-barrier” housing where individuals are housed regardless of criminal records or addiction status, and criticized local officials for poor sanitary services.
An increasingly charged political environment has contributed to the spread of misinformation, potentially discouraging some individuals from seeking available services.
“Unfortunately, there has been a lot of misinformation spread about Base Camp. It ends up hurting people who need services,” said Reeves.
Rumors allege that guests at Base Camp shelter must partake in involuntary religious services or say prayers to receive access to food or showers. Reeves explained that “some missions require it, but there are no mandatory religious activities to receive services at Base Camp, we don’t breathalyze or require drug tests.”
Despite a 200-bed capacity, Base Camp typically only serves around 160 individuals on a nightly basis, and rumors continue about religious requirements and other managerial restrictions at the facility.
Reeves attributed excess capacity to the fact that some individuals “may not want to be around so many people” or may not be able to give up substance use “even for a night.”
“We only ask people to leave because of unsafe behavior. We also ask that people don’t use substances on the premises,” said Reeves. Concerns over the transmission of COVID-19 have also played a part in dissuading some individuals from utilizing group shelters, though beds are placed to allow six or more feet of space head-to-head.
Screen — or barrier?
Lighthouse Mission is not the only nonprofit in the county to receive criticism for establishing screening services or residential criteria. HomesNow!, a local non-profit responsible for establishing tiny home communities, has also received significant pushback for having barriers which may prevent people from living in one of their facilities.
“We conduct a background check, but even serious criminal history is not a disqualifier. We just check to make sure they will not be an immediate danger to other residents,” said Doug Gustafsson, head of HomesNow! In the end, current residents vote to allow the applicant in, a scenario which Gustafson asserted “is a yes 95% of the time.”
Despite a current wave of negative public sentiment, efforts to create more emergency housing for homeless individuals in Whatcom County have been a success. Though it is an imperfect snapshot, the 2020 PIT counted 83 more sheltered homeless individuals since 2019 for a total of 489.
More homeless are being housed compared to 2010, but the total number of homeless individuals in Whatcom County has also increased over time. The impact of COVID-19 has not been recorded — a limitation of yearly point-in-time counts, the primary metric by which the county assesses the number of those in need. Recent trends already show a need for greater efforts.
Homelessness, low wages, rising rents, affordable housing shortage: the stark reality of an urgent situation. While America works towards an economic rebound in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, economists worry that those working low-paying jobs face a much rougher road to financial recovery.
Some sectors of the economy have bounced back, but industries staffed by traditionally low-income workers have been hit the hardest. “Our new economy just means that the rich are getting richer while the working poor struggle,” said Bryant.
For more, read “Dream House,” Klipsun Magazine, March 19, 2021.