In discussions on tackling the issues of homelessness, some have academic cred and political cred … and some have street cred.
The problem is significant, both in size and in urgency. The City of Bellingham estimates that approximately 750 people are experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County on any given night. Experts say that although lack of affordable housing isn’t the only cause, it is a major contributor.
Western Washington University’s annual Ralph Munro Seminar for Civic Education and POOR Magazine‘s Bellingham debut of their Homefulness Handbook convened activists, researchers and policy makers in separate events recently to work toward solutions.
The Munro forum panel, “Priced Out: A Conversation about Housing Affordability,” brought to Bellingham last week a University of Washington professor, a Bellingham community development official and two state legislators, from opposite sides of the political aisle, to discuss housing affordability, how it affects different sectors of the community and possible solutions.
POOR Magazine, a poor- and Indigenous-people-led nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California, came to Bellingham this week with its Homefulness Project: “a poor-people-led solution to homelessness.” They are debuting the Homefulness Handbook as a part of their Stolen Land/Hoarded Resources book tour, featuring workshops, a poetry performance and teach-in at each stop.
From houselessness, vision
Tiny Gray-Garcia, co-founder of Homefulness and POOR Magazine, was first houseless at 11 years old. She dropped out of school in the 6th grade and spent most of her young life with her mother, a single, disabled woman of color, surviving by whatever means necessary.
These experiences eventually grew into POOR Magazine, Gray-Garcia said.
“The movement is rooted in media, art, education, culture and solutions,” she said. “That’s what we say and what we do. We believe that poor people have our own solutions to our own problems but are never listened to.”
This vision sparked the Homefulness project. With funds donated by the local community, the project purchased land in Oakland and built four townhouses to house eight families. In addition to these homes, the project also includes on-site childcare and a school for houseless children and families.
Despite having the funding and space and resources to build, Gray-Garcia said they still faced problems after purchasing the land.
“One of the visions of the Homefulness project is that we work within the city codes,” she said. “It’s very hard to do that, I’m not gonna lie. Now at the very end of the project, after being slapped with every permit cost you could ever imagine, we’re still dealing with it. Hopefully, we’ll be able to open the houses by January 2022.”
One of the goals of the Homefulness Handbook is to give others the tools, based on the organization’s experiences, to navigate complicated permitting processes that are required to purchase land and build houses.
Systemic as well as individual issues
At the Munro seminar, panel moderator Melanie Bowers, a WWU political science professor, said that while homelessness is the result of individual and systemic factors, “We have begun to think about homelessness as a housing problem.”
“Even though there are typically a lot of more complex dynamics that lead someone to end up in homelessness, at the end of the day, it is an inability to afford housing that brings someone into homelessness,” she said.
Housing prices have become increasingly less affordable in Whatcom County. Home prices went up 21.9% from last year, with the median price being over half a million dollars.
Bowers said that when communities have an increasing lack of affordability, it puts more pressure on those at the bottom income level to find housing. There are different groups of people experiencing homelessness and each group has individual needs. Housing affordability creates challenges for all of them.
Each panelist identified factors they considered contributing the most to the lack of affordable housing and what possible solutions are most effective. While there were commonalities among the panelists’ opinions, they differed on which problem they thought requires the most attention.
Impact of affordability crisis
UW professor Rachel Fyall said that homelessness is the greatest challenge presented by the affordability crisis.
“I think these things are very intimately connected,” Fyall said. “Yes, the housing market for homebuyers is crazy, and I see that as absolutely related to how many people are struggling to even have a roof over their head.”
Rep. Greg Gilday (R-Camano Island) worried about first-time homebuyers and workforce housing, two sectors he said are seeing increased pressure. Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue) said that homelessness is an urgent crisis which requires immediate attention.
Kuderer favored supportive, permanent housing that meets individual needs.
“You can’t have a one size fits all,” she said. “That’s why we need the permanent supportive housing services that really are unique to each individual and formulate specific plans that are tailor-made for each individual to help them get back on their feet.”
Not partisan, not isolated
Kuderer said that densifying existing housing, streamlining permitting and reconsidering single family zoning are the next steps. This would mean fewer homes with only one family and more duplexes, apartment complexes and accessory dwelling units. For Kuderer, housing affordability and homelessness are not partisan issues that affect specific areas, but are issues throughout the state.
During the forum Q&A, panelists were asked, “How much will addressing housing affordability help in alleviating the homelessness crisis that comes from wealth inequality?”
Fyall said that blaming individuals for their housing status is ineffective when considering the larger systemic issue.
“We know that other parts of the country where they don’t have such an affordability crisis, they have smaller homeless populations,” she said. “The structure we’ve created is instrumental in making the scale of homelessness what it is.”
Fyall expressed confidence that the more home markets are made affordable to all income levels, fewer people will experience homelessness.
Panelists agreed that every actor, whether it be government, nonprofit organizations, academics or community members, offers important perspective and can be in a partnership. Working together in combination with greater education are necessary components for effective solutions.
The goal of this year’s seminar was not to solve the housing affordability crisis in one night, said Kate Destler, director of the Munro Institute, but to bring a mix of elected officials, city workers and academic experts together to have a conversation and brainstorm possible solutions.
Experienced needed at the table
Brel Froebe, a local activist who is helping the Homefulness project come to Bellingham, said he believes that the project’s model would provide permanent solutions to homelessness by being led by the people who are most deeply affected by it.
“As somebody with a certain level of privilege, I want to be in solidarity and stand with folks to create their own solutions to houselessness. I also say this to encourage folks who, like me, have wealth and resource privileges to redistribute some of those resources in a way that is going to create something like Homefulness,” he said.
The panelists at the Munro seminar brought to light the need for a partnership between government and nonprofit organizations, but Froebe said there is one essential group that is frequently left out of the conversation: those who are experiencing, or have experienced, homelessness.
“I believe that any solution to the so-called problem of homelessness or houselessness, needs to involve and center around those most affected and include them in coming up with a solution,” he said.
“That also always needs to be paired with support from the community in the form of resources. Those two things are essential if we’re going to tackle this challenge in our community. I would like to see our community do a better job at bringing folks who are houseless to the table in creating those solutions. Otherwise, to me, they’re not real solutions.”
— Reported by Mallory Biggar
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