Can we prevent homelessness? - Salish Current
March 31, 2023
Can we prevent homelessness?
John Dunne

“Camp” is meant to characterize temporary lodging, but for some unhoused people, out-of-sight tent and tarp encampments sometimes become the only place to shelter for long periods of time. Despite its complex causes, homelessness can be prevented, with a focus on providing housing and responsive thinking about income levels, says a local commentator. (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current photo © 2022)

March 31, 2023
Can we prevent homelessness?
John Dunne

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

There are many reasons people become homeless. 

Chronic unemployment, disabilities, severe mental illnesses and addiction to substances are the reasons we usually think about. However, there are also other causes of homelessness, such as divorce, fleeing domestic violence or teens fleeing abusive or rejecting families. As we just witnessed in Florida, natural disasters can create massive homelessness. 

Those who become chronically homeless share three common characteristics: they have lost important connections with family and friends who might help, they despair of ever changing their situations and (to state the obvious) they have no place to live.

Some would like to keep the homeless out of sight, some would like to criminalize homelessness or at least where they camp and many want to help but don’t know how. As we have learned, trying to re-house the homeless is very expensive. The unhoused create garbage in our streets, parks and wooded areas; add to petty crime, adding significantly to city expenses; and contribute to declining business where the homeless congregate.

But can we prevent homelessness? Unequivocally, yes! Can we eliminate homelessness? Emphatically, no! There will always be some who become, at least temporarily, homeless. Bellingham has invested in dealing with all three phases of homelessness: prevention, sheltering, and rehabilitation and rehousing. These efforts need to continue and, if possible, expand to better meet the need. Unfortunately, none of these efforts has stemmed the tide of homelessness. Why is that?

It’s a complicated problem with many contributors. The most important proximal cause is the lack of affordable housing. The population of Bellingham has surged recently, at least some by people fleeing more expensive housing markets in the Seattle metro area. The stock of available housing has not kept pace, a characteristic referred to as housing inflexibility, leading to increased competition for housing and rapidly rising property values. This not only increases the price of single-family homes but also pushes up rents. At the same time inflation eats away at low-income individuals’ ability to pay for the higher rent since wages and entitlement payments have not kept up with inflation. The effect is that, with an increasing population and a relatively restricted growth of housing, those with the lowest incomes will be squeezed out of housing, adding to our homeless population.

Efforts to combat this situation has two main components: increasing the degree of housing flexibility, and improving the ability of those with extremely low-incomes to afford the higher rents.

The lack of available housing is the critical factor concluded the authors of a recently released book “Homelessness is a Housing Problem: How Structural Factors Explain U.S. Patterns” (Read a review of the book the Salish Current, Oct. 7, 2022). They cite many examples to support their conclusion. One example they give is Charlotte, North Carolina, which has had a substantial population increase without a rise in homelessness because the city sits on a broad savanna giving it plenty of room to grow.

Bellingham is not so blessed, although there are a number of things the city can do to increase housing flexibility.

Most significantly, the city could change zoning to allow more multifamily housing along transit routes. Another change, less dramatic, would be to simplify the permitting process for new buildings, including ADUs (accessory dwelling units). Currently, it can take a year or more and several design changes to comply with complex code requirements. Those delays and revisions add to the cost of obtaining a permit, which increases the price of new housing.

A more difficult change would be to extend the city’s boundaries, incorporating undeveloped land. That brings a host of new problems and expenses: adding water and sewer lines, building and maintaining new roads and extending other infrastructure and services. The city is already struggling with how to best upgrade its sewage treatment system.

To help those who are on the verge of losing their housing for financial reasons, providing housing subsidies has been helpful.

An additional approach would be to increase the minimum wage. To give the minimum wage earner the same purchasing power as the same earner had in 1968, they would need to make at least $22/hour (probably more, given recent inflation). The cost of such an abrupt change in the minimum wage would be borne by all of us but also have unforeseen consequences as we reduce discretionary expenses, such as going out to eat. And the combination of housing subsidies and increased wages will also create additional competition for housing. However, to not help those on the bottom rung of our society seems inhumane. 

Obviously, this is a difficult situation for us to be in. It makes no sense to rail against the homeless. There are helpful changes we can make if we have the political will. But to be truly effective both strategies need to be implemented in tandem.

— Contributed by John Dunne

We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in Community Voices. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.

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