Frontline: Addressing homelessness takes the whole community

Homelessness is a complex issue, and it’s one that needs to be addressed as a community.

Unaffordable rent, a housing shortage, systemic issues of racism and discrimination and an absence of adequate mental health services contribute to homelessness in Bellingham.

Too much money is spent on clearing out homeless encampments because citizens find them an eyesore, and not enough on actual solutions. Clearing the camps isn’t any kind of solution, as displaced people often set up new camps within a few days or weeks. Both time and money are being wasted by the city to destroy the closest thing to a home some people can obtain.

The camps have also been criticized as being environmental blights. Bellingham residents who are passionate about the environment should show also show compassion to people experiencing homelessness. People wouldn’t need to camp out in the first place if there were more options and services available to them.

The Lighthouse Mission, the main shelter option for people experiencing homelessness, doesn’t have enough beds to meet this population’s needs. And the Mission has a policy in place preventing drug or alcohol use on their property, which prevents some people who struggle with addiction from having a place to stay for the night.

The city has acknowledged this problem and has been searching for a location for a low-barrier homeless shelter. A proposed location on the waterfront was denied by the Port of Bellingham last year, and one former port commissioner claimed that a homeless shelter doesn’t need waterfront property. While a low-barrier shelter wouldn’t solve everything, it would give more options to people experiencing homelessness in our community.

The battle to find a location for the shelter also illustrated a larger issue. Neighborhoods and businesses in Bellingham rejected building the shelter near them. Although the progressive community of Bellingham advocates for providing more resources to people experiencing homelessness, their actions did not follow their words. While surveys have shown that homelessness is seen as a top issue in Bellingham among residents, not many people seem committed to addressing this if it impacts them.

The community needs to come together if anything is to be done.

Landlords are also reluctant to rent to people who are transitioning from experiencing homelessness. This kind of discrimination is illegal but still happens.

And people who experience homelessness still face issues such as systemic racism and discrimination against LGBTQ people. Some people experiencing homelessness have expressed feeling alienated by, or uncomfortable with, the beliefs of the faith-based Lighthouse Mission.

In addition, concerns about safety at the Mission, particularly from female-identifying people, need to be addressed.

Within the community, there is a real lack of resources for people with disabilities, those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, or struggle with their mental health. This can not only create conditions in which people become homeless, but can also make it hard for people to get out of it.

We applaud HomesNow! Not Later’s urgency and dedication to pressuring officials to address homelessness now. However, we feel solutions need to go beyond just tiny homes. More needs to be done to look at long-term solutions, including housing availability and affordability, as well as increasing services to both help people transition from homelessness, and prevent people from falling into it.

In addition, more needs to be done to change societal perceptions of this issue. There are a lot of misconceptions about people experiencing homelessness. People experiencing homelessness told us that stereotypical portrayals of people experiencing homelessness fail to acknowledge the diversity and humanity of this group. The people we talked to told us about being laid off, getting out of an abusive relationship, focusing on paying for school with dreams of majoring in animation and just trying to survive.

It’s time to take a stand, and elevate the voices of those who are so often rejected by the rest of the community. It’s not just the city’s responsibility, but also that of the citizens, to work together to find viable short-term and long-term solutions for these community members.

The Western Front Editorial Board is composed of Kira Erickson, Asia Fields and Melissa McCarthy.

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