Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville is leading the charge to request that Gov. Jay Inslee declare a state of emergency throughout Washington state for the increasing homeless population.
The effort was announced at a Bellingham City Council meeting on Jan. 11. Linville and her supporters on the Bellingham City Council hope by declaring a state of emergency, support systems for the homeless will receive more state and federal funding.
The 2015 Point-in-Time Count, which records the number of homeless individuals on the street at a given point in time, found that at least 651 people were homeless in Whatcom County, a 17.7 percent increase from the amount in 2014.
The next Point-in-Time Count is scheduled for Jan. 28.
Washington would become the second state in the U.S. to declare a state of emergency regarding homelessness, following Hawaii’s lead. A state of emergency was declared in Hawaii in October, just days after one of the nation’s largest homeless encampments situated in Honolulu was cleared.
Seattle and King County also declared state of emergencies for homelessness in Nov. 2015.
“One of the purposes behind this letter is to encourage state officials to activate some statewide programs to address homelessness,” said Bellingham City Council member Michael Lilliquist on Monday, Jan. 16.
Western sophomore Cody Stephens researched homelessness in Bellingham during professor Tara Perry’s Interpersonal Communication class last quarter when the class spent November devoted to Homelessness Awareness Month.
Stephens believes declaring a state of emergency is the appropriate step in acknowledging the homeless crisis, though he hopes the mayor’s statement truly results in change.
“I really hope it makes more people aware of the [homeless] epidemic but also brings a lot of hope about how much we, as a state with a good amount of resources, are capable of fixing it,” Stephens said.
Homelessness and a lack of affordable housing
In the letter, Linville called for increased investment in services to bring people indoors and prevent more people from falling into homelessness.
This could be accomplished through two legislative actions: allocating “significant resources to the Consolidated Homeless Grant,” which provides secure permanent housing for people who are homeless or are at-risk of becoming homeless, and giving the government more “flexibility with the use of state and federal Medicaid dollars,” Linville wrote.
A complication surrounding Bellingham’s affordable housing is due to college students living near campus, Stephens said.
“An issue we have here is that students can’t afford to live on campus so they move off campus,” he said. “Renters very clearly would rather trust college students with a lease than trust someone who is coming off the street. … I think more affordable housing needs to made around Bellingham.”
Ron Buchinski, executive director of Bellingham’s Lighthouse Mission Ministries, has been working with the homeless in shelters for close to 30 years.
The mission’s building on 910 West Holly St. can house up to 160 people, and reaches full capacity every night, Buchinski said.
Buchinski believes the key to a successful homeless outreach program starts with temporary shelters, he said.
“It takes millions and millions of dollars to build apartments for individuals and family people, but what do we do in the meantime?” he said.
A Washington State Department of Commerce study conducted in 2013 found almost half of the funds for short-term housing are collected through auditors’ document recording fees.
As more of these government documents are moved to online formats, the funds for short-term housing are expected to decrease by 62.5 percent in 2017, according to the study.
This would significantly reduce the resources available for emergency shelter, rent assistance and transitional housing, and could potentially end the rent assistance program and result in the closure of state-subsidized shelters, according to the Washington Department of Commerce.
“If they are cutting funding for short-term housing, I think that shows the need for shelters,” Buchinski said.
However, some on the Bellingham City Council believe permanent housing options are essential to ending homelessness.
“We have a lot of programs, but we still have major problems here with housing,” Councilmember Terry Bornemann said. “If you look at what our average income is compared to the cost of housing, [you see] how few available units there are.”
In response to the decrease in funding, the Bellingham City Council considered endorsing a new tax during its Jan. 11 meeting.
“If the city were to push that forward, it would have to be voter approved,” Councilmember April Barker assured.
The homeless population of Whatcom County face difficulties that do not affect people in other areas. Other than the enduring the Northwest’s characteristic cold and rainy weather, Bellingham’s homeless population has a very high percentage of mentally ill compared to the national average, Buchinski said.
What Bellingham has already tried
The City of Bellingham has already made several attempts to reduce the amount people without shelter in Whatcom County.
In 2008, a 10-year plan was set in place to end homelessness, focusing on the homeless youth and community re-entry for individuals released from prison, substance abuse treatment and psychiatric hospitals.
In 2012, the Bellingham city low-income housing levy was placed on the 2012 ballot and approved by voters. The levy increased the city’s property tax about $3 million per year to fund local housing programs and services for low-income families.
Linville hopes support at the state level will allow more local jurisdictions to adequately address the homeless crisis, she wrote in her letter.