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Emily Jackson

The growing homelessness crisis in Whatcom County and the Pacific Northwest isn’t confined to the U.S.

Closer to home, both Bellingham and Vancouver, British Columbia are home to large homeless populations – and they keep growing.

According to a 2017 Whatcom County report, there are at least 742 people experiencing homelessness in Bellingham. The climate is similar in Vancouver, where a similar study found roughly 2,138 people experiencing homelessness in 2017.

Due to this growing crisis, there are people in both cities trying to help the homeless recover a sense of stability.

One solution underway in Vancouver is to create temporary modular homes for the homeless.

The city of Vancouver launched a temporary modular housing project last fall to take care of homeless people’s urgent needs, according to the city’s website. These homes are part of a wider effort by the Canadian government to create permanent solutions for managing homelessness.

Interior of affordable housing unit. // Photo courtesy of BC housing.

According to the BC Housing website, the company building the modular homes. British Columbia is allocating $291 million over two years toward housing. This will include the creation of 2,000 modular supportive housing units across British Columbia for people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

The project, scheduled to finish in fall 2019, will add both temporary modular housing and permanent homes to various parts of Vancouver.

While the modular homes in Vancouver focus on temporary housing, organizations in Bellingham and Whatcom County are using diverse techniques in an effort to end homelessness.

“Long-term housing is the most important focus, and that's what the city has been doing,” Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said in an email. “The voter-approved Bellingham Home Fund addresses issues caused by the housing crisis by providing safe affordable homes and supportive services to vulnerable populations.”

She said the city has created or preserved hundreds of housing units since the Bellingham Home Fund came into effect in 2012

Yet, despite the goal to provide long-term housing, Linville said the city needs to keep temporary housing in mind for those who are in urgent need of shelter.

“We continue to seek a permanent site for an easy-access shelter, which is being temporarily provided by the Lighthouse Mission Ministries’

Drop-In Shelter on Holly Street,” she said.

The permanent easy-access shelter was proposed last May, according to an article in the Bellingham Herald.

“As much as I’ve looked to help them, they’ve helped me too,” he said. “So many people [at the Drop-In Center] love me. They help me. They taught me what it means to persevere,”

Western senior Stephen Cairns said.

According to Linville, the city identified a city-owned property two years ago, which they planned to use for this purpose. However, the plans fell through after the Port of Bellingham purchased the property instead.

“Since then, we have continued to actively look for a site, and the county put together a taskforce to help with that process,” Linville said.

The city has tentatively located two potential sites at Civic Center, she said.

“We're exploring locating a shelter on half of the city-owned parking lot between B and A streets, in a way that would keep it away from residential uses,” she said.

The other possible site is the current Whatcom County Health Department building across from the police station on Girard Street, she said.

Linville said the city will keep working with Whatcom County and Lighthouse Mission Ministries to adapt the project.

Lighthouse Mission Ministries, a Christian nonprofit organization, provides shelter and wrap-around resources to homeless people in Whatcom County. It provides resources to help people rebuild their entire lives, similarly to the services in the modular home communities in Vancouver. However, unlike Vancouver’s temporary modular homes, Lighthouse Mission provides both short and long-term support.

“People don’t become homeless because they run out of resources,” Hans Erchinger-Davis, executive director of the Lighthouse Mission, said. “They become homeless because they run out of relationships.”

Homelessness begins with isolation, Erchinger-Davis said. Depending on the situation, many people become homeless because they don’t have family or friends who can help.

For this reason, the Lighthouse Mission doesn’t just give people experiencing homelessness a shelter and nutritious meals, Erchinger-Davis said. It gives them the relationships they need to keep going.

It also runs an easy-access crisis shelter, medical clinics, recover programs, transitional housing programs, meal programs and outreach teams who connect with homeless people staying in encampments and panhandlers, he said.

Stephen Cairns, 21, a senior at Western, is a supervisor at the Lighthouse Mission Drop-In Center, where he helps facilitate activities, meals and conversations with guests.

“I basically get to be the fun guy,” Cairns said. “I help provide an open and safe place to build relationships.”

Cairns said he started working with Lighthouse Mission seven months ago.

After working with people in homelessness throughout high school and college, he said he realized there’s a lot to learn from them.

“As much as I’ve looked to help them, they’ve helped me too,” he said. “So many people [at the Drop-In Center] love me. They help me. They taught me what it means to persevere.”

Around the clock, for 365 days of the year, Lighthouse Mission works with an average of 250 men, women and children who struggle with homelessness. The organization seeks to empower people to take the reins on the road to recovery, said Erchinger-Davis.

The Mission accomplishes this goal by responding to all areas of life, he said, describing how a holistic approach includes helping people grow in their economic, social, spiritual, emotional, physical and mental health.

Erchinger-Davis said these core issues must be considered in addition to housing.

“Throwing a roof over someone’s head doesn’t solve someone’s homelessness,” he said.

Erchinger-Davis said there are different stages in recovery from homelessness.

“People from many walks of life come to us in the crisis stage of recovery,” he said. “Those people need quick relief. Once they’re out of that crisis stage, they enter the development stage.”

According to Erchinger-Davis, that’s when a full life recovery can begin. He said the Lighthouse Mission is working to empower people to be the solution to their own problems.

“We can’t respond to a development need with a crisis response,” he says. “We need to make sure the response matches the need.”

Erchinger-Davis said building housing units can be helpful in select cases. This “Housing First” model has recently gained popularity as an effective method, according to a report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

However, he said this approach can leave people with a home but no support system. Support is key, especially for people struggling with addiction and serious behavioral health issues.

Erchinger-Davis said the Lighthouse Mission works to reverse this trend with a “Housing Next” model that encourages a level of healing and growth to help a person maintain housing long-term.

“It’s not just one thing that’s going to fix the crisis facing this and other communities. It takes all of us working together,”

Shultzie Willows, community engagement director for Lydia Place, said.

These resources include classes about the psychology of addiction, anger management and spiritual growth. The classes on spiritual growth are not required, he said, but they play a key role in helping people find their identity and find healing from guilt and shame they may be holding on to.

“It’s critical for people to have an understanding of who they are, of their value and what their calling is in this life,” Erchinger-Davis said. “Hope lives at the Lighthouse Mission.”

Lydia Place, a non-profit agency serving homeless households in Whatcom County, also takes a multifaceted approach to ending homelessness.

“At Lydia Place our mission is focused on disrupting the cycle of homelessness,” Shultzie Willows, community engagement director for Lydia Place, said. “Many of our programs are centered around families with kids, so that their children are the last generation to experience homelessness and poverty.”

However, Lydia Place serves couples without children and unaccompanied adults as well Willows said.

According to the organization’s website, Lydia Place provides various services including permanent supportive housing, parenting support, counseling and education about the faces and causes of homelessness.

“It’s not just one thing that’s going to fix the crisis facing this and other communities. It takes all of us working together,” she said. “And, it takes all of us being good stewards of our resources to solve this community problem.”

Solutions range from various emergent and permanent housing programs, to a new program that will provide accessible and affordable lockers, to the tiny home movement and an emergency shelter.

From Vancouver to Bellingham, approaches to helping homelessness may vary. However, organizations in both cities are trying to help people experiencing homelessness find stability and healing.

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