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By Payton Gift

Families and children in Whatcom County are struggling, and local community members have a plan to help, they just need the support of the County Council.

Community members advocated to the Whatcom County Council on behalf of local families and children at a meeting on Feb. 4 concerning a new Child and Family Action Plan.

The Child and Family Action Plan was developed in a collaboration between the Whatcom County Public Health Advisory Board, the Whatcom County Health Department, Generations Forward and Healthy Whatcom.

The presentation focused on the county government’s role in combating homelessness in families and children in Whatcom County, with a particular focus on home insecurity and its impact on early childhood development and education.

Outgoing chair of the Whatcom County Public Health Advisory Board, Rachel Lucy, said that each year roughly 2,200 babies are born in Whatcom County. Out of those children, less than 1,000 will be prepared to start their educational career by the time they start kindergarten.

“Of those 2,200 babies born each year we know that upon leaving the hospital, 100 will go home to families who are experiencing homelessness,” Lucy said. “Possibly 100 or more will go home to households who will experience a housing crisis this year, 400 will visit our local food banks with their families and their parents will worry about where their next meal will come from.”

Debbie Ahl, executive director of  Mt. Baker Scholarship Foundation, spoke to the council about hosting a family of four, who formerly lived in a trailer with 10 other adults, in an apartment above her garage. The father currently has no GED, he works full time and supports the mother who attends high school.

“It is not easy to both work and parent,” Ahl said. “The ability to do so decreases with income levels and socioeconomic circumstances.”

Local support is under stress to take care of this population by themselves, said Emily O’Connor, executive director of Lydia Place. O’Connor told the council that there are currently 50 families on the waiting list to receive housing at Lydia Place.

According to their website, Lydia Place is an organization that was established in 1989 to address the need for safe housing for women experiencing homelessness. Now, their housing support has expanded to women, men and families. In addition to safe housing, they also provide in-home parenting support, mental health counseling and case management for over 150 families at a time.

“I have had a front row seat to many conversations in our community on all sorts of issues like lack of child care, housing, homelessness, lack of behavioral health care services and the economic struggles of our roughly 50% of families who can’t afford to live here anymore,” O’Connor said. “What I see from this front row seat is that we are really clear on what the problems are.”

According to the presentation packet at the meeting the action plan recommends pursuing new funding methods that increase resources for crisis prevention, to prioritize children and families when changing or creating county policy and funding decisions, and provide resources to improve access to family and behavioral health services.

Clinical director of Catholic Community Services, Sterling Chick, said that the steps in this plan will be instrumental in ensuring children are able to succeed in school and in life. 

The Catholic Community Services center is a local organization that provides resources to families and children. According to their website, they provide mental health services for children and families that serve over 700 people each year.

Chick said that they see children struggling in their education as early as third and fourth grade due to unstable living environments. And because of these struggles, they weren’t yet ready to sit in class and learn.

“Kids who go to school hungry and wondering where their next meal is going to come from, aren’t going to be able to learn,” Chick said.

The council voted twice, first to approve the action plan and second to commit to the recommendations suggested by the plan. The council approved both by a vote of 5-1.

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