By Greg Winter, Chair, Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness
What did we learn from our latest homeless census?
The dreary business of counting people who are homeless in Whatcom County is over for one more year. It’s a complex, depressing, invasive, and messy exercise. And each year we finally deliver a tidy report replete with charts and tables – graphic displays of our best guesses to quantify a terrible injustice and the lessons we think we have learned.
Buried on page 23 of this year’s Point-in-Time Homeless Count report are our best estimates about how many of the same people we encounter during the homeless census over multiple years. It’s not the complete picture; it’s an undercount as is the entire report, but it’s useful information. It tells us that we keep encountering some of the same people over and over each year. The lesson from this is clear: as a community, as a state, as the richest nation on Earth, we need to get our priorities straight.
One person we did not encounter in this year’s census was a fellow named Fredrick Charlie. We counted him each year since anyone’s been counting. Freddie, as he was known to so many on the streets, was homeless for the better part of 16 years here. A proud native American, originally from the Sea Bird band in British Columbia, he proudly carried an American Flag or wore a flag-like bandana around his head. He always had a wide smile and a polite word for those who passed by him on the streets. He didn’t deny the difficulties he had with alcohol, and worked at overcoming them several times over the years.
Photo by Fredrick Dent
Freddie was truly unique, but like many other people who have lived on our streets, he needed a whole lot of outreach before he would get what he really wanted: a home. Fortunately for Freddie, the outreach volunteer who persistently worked with him over the course of 10 years shared that vision and wouldn’t let it go. On December 23rd of last year he moved into his new studio apartment at City Gate. Many of us ecstatically celebrated Freddie’s accomplishment.
Then, tragically, on March 24th, Freddie died after suddenly being diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. He was able to enjoy his sobriety in the comfort of his own apartment for the last few months of his life. But he came terribly close to an indignity suffered by far too many of our fellow citizens: dying on the street without hope.
Freddie avoided that tragic ending and in doing so, he left this community with a valuable lesson: we need a more robust street outreach team to build on the successes we have seen from the outreach that is already occurring through Catholic Community Services’ Hope House volunteers, Northwest Youth Services, Sea Mar, Salt on the Street, and others. The path from the streets to housing is rarely a straight line. It starts with a long, steady stretch of building relationships and trust. It takes about 75 personal contacts to make a real difference.
Sure, we desperately need more affordable and supportive housing. And we need to hold our elected leaders at all levels of government accountable for this shortage. But we also need to recognize that outreach is a necessary condition for any new housing to be successful.
It’s, literally, a matter of life and death.