Who is homeless in Whatcom County?
According to the homeless census, at a single point in time in late January 2016, a total of 719 persons were homeless in Whatcom County. Of the 497 homeless households counted, 73% of homeless persons were unaccompanied adults over the age of 18, 9% of households were in a family with only adults (which may include a family with a child 18 years or older), 14% belonged to a single parent family with children, and 4% were a part of a two parent family with children. It is a common misconception that homeless individuals are almost always single men. While many homeless people are single men, 18% of homeless individuals (equaling 263 persons) were a part of a family that included children under the age of 18. Furthermore, roughly half (49%) of all homeless individuals identified as female.
Why are they homeless? Do they choose to be homeless?
Most homeless people are not homeless by choice. Homelessness results from the interaction of complex and dynamic circumstances. In past years in Whatcom County, the most commonly cited reason for homelessness was “economic hardship”. According to the National Coalition to End Homelessness, the top five causes of homelessness nationally are 1) lack of affordable housing, 2) lack of a high enough living wage, 3) domestic violence, 4) medical bankruptcy, and 5) mental illness.
Do homeless people move to Whatcom County because they want to take advantage of the services we have available here?
Research has shown that homeless people move to various locations for many of the same reasons, and at similar rates, as non-homeless people. In most cities, approximately 60-80% of the homeless people there had their last permanent residence in that same city. That is, about two thirds of homeless people stay in the same city after becoming homeless there. For those who did not become homeless in the city they were currently residing in, commonly reported reasons for moving to their current city included having family or friends in the area or hopes of obtaining employment.
In Whatcom County over the last seven years, the percentage of homeless people who had their last permanent residence here ranged from between 68% and 77%. This percentage also fails to capture the many residents whose last permanent place of residence was not in Whatcom County, but whom had previously lived in the area. Nor does it capture the people who became homeless elsewhere, but have been living unsheltered in Whatcom County for a very long time, in some cases, decades.
Why is homelessness still so prevalent here even after investing significant public and private funds in providing services?
Homelessness in Whatcom County has been dramatically reduced through the use of housing and associated support services. Rates of homelessness in Whatcom County have been reduced by 16% from 2008 (851 homeless persons counted) to 2016 (719 homeless persons). After implementing two new veteran programs in 2010 and 2011, the rate of homelessness among veterans in Whatcom County has been reduced by approximately 29%. Since 2008, the rate of homelessness for families with children has been reduced by 12%.
Despite these reductions in homelessness, we are observing increased rates of homelessness among certain groups of people. The largest of these groups are unaccompanied, single males. There is very limited funding for, and hence few housing programs for this group of people, so it is difficult to get traction on that group of homeless people. We have also greatly increased the effort devoted to locating homeless youth, so the 2013 annual homeless census counted more young people (under age 25) than in previous years.
Why can’t low-income and homeless housing be built in less populated areas where it won’t impact local business downtown?
The homeless “re-housing” services offered in Whatcom County are largely based on helping people obtain private market rental apartments throughout the County, from Point Roberts to Maple Falls; from Blaine to Bellingham. However, just as with the rest of the population, people who are homeless need to be housed close to jobs, services, and be integrated in the community so they can recover and thrive.