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Health - Public Health News

Posted on: March 9, 2023

An Update on Our Housing and Homelessness Programs

Earlier this week we provided the Whatcom County Council with an update on our housing and shelter programs. We also want to provide you, our community, with this information. Our department supports a broad range of programs that help people who are unhoused and also help people stay in homes so they don’t become homeless.

In most cases, we don’t provide these services directly. Instead, we provide financial support and direct grant money to local nonprofits who do this important work. Currently, we manage over 30 different contracts with 17 different funding types. This includes overnight shelter, day shelter, severe winter shelters, rent subsidies for low-income households, supportive services, and mediation services between renters and landlords. Here’s an update on what these programs have been doing:

Homelessness and Housing: Evidence-based housing strategies

Eviction Prevention

On the eviction prevention side of the spectrum, our community has used about $38 million in federal funding to help keep people in their existing housing. Rental assistance for qualifying low-income families has helped pay past due and current monthly rent to owners and property managers. Another program we have supported is the Eviction Resolution Pilot Program. It brings together both landlords and tenants in mediation to settle past due rent debts through things like payment plans and debt forgiveness. These were cases where landlords were preparing to evict tenants and the pilot resolved 96% of cases when tenants engaged in these services - that’s more than 700 households who were NOT evicted. It means the landlord and the tenant came to an agreement so the tenant didn’t end up with an eviction on their record. Funding from Whatcom County Health and Community Services enabled the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center to expand their capacity and resolve more cases.

The availability of federal eviction prevention funds has been an important resource to resolve many of the challenges related to tenancy. We have worked closely with the key partners who deliver these services over the last few years to integrate them into the bigger housing and homelessness prevention system, and are now preparing to scale back the system without these Federal funds.  

For people without homes

We have also spent (or committed) approximately $6 million in Federal CARES and ARPA funds to support multiple emergency sheltering and re-housing programs. Because we know the need is greater than our capacity for services, we have had to prioritize our most vulnerable, especially families with children.

We are currently renting about 60 motel rooms for families with children who would otherwise be sleeping in cars or in tents, but it still does not meet the need of all our homeless families. We know motels are not the best solution to family homelessness; this speaks loudly to our need for a network of facilities that can provide permanent housing solutions.

We also know our unhoused neighbors are made up of people from all age groups, not just families with children. In 2022 we received more than 1,000 applications for permanent housing. These are all applicants that have been pre-screened to be sure they meet the strictest definition of homelessness – nearly all of these households are either in emergency shelters or living outdoors somewhere in Whatcom County. Simply put, the gap between community need and available services is growing. The additional federal funds from CARES and ARPA increased our capacity for services, which has grown by about 27% over the last four years. However, that expansion has not been large enough to meet the growing demands, and the deficit of services has led to an increase in homelessness.

Ending Homelessness at the Household Level

When a household (single person or family unit) who was previously homeless enters housing, we provide rental assistance and supportive services, if needed. We know this is a vulnerable time when a formerly homeless person or family is trying to access employment, outside services, and moving towards greater stability. This helps stabilize them and reduce the likelihood that they will fall back into homelessness. This is either a short-term project lasting for only a few months, or in the case of people with significant disabilities, it may go on indefinitely. Regardless of how long it takes, we know this approach improves quality of life and is much more cost-effective by reducing usage of our hospital, EMS system, and interactions these people have with police and incarceration.

New severe weather contractor approach for winter 2022-2023

This winter we contracted with nonprofits in Bellingham and Ferndale to operate severe winter overnight shelters for the 2022-2023 winter season. Statistics for this winter are:

  • Bellingham Severe Winter Overnight Shelter operated by Road2Home was open 28 nights, averaging 51 guests each night.
  • Ferndale Severe Winter Shelter operated by Ferndale Community Services was open 31 nights, averaging 10 guests each night.

We also continue to have conversations with other departments and partners on issues related to wildfire smoke and extreme heat ahead of this coming summer. We are also undergoing a vulnerability assessment to understand who and where those most vulnerable to smoke and heat live, and what supports they require to mitigate their risk.

Wrap around and case management services

Many of the chronically homeless in our community are dealing with multiple and complex issues and need both housing and other supports. Comprehensive services can address things like housing, mental health, and substance use disorders at the same time. We know that for these people, addressing only one of these issues just doesn’t work. The wrap around services model addresses the multiple needs someone might have, not just housing. This is another program we contract with local partners to provide, and an area of increasing oversight and support

Fiscal Cliff

Federal funding allocated to Whatcom County Health and Community Services in the last two years through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act will expire or be fully spent by the end of this year. This means we will see reductions to our eviction prevention programs that have been funded through ARPA and CARES, and a scaling back of our hotel/motel room program for homeless families with children. We are in discussions with the State to help keep these programs going, but they will have lower capacity, meaning they will be able to help fewer people.

Housing and Homelessness: Anticipated 2023 Expenditures

What’s next: Addressing the full spectrum of housing needs

Despite all our efforts so far, we see homelessness worsening in Washington State, and we believe it is also worsening in Whatcom County. This doesn’t mean our efforts aren’t helping – we know our services have a positive impact on those who can access them. The challenge is that our services are growing more slowly than the demand, and those services are expected to decrease next year.

Everyone wants to know why more and more of our neighbors are without housing. Most experts in this field come to the same conclusion – lack of affordable housing is the primary driver of homelessness. We know that more than half of Whatcom County renters pay at least 30 percent of their income towards housing and have very little if any money left over at the end of the month to save for emergencies. If national surveys resemble local economic conditions, then around 20,000 adults in Whatcom County have less than $400 in a savings account. These neighbors’ precarious financial positions go largely unnoticed, but most are only one misfortune - like their car breaks down, they have unplanned medical bills, or unexpectedly miss several days of work – away from falling behind on rent or their mortgage.

Adding more affordable housing is a critical part of the solution. When people pay less than 30 percent of their income on their rent, they generally have money leftover at the end of the month to save for emergencies. We are working with partner organizations on funding for affordable housing development throughout Whatcom County. We know that we must work on long term solutions like this while also working to address immediate housing needs like emergency shelters.

Homelessness and Housing: Lack of affordable housing and increase in homelessness

Affordable housing and homelessness are challenges in most counties in our state and nation. We want to express our deep gratitude to the many partner agencies who are doing this hard but critical work with us. We also want to acknowledge you, our community members – Some of you are experiencing homelessness or have experienced it in the past. Some of you are working very hard and can barely afford to pay rent and meet basic needs. Some of you are business owners who have struggled to find housing for workers or had to call on service providers when unhoused people sleep around your business. We see you. We see all of you. We will continue to work alongside our community partners to support the full spectrum of housing options and build capacity at all levels to address this issue despite the very difficult housing environment seen at the local, state, and even federal level. We thank you all for your support.

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