Health - Public Health News

Posted on: June 12, 2023

Whatcom County Sees Significant Rise in Homelessness, Mirroring State Trend

The annual Point in Time (PIT) Count of people experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County recorded the highest one-night count since the survey began in 2008. According to the 2023 Point in Time Count Report, released today, there was a roughly 27% increase in people counted, from 832 people counted in 2022 to 1,059 counted in 2023. 

“People are becoming homeless faster than we can get them back into housing. We’re working hard to prevent and resolve homelessness for many households, but these growing numbers show the gap between what we’re able to do and where we need to be in terms of services and affordable units,” said Chris D’Onofrio, housing program supervisor at Whatcom County Health and Community Services. 

Whatcom County funds a variety of support programs with partner agencies for people who are at risk of becoming homeless or who are unhoused. Those programs support the strategies of the county’s Strategic Plan to End Homelessness and include rapid rehousing (temporary rent support and supportive services) to help people exit homelessness, emergency and severe winter shelter, eviction prevention, landlord/tenant mediation, rental assistance, transitional housing for people exiting institutions, permanent supportive housing for people with mental health disabilities, and housing case management to help people achieve lasting stability. 

Some support program examples in 2022 include:

  • $700,000 to community partners that operated seven specialty year-round shelters for up to 67 households to serve unaccompanied minors, survivors of domestic violence, seniors, families with young children, and adults with mental illness. 
  • $1.5 million to permanent supportive housing and community leasing programs. These programs provide housing and supportive services to over 250 people per year.
  • Between 50 and 60 emergency motel stays per month for families with children who would otherwise be unsheltered.
  • Severe weather shelters that hosted up to 82 individuals on the coldest nights of the past winter.

Data shows that homelessness disproportionately affects people who are also experiencing at least one other challenge or hardship, like a medical condition, disability, substance use disorder, or being part of a group that faces historical and ongoing discrimination. As an example, since 2019 the Whatcom County data has shown a 141% increase in people over 60 experiencing homelessness (68 in 2019 to 164 in 2023). Seniors are also more likely to live on fixed incomes that limit their housing options, combined with chronic health conditions and associated medical bills. 

Notable findings from the 2023 Point in Time Count include:

Changes from 2022 to 2023:

  • 27% increase in individual homeless persons counted - from 832 homeless persons last year to 1,059 this year. 
  • 61% of all surveyed persons spent the night of the PIT count in a shelter. 
    • Of that 61% who were sheltered, 84% were in emergency shelters like Basecamp or other specialized shelters. 
    • The number of people using emergency shelters or transitional housing increased from 650 to 711 (9%). These 711 individuals make up 61% of all people surveyed.
  • 39% of all surveyed persons were unsheltered; of those, three out of four (74%) slept outside, in a tent or doorway, vehicle, or similar location. 
  • The number of unsheltered people grew from 182 last year to 348 this year, an increase of 166 people, or 91%. This includes people sleeping in vehicles, tents, doorways, and similar locations. 

How specific groups are impacted:

  • Seniors: 
    • Since 2019, the number of seniors (60+) experiencing homelessness has increased by 141% (68 in 2019 to 164 in 2023). 
    • Seniors accounted for 15% of all people counted and 20% of single-person households. 
    • The oldest person counted was 89 years old.
  • Families with children:
    • Whatcom County’s data also show persistently elevated rates of homeless families with children. Over the last three years (2021-2023), the number of homeless families counted has averaged 88 households. In the previous three years (2018-2020) the average was 68. 
    • Persons under the age of 18 accounted for 15% of all persons identified in 2023. The youngest person counted was an infant less than a year old. 
  • Disparities by race and ethnicity:
    • 14% of people surveyed identified as Hispanic, while only 10% of county residents identify as Hispanic, according to census data. People identifying as Black, African American, or African accounted for 4% of people counted as experiencing homelessness, but only 1% of the county’s population according to census data. 
    • 10% of people surveyed identified as Native American/Alaska Native, while people who identify as Native American/Alaska Native represent only about 3% of the total Whatcom County population. 
  • Illness and disability:
    • Two-thirds of the people surveyed reported having one or more additional challenges: mental illness, chronic substance use, chronic illness, or a physical or developmental disability. This likely represents an undercount of co-occurring illnesses because this data is self-reported and people may choose not to share these challenges with surveyors. 
  • Veterans:
    • 60 veteran households were counted this year, of which 57 were households made up of only one person.

Data from previous years has shown the presence of unsheltered homelessness despite shelter availability, and that continues to be the case this year. The relationship between shelter capacity and the number of people who are unsheltered is complicated, and it is difficult to meet the needs and preferences of the diverse population of people experiencing homelessness. 

Shelter capacity and utilization increased slightly from last year, but failed to keep pace with the increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness. This likely contributed to the significant growth in the number of unsheltered individuals.

Despite the best efforts of many volunteers and nonprofit partners during this year’s Point in Time Count, we know these numbers are an undercount. It is difficult to find and count every unsheltered person. The survey is only a snapshot taken on a single night and doesn’t include people who cycle in and out of homelessness who may have been housed on the night of the PIT Count. Participation is voluntary, and some people chose not to participate in the survey.

The full 2023 Whatcom County Point in Time Count Report provides additional information on the PIT count, read the full report online.

For those at risk of homelessness, resources are available to help. Households who have fallen behind on rent payments should visit the Opportunity Council Rental Assistance webpage at or call 360-746-3826. People experiencing homelessness should contact the Community Resource Center by calling 360-734-5121 or visiting 1111 Cornwall Avenue in Bellingham for services.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that the nationwide Point in Time Count occurs on a specific night every year in every community across the United States. The 2023 PIT Count was conducted on Thursday, January 26. In Whatcom County, this effort is the result of coordination between housing service providers, outreach specialists, non-profit organizations, community volunteers, and administrative staff.

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