Bellingham's invisible housing crisis: homeless children

City officials seek solutions to growing problem
March 20, 2023 at 6:27 p.m.
Vehicles occupied by unhoused people line Bellingham's Cornwall Avenue in October 2022. The number of homeless families with children in Whatcom County has increased dramatically since 2019.
Vehicles occupied by unhoused people line Bellingham's Cornwall Avenue in October 2022. The number of homeless families with children in Whatcom County has increased dramatically since 2019. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

A homelessness crisis has emerged in Whatcom County that most people don’t see.

If there was a bright spot in rising homelessness numbers over the past decade, it was the successful effort by local governments and agencies to reduce homelessness among children.

The county’s overall homeless population shot up 69% from 2012 to 2022, according to the latest Point-in-Time count. Meanwhile, the number of homeless families with children declined 37% from 2008 to 2020, according to the 2020 count

Since then, however, the number of homeless households with children has grown well beyond the carrying capacity of the county’s support systems.

The number of families with children experiencing homelessness more than doubled between February 2020 and February 2021, from 49 to 113, according to a November 2021 consultant’s report provided by the City of Bellingham.

The Opportunity Council in Bellingham saw the number of applications for housing from households with children increase 71% from 2018 to 2022. The increase tracked with the number of applicants fleeing domestic violence — up 85% over the same four-year period, according to city data.

These startling trends have elevated families to the top of the city’s priority list in its Consolidated Plan — a report on how the city will spend roughly $9 million a year over the next four years on housing support.

The Bellingham City Council will review the plan over the next two months and is scheduled to approve it in May.

Kate Bartholomew, a development specialist with Planning and Community Development in City Hall, said the new wave of family homelessness in Bellingham defies some people’s stereotypes of what houseless people look like.

“As soon as I say ‘homeless,’ I've noticed people have a very specific idea in their mind of who I'm talking about,” Bartholomew said. “But really what we're seeing more and more … it's really because housing is so expensive, rent has gone up, they just don't have enough money to weather any kind of unexpected financial event, like a car breaking down, like a pet getting sick, like going to the hospital for a few days.”

Families don't meet the public stereotype of homelessness because they're mostly invisible, officials said — often in hotels, or living with friends or family. Sometimes, adults leave their child with another family member and enter a shelter.

Even with the uptick in homelessness that correlates with domestic violence, city planners cited rapidly rising rents as the primary cause for increased housing insecurity among children. Rents in Bellingham have increased 41% over the past five years, according to a summary report on the Consolidated Plan

The short-term solution has been hotel stays for homeless families, funded by local governments.  But hotel rooms are far from ideal. They are cramped and offer little to no privacy for family members, planning officials say. Additionally, a shortage of more permanent housing is leading to longer hotel stays for families — a few months, on average, instead of a few weeks.

“What we've heard is that experience is creating more trauma … for those families,” said Tara Sundin, the city’s community and economic development manager. “So our priority is housing.”

The city recently convinced its nonprofit housing partners to increase the proportion of homeless families they place in their developments from 10% to 20%. Also, county Health and Community Services agreed to fund a case manager for these families, Sundin said.

“That’s one example of how we’re trying to move the needle,” she said.

Council later this spring will decide in more detail how much of a priority homeless families should be. The public can fill out a survey on the Consolidated Plan online through March 31.

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