Change is in the air when it comes to housing and medical support for needy people in Whatcom County, but donations to Extend-a-Hand will continue to help local residents who are unable to cover their basic shelter and prescription expenses.
Extend-a-Hand is The Bellingham Herald's charity that helps county residents find and keep rental housing, and helps patients who need prescriptions at Interfaith Community Health Center.
The housing programs are run by the Opportunity Council, a nonprofit community agency.
Last holiday season, people donated about $45,000 to Extend-a-Hand. The Herald covers administrative costs, so the donations directly support needy people.
At the Opportunity Council, Extend-a-Hand supports an eviction prevention program that typically provides a month's rent to people having a hard time covering their rent but who, after review by case managers, are judged good bets to keep their housing long term.
Donations also support a program that helps people with deposits or first-month rent so they can rent a place of their own.
With many people still looking for work, or working fewer hours than before, housing remains precarious for many residents, said Jessica Brown, homeless housing programs manager at the Opportunity Council.
During 2011, Extend-a-Hand helped 56 households move into rental housing or avoid eviction, and provided 17 households with other emergency housing help, such as motel vouchers.
"It's an important funding source for our system," Brown said. "There's still a high need."
On Election Day, Bellingham voters approved a property tax levy that will raise nearly $21 million over seven years for low-income housing. Most of the money, nearly $16 million, will be used to preserve or produce rental housing.
Nearly $1.9 million will fund "support services" such as job and drug counseling, and bolster rental assistance and eviction prevention programs.
While the levy will support some of the types of programs supported by Extend-a-Hand, the levy will only help people inside Bellingham, not residents elsewhere in the county, and levy money for the programs won't become available until at least mid-2013.
Beyond that, the levy isn't designed to duplicate existing programs; it's designed to help address unmet needs of the estimated 7,400 low-income households in the city that spend more than half of their income on housing, said David Stalheim, block grant manager for Bellingham's Planning and Community Development Department.
"There's so much need out there," he said. "It's not going to fill it all."
At Interfaith Community Health Center, Extend-a-Hand pays for prescriptions when patients lack insurance, have insurance that doesn't cover medications, or can't get prescriptions through other programs. During the center's last fiscal year, Extend-a-Hand helped 157 patients.
The federal health-care reform law signed by President Obama will help millions of people obtain prescription coverage when they become new Medicaid enrollees or obtain coverage through a health insurance exchange. But those changes don't begin until 2014, and it's unclear just when people can enroll and start receiving prescription benefits, said Gib Clarke, Interfaith's director of planning and development.
In the meantime, the health center has seen a 30 percent jump in patients the past three years and a 50 percent increase in patients lacking insurance, he said. Until 2014, some county residents will continue to face the challenge of obtaining the prescriptions they need with little or no money or insurance.
"We're not expecting to see any major changes," Clarke said.
Tax-deductible donations can be mailed or taken to: Extend-a-Hand, c/o Opportunity Council, 1111 Cornwall Ave., Bellingham, WA 98225. Credit card donations are accepted. Details: Sheri Emerson, 360-734-5121, ext. 301.
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