If we subscribe to the mantra that the mark of a civilized society is how we take care of our most vulnerable members, we are not doing well. As of January 2014, we counted 553 homeless people in Whatcom County at a single point in time: hundreds more will experience homelessness throughout the year and, tragically, 18 percent are children younger than 10 years old. On average, people who are chronically homeless will never reach age 50. Our homeless are some of the most vulnerable members in our community: victims of domestic violence, children and youth, the poor, the chemically addicted and the seriously mentally ill. The path to homelessness begins long before adulthood: one study found that 84 percent of homeless Americans screen positive for childhood physical and/or sexual abuse before the age of 18.
There is a simple cure for homelessness: housing. Housing ends homelessness and case management helps keep people housed. The ongoing challenge is that Bellingham currently has a low housing vacancy rate and rapidly escalating rent, particularly for vulnerable populations like homeless youth, people suffering with mental illness and families with young children who may need specialized supportive housing.
For adults with the most complex issues, the ideal housing scenario is permanent supportive housing, such as Catholic Housing Service's forthcoming Cornwall Apartments with 42 units of housing, slated for occupancy in early 2015, and Greggie's House, a Sun Community project that will add six more units of permanent supportive housing in 2014. The Whatcom Homeless Service Center is working with more than 100 people who could fill those beds immediately. We need these additional units, and from our perspective, we can't build them fast enough.
Intrinsically, providing housing for the homeless is simply the right thing to do. What most people don't know is that it is also the economical thing to do. When it comes to housing the homeless, a relatively small investment offers a tremendous return. A study in Seattle published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that case managing and housing a chronically homeless person who is a high utilizer of the health care system offset the costs to the criminal justice system, the health care system and the behavioral health care system by $2,500 dollars per person per month.
Armed with this evidence, Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement has partnered with the Whatcom Homeless Service Center, Catholic Community Services, the Whatcom County Health Department and the Whatcom County Jail to coordinate an intensive case management team for people in our community who experience homelessness and/or cycle in and out of the jail system. The goal is to provide team-based case management that breaks down organizational siloes and provides integrated case management that meets all of the health and social needs of the individual. Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement's intensive case management system is a resource for the entire community, and weaves together the good work of so many local organizations to provide the best possible care, while also reducing costs and helping people heal. The program is funded by the Chuckanut Health Foundation, PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, the Cambia Health Foundation and the City of Bellingham.
Stable housing is the foundation upon which people build and improve their lives. It is the foundation for good health, positive educational outcomes and reaching one's economic potential. Conversely, to be without stable and safe housing means that one has no center, no sanctuary and no sense of place, privacy, belonging, rootedness or community.
Next time you see a homeless person in the downtown area acting in a way that you disapprove of, please take a moment to reflect. Was this person abused and cast off by his or her parents as a child? Did he fight overseas, putting his life at risk to protect our freedoms, only to return home to scorn, followed by a life of addiction and depression? Is it a runaway, a youth who prefers life on the street to the nightmares at home? Whoever they are, they are part of our community and are our most vulnerable. We are connected to them, sharing the same fabric of Whatcom County.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Regina Delahunt is the director of the Whatcom County Health Department and Elya Moore is deputy director of Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement.