Volunteers and service agencies will go to where the homeless are in Bellingham and other parts of Whatcom County during the last week of January to conduct an annual count of those in need.
Known as the Point-in-Time count, the survey is part of a nationwide and statewide effort that is required each year to get state and federal funding for homeless services. It is led by the Whatcom County Health Department.
Weeks out from the count, which will occur primarily on Jan. 28, organizers said it’s hard to say whether the 2016 census will show an increase.
But the count will occur against a backdrop of increases in homelessness overall, as shown by the last survey, and Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville asking Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a statewide emergency around homelessness.
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“This is a crisis faced by communities throughout the West Coast, and we are asking that Washington join Hawaii in declaring this a statewide emergency,” Linville wrote in her Jan. 5 letter, referring to the situation as a “humanitarian crisis.”
Seattle and King County leaders in November declared a homelessness state of emergency, joining Portland and Los Angeles in doing so.
There are at least 651 people homeless in Whatcom County, according to the 2015 Point-in-Time count conducted in January. That’s a 17.7 percent increase from the previous year, when 553 homeless were counted.
It’s happening all over and it’s not a reason to stop investing in the solution.
Mike Parker, Whatcom Homeless Service Center, on the increase in homelessness
Because the annual count provides only a snapshot of the homeless in Whatcom County, those who help the needy often say the number of people without housing is actually higher.
The increase is happening in most counties in Washington, according to local homeless advocates.
“This phenomenon of seeing a rise in homelessness, especially among single people and people who are in an unsheltered state, is something that’s happening all over the state,” said Greg Winter, executive director of the Opportunity Council, which has the Whatcom Homeless Service Center as one of its programs.
“It’s happening all over and it’s not a reason to stop investing in the solution,” added Mike Parker, director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center.
Winter attributed the spike to a number of factors, including the lack of affordable housing, wage stagnation at the lower end of the income scale and an erosion in behavioral health services.
This year, about 50 volunteers doing the count will fan out to places like Bellingham Public Library, Northwest Youth Services, food banks and community meals, including the popular Tuesday meal offered by First Baptist Church on Flora Street.
Also participating will be Bellingham’s Homeless Outreach Team, which has spent the past year finding where people are camped out and building relationships with people living in encampments who, in the past, might have been reluctant to be counted.
“It takes a weight off some of the volunteers and some of the pressure on being at certain locations,” said Teal Coyote, a programs support specialist with the Whatcom Homeless Service Center who is organizing this year’s count.
And while local officials don’t know what this year’s count will show about the overall number of homeless, they said the summer 2015 opening of Francis Place Apartments on Cornwall Avenue likely helped tamp down any increase.
Developed by Catholic Housing Services, the 42-unit building is housing people who are homeless and low-income, including those with mental illness and addictions.
Read the report, volunteer
People who want to volunteer for the annual Point-in-Time count may email Teal Coyote at email@example.com.