If you completed your ballot as soon as you received it in the mail, then bravo! But, if you're like the majority of Washington voters, then your ballot remains unopened in its envelope.
So next Tuesday, you may be one of thousands in Whatcom County conducting their last-minute voting research, or looking for a black pen, or handing in your ballot at the nearest drop box right before the deadline.
As you fill out this year's primary ballot, I urge you to prioritize proactive candidates at the forefront of addressing the state's worsening shortage of affordable homes and increasing homelessness.
The Department of Commerce recently released updated homelessness numbers for the state. The results are shocking. A January point-in-time count of individuals living without a home found 6,289 people on the street unsheltered, a 25 percent increase from last year. Here in Whatcom County, where we have had mixed success addressing homelessness, 198 people had no place, even a temporary place, to call home.
Adult populations aren't the only ones bearing the brunt of surviving without a stable home. The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction revealed that 30,609 students were counted as homeless in the 2012-13 school year. In the Bellingham School District alone, 421 students called a hotel room or family shelter home or were doing their homework under a car dome light. Bellingham's no exception: Ferndale (96), Lynden (52), Blaine (42), Nooksack (40), Mount Baker (29), Meridian (25). In fact 18 percent of our county's homeless population are children under 10 years old.
Thankfully, Bellingham residents recognize that a vibrant community invests in affordable homes. We are one of only two cities in Washington state with the proud distinction of having a low-income housing levy. In its first year, these funds were used to repair housing for seniors and struggling families, so they could have a home and continue to afford other basic needs. This first round is also building new homes for people who are homeless, veterans and farmworker families.
In a shining example of local and state governments working together for innovative solutions, Bellingham levy funds are combined with Washington state Housing Trust Fund dollars to build diverse types of homes for vulnerable communities.
But the State Housing Trust Fund can only be effective if the political will exists to fund it. During this past legislative session, the Senate failed to pass a capital budget, which meant no new resources for the Housing Trust Fund. Without this valuable state resource, affordable homes in Whatcom County and all over the state remain unbuilt.
The state has another tool to fight homelessness: document recording fees. Washington State uses modest recording fees on some real estate documents as a significant source of funds for homelessness programs. These state and local programs help move people off the streets, into shelters and homes. While the Housing Trust Fund builds affordable homes to help bridge our housing crisis, these document recording fees are the state's most significant funding source for homelessness services.
However, we almost lost this funding source. Petty personal squabbles and political vendettas nearly resulted in a 63 percent loss of funding for innovative homelessness programs. Had advocates across the state not exerted pressure on the legislature to save these fees, the City Gate re-entry housing program could have closed. A 2011 study showed this program directly reduced crime in our community.
All levels of government need to work together to create and support inventive services that can decrease homelessness in our communities. From the Housing Trust Fund to document recording fees to our own city housing levy, we need elected officials who see the value of supporting programs that lead to families in a home, off the streets, in thriving communities.
When you sit down to fill out your ballot, I urge you to be a housing voter! Please vote for candidates with a proven track record or a stated platform for supporting affordable homes and solutions to homelessness. We are proud of the steps our community has taken to reduce homelessness. Now it's time to be proud of elected officials that are committed to our shared values.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Winter is the chairman of the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness.