Homelessness is on the rise; more and more members of our community do not have a safe place to sleep at night. Several recent articles published in The Bellingham Herald describe the significant increase in children, families and adults who are experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County, Washington state and beyond. The number of school-age children in Washington without stable housing increased by 9.1 percent this past year. Over 35,500 children (pre-school – 12th grade) in our state are homeless; 854 of those children are in Whatcom County. These numbers are alarming – and should spur us to do better by our youth. However, the full picture of youth homelessness isn’t captured by this data. The number of young people in their late teens and early twenties is also increasing.
Northwest Youth Services serves at-risk, runaway and homeless youth age 13-24 in Whatcom and Skagit counties. We collaborate with youth to foster self-reliance, and offer a variety of housing and support services to help youth become independent, successful adults. In 2015, NWYS was able to serve 1,050 young people, but there are still many more who need our help. Today, there are over 150 young adults 18-24 on our waiting list for housing. Many of these youth are sleeping on the street, in a car, on a friend or acquaintance’s couch, or at the Lighthouse Mission (which fills to capacity every night). Nearly every day this winter, the lobby of our office on North State Street has been filled to capacity with youth who are cold and hungry, looking for housing, help finding work, or simply a warm, dry place to sit, shower, or have a snack. Legally, these young people may be adults, but many are adolescents still developing and growing; emotionally, they are still just kids.
Teens, young adults are exposed to severe stress, violence and exploitation every single day.
In Bellingham, the vacancy rate for rental properties is around 1 percent, while the cost of rent continues to increase. It is extremely difficult for anyone to easily find an apartment or house to rent. For young adults who have little rental history, low-income jobs, or criminal records, it becomes nearly impossible, even with rental subsidies and ongoing support from an organization like Northwest Youth Services. Our single biggest need is to find more landlords and property managers willing to work with us to safely house young people.
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Living on the street or in unsafe, unstable housing threatens the health and well-being of these youth. They are exposed to severe stress, violence and exploitation every single day. The majority of the youth we work with have experienced severe trauma in their short lives. Many of them have been abused or neglected from a young age, and have passed through the foster care or juvenile justice system. Some come from families who were homeless; some are pregnant or have small children, and are struggling to provide for their new family. Many are struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. Around 20 percent to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning. Sadly, many of these young people have been rejected by their families and communities because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and end up homeless. As a result of dealing with such huge challenges so early in life, many homeless young people are incredibly resilient, but also struggle with mental health and behavioral issues.
We are lucky to live in a community that cares for one another by supporting Northwest Youth Services and other social service agencies. The youth who come to us often feel that they have been “thrown away” by society, and it’s our job to help them back up again and show them that they matter, they are loved and capable, and they are a valued part of our community.
With your support, we hope to grow our services and support all youth in need in our community, and reduce the number of young adults on our housing waiting list to zero. You can help by talking with your friends and neighbors about the need for more affordable, accessible housing in our community. Community housing and youth programs will not survive without the investment of our community supporters, who so generously donate their time, energy, and funds. Together, we can bring every young person in our community out of the cold and into a warm, safe, home.
Riannon Bardsley is executive director of Northwest Youth Services. For more information online, go to nwys.org.