Bellingham council shifts money into homeless services, street team

A new street outreach team will go to where the homeless are, starting in January, as part of a more intensive effort to reduce the number of homeless people in Bellingham.

Called the Homeless Outreach Team, it’s being made possible because the City Council voted Monday, Nov. 10, to dedicate up to $1.25 million to the effort, which will include additional housing vouchers. The council did so unanimously, with Councilman Terry Bornemann absent.

The money will come from the levy Bellingham voters approved in 2012 to raise nearly $21 million over seven years to help provide for low-income housing. Levy dollars are used to build and preserve homes as well as for rental assistance and supportive services.

To provide money for the new effort, the City Council agreed to shift dollars from building and preservation — $250,000 a year over the next five years to provide for the new services.

That concerned council member Michael Lilliquist, despite assurances that the levy was exceeding its goals on all fronts and that, even with the diversion, more than $8.5 million still would be available for the production of rental housing for the remainder of the levy’s life.

“I don’t particularly like this shift because I think that production is actually the long-term solution,” Lilliquist said. “I’m worried that we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul and I still want to support Peter.”

But, in the end, he decided to support the effort.

Council member Pinky Vargas said the new approach would help address concerns about where people living in the Aloha Motel would go as the city moves forward with condemnation procedures because the Samish Way motel has been a center of crime and drug activity.

“This is actually a segue to kind of help everyone be relocated until we have housing for them. It is supporting the housing-first model, which we know works, and we need to make that a priority,” Vargas said. “It does not mean that we won’t be building affordable housing. It just means that we are helping those that will be displaced or have no home currently get into housing as soon as possible.”

Prior to the vote, Mayor Kelli Linville urged the council to approve the funding request., noting it would provide hope sooner rather than later.

“Not for in three years when we can build something, but for today,” Linville said. “This gives me a tool as somebody who has to deal with this problem every day to help people now. It’s going to make a big difference.”

There are an estimated 200 people who are homeless on any given day in Bellingham. They live on the streets, under bridges and in vehicles. Or they camp in Bellingham neighborhoods, according to a memo to the City Council. Some of them are the heaviest users of costly public services, the council was told.

“It’s a stubbornly persistent level of unsheltered homelessness that we’ve had with us for quite some time,” Greg Winter, director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center at the Opportunity Council, told the council’s Community and Economic Development Committee on Monday afternoon, prior to the full City Council’s vote that night.

Those who help provide housing and services for the homeless said the new street team and additional housing vouchers would do more than help the homeless. Taxpayer dollars would be saved by keeping the homeless out of jails and emergency rooms, and trash and waste also would be kept out of the environment.

The idea behind the Homeless Outreach Team is to have professionals out on the street with expertise in mental health and chemical dependency issues. They would work with police and emergency medical services.

The new approach will cost a little over $434,000 a year. Of that total, nearly $165,000 would be spent for the outreach team and nearly $270,000 for new housing vouchers and services.

The city will be paying the lion’s share of the cost, but other sources will round out the budget. That includes federal HOME Investment Partnership funds and $127,381 a year from the Whatcom County Health Department and other local organizations.

The hope is that the vouchers will help provide stable housing for at least 30 chronically homeless people and 100 families. They will be housed in private, for-profit rental units in the city.