People recovering from addiction may get help with rent in new Whatcom program

Whatcom County Courthouse in Bellingham.
Whatcom County Courthouse in Bellingham. eabell@bhamherald.com

People recovering from addiction will soon get help from a new program aimed at securing them a safe place to live.

The program — a partnership between Whatcom County’s health department, therapeutic courts and the Opportunity Council — will provide temporary rental assistance to people coming out of treatment. It is expected to further help those with criminal charges and substance use problems, said Jackie Mitchell, Whatcom County’s behavioral health program specialist.

“Our biggest hope is people with addictions coming out of treatment will be able to get a little more distance from their addiction and become a little more rooted in their recovery,” Mitchell said. “We’re trying to get pointed services to people so they can get into and stay in long term recovery.”

About $66,000 has been provided by the state’s Criminal Justice Treatment account for this year, after the state legislature agreed to add housing to support services already provided.

The program is aimed at those within the therapeutic courts, as well as the GRACE (Ground-Level Response and Coordinated Engagement) program, which is a countywide effort that brings a number of agencies and social service providers together to help those who fall through the cracks and who have a number of needs.

The county operates three therapeutic courts — drug court, mental health court and family treatment court. Rental help is available for those outside of those programs on an as-needed basis, but the primary recipients will likely come from drug court, said Christine Furman, the county’s drug court coordinator.

The therapeutic courts will send in applications for clients to the Opportunity Council, which will then work directly with the landlords and administer the funds for those people who are accepted, Furman said.

Four people who are either in inpatient treatment or are getting ready to go likely will be the first to receive rental assistance, Furman said.

Mitchell, with the health department, said one of the most frequent gaps in the system they hear about is people who are coming out of inpatient treatment but don’t have stable housing, making their continued recovery difficult.

For some, 21 to 28 days isn’t long enough for them to become ready to live independently and maintain sobriety. By providing rental assistance, people can focus more on recovery than worrying about housing, Mitchell said.

“You can’t provide services or treat somebody in a program like that unless they’re stable and they don’t have to worry about where they’re going to live,” Mitchell said. “It gives you a longer period of time to recover and you’re not spending all your time coping with temptations or worrying about what comes next.”

Furman said between 80 and 90 percent of the clients served in drug court are homeless, or become homeless after being incarcerated. It’s hard to stay clean while living on the streets, and to keep up with the requirements of therapeutic programs, she said.

When clients come back from inpatient treatment, they’re required to build a sober support network, come to court, take drug tests, attend outpatient treatment, as well as learn how to organize their day to be responsible and accountable. That becomes harder if they don’t have stable housing, she said.

“It’s a whole life change. They’ve got to learn to do things completely differently than before,” Furman said.

Those receiving rental assistance will mostly be housed in clean and sober living facilities, which cost around $400 a month, Furman said. They expect to help around three people each month with rental assistance, and estimate they’ll provide the money for about four to six months, Furman said.

Furman and Mitchell said that even with Whatcom’s tight rental market, there are a number of clean and sober facilities that should be able to house the people coming out of treatment.

“It’s huge in terms of knowing that when they come out of incarceration or back from treatment that they can live someplace safe, that that’s not going to be on their shoulders,” Furman said. “Drug court will still push for accountability and taking responsibility for their lives, but we have more flexibility.

“The end result is we can help stabilize people. It’s not a long term solution, it’s stabilization,” she said.

Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.