Annual count shows Whatcom County homelessness dropped 14%. Here’s what helped

Whatcom County’s Point-In-Time Count tracks homelessness

The Opportunity Council and the Whatcom County Health Department released the 2019 Point-In-Time Count – an annual census that tracks the number of people who are homeless in Whatcom County.
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The Opportunity Council and the Whatcom County Health Department released the 2019 Point-In-Time Count – an annual census that tracks the number of people who are homeless in Whatcom County.

The opening of a 40-apartment building in Bellingham and expanded services helped lead to a 14% drop in the number of people who were homeless in Whatcom County in the past year, according to the county Health Department.

The number of homeless declined from 815 last year to 700 this year, according to the recently released report for the 2019 Point-In-Time Count, an annual census of homeless people that was conducted Jan. 24.

That’s the biggest drop since 2012, when the number of homeless in the county declined by 29.5% to 493.

The count is conducted throughout the U.S. in the last week of January. Advocates have said the count is a one-day snapshot and the actual number of homeless is higher.

Statewide, there was a 3.1% decline of those who were homeless — dropping by 683 to 21,621 people, according to a release from the Washington State Department of Commerce.

Still, a little more than half of the state’s counties reported an increase in the number of people who were homeless.

Reasons for the drop

The double-digit drop in Whatcom County was unexpected, according to Mike Parker, director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center.

He said advocates thought there might be a moderate decrease at the most or none at all, given the crush of demand for emergency shelter space during last winter’s dangerously cold weather.

“I think we were a little surprised,” Parker told The Bellingham Herald.

Here are some reasons for the decline, according to a Whatcom County Health Department release about the count and Parker:

The opening of 22 North in late October, which housed 40 homeless youths and adults in a five-story building at 1022 N. State St. in Bellingham.

Expanded services that helped 2,281 people find temporary or permanent housing, or get financial help to prevent them from becoming homeless. That help was provided by nonprofit agencies working with the Whatcom Homeless Service Center.

More people getting work because of a better economy.

People leaving Whatcom County this winter when frigid temperatures made being here difficult.

The survey has limitations. It’s a snapshot of homelessness and it’s voluntary. Finding all the tents, sheds and cars where the homeless may be is difficult.

Key findings

As for the report about the 2019 count of the homeless, here are its key findings:

The 700 people who were counted this year were part of 514 homeless households. A household is made up of one or more individuals.

A total of 72 households were families with children, making up 207 individuals.

Of the 700, 294 people were unsheltered, meaning they were living in camps, vehicles and other places not meant for human habitation.

A total of 406 people were sheltered, meaning they were in emergency shelters or transitional housing.

The two biggest reasons for homelessness were eviction/loss of housing, at 43%, and job loss/unemployment, at 31%. Mental illness was third at 27%.

The count showed “how much of homelessness is actually poverty, is bad distribution of resources,” Parker said of the top factors.

51 people who were homeless were veterans.

119 people were 55 years or older. That’s 17% of those who were homeless and was a troubling trend.

That showed “the disparate impact of rising rents on seniors in our community,” the report stated.

47% of the homeless were women.

37 was the median age of homeless individuals.

There were higher rates of homelessness among people of color, people with disabilities, those who have been institutionalized and LGBTQ people.

For example, Native Americans are about 3.1% of Whatcom County’s population but were 12% of those who were homeless.

“If you want to talk about a disparate impact, there it is,” Parker said.

64% said their last stable housing was in Whatcom County.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.