Two nonprofits that help abused and homeless women are working together to provide more, and much needed, housing and shelter for them.
Lydia Place and Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County bought property in the Birchwood neighborhood and are renovating the three buildings on it to create housing in Bellingham.
Called Baker Place, the project will provide safe housing, case management and crisis counseling to women.
The two organizations bought the property in December for $750,000 with the help of the city of Bellingham and the low-income housing levy made possible by Bellingham voters, who approved a property tax increase in November 2012 to help the needy and the homeless get into affordable housing.
Private donors and foundations also contributed money.
Lydia Place is renovating a two-story building to provide seven apartments and intensive support for homeless women. DVSAS is remodeling two houses on the property to provide 14 beds for women escaping domestic violence and sexual assault.
Baker Place is needed, supporters said.
There are at least 651 people homeless in Whatcom County, according to the 2015 Point-in-Time count, the most recent data available. Of the total, 51 percent were female.
Because the annual count provides only a snapshot of the homeless in Whatcom County, those who help the needy often say the number of people without housing is actually higher.
Getting into housing is difficult in a county where rock-bottom vacancy rates are leading to sky-high rents in the private market.
Whatcom County’s apartment rental vacancy rate was 0.2 percent overall, according to an apartment survey done in the fall of 2015 by the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington.
Compound that with challenges that come from a woman being medically fragile or having lived on the streets for years, and the availability of housing tightens even more.
“We are having an incredibly hard time getting some of our folks who are homeless into housing because of the barriers they have,” said Emily O’Connor, executive director of Lydia Place.
“It makes housing units available to seven people who, otherwise, there’s nowhere for them to go because they’re not going to qualify for a private-market apartment,” O’Connor added of the project.
DVSAS now has an emergency shelter with 21 beds for women fleeing domestic violence and sexual assault, but that hasn’t been enough.
“We are full and over capacity all the time. We just didn’t want to say no any more,” said Karen Burke, executive director for DVSAS.
Last year, DVSAS spent quite a bit of money putting women into hotels for short stays to keep them safe, Burke said. Adding 14 more beds will help so women don’t have to choose between their safety and having a home.
Burke said that as many as 92 percent of women who are homeless have experienced severe physical or sexual abuse.
“It’s a huge cause of homelessness,” Burke said of violence against women.
The two organizations already worked together prior to the shared project. They will continue to do so at Baker Place.
Lydia Place employees will provide housing case management to women using the new shelter, and DVSAS also will provide crisis counseling and group support to the women at Baker Place — as they move from crisis to stability.
“We’re kind of that first step into safety,” Burke said.
“We do the housing,” O’Connor said, “they do the domestic violence support.”
Both organizations also are raising money for the buildings’ renovations.
The Lydia Place renovations will cost $100,000 to $135,000, according to a rough estimate. Leasing for its apartments could begin in March.
Remodeling the DVSAS houses on the property will cost an estimated $230,000, and shelter could be provided starting this summer.
Lydia Place and Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County are both raising money to help pay for renovations to buildings on their Baker Place project.
To donate to DVSAS, go to its website at dvsas.org/ and click on “donate today.”