Homeless and need help? Here’s where to look for it in Bellingham

An annual event to provide a wide array of free services to the needy comes at a time when the number of homeless in Whatcom County has soared by 10 percent in one year.

More than 500 people are expected to ask for help at the eighth annual Project Homeless Connect, which will run 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, July 22, at Bellingham High School, 2020 Cornwall Ave.

Free, confidential services that will be provided include dental care, medical exams, vision screening, women’s health care, housing assistance and information on veteran benefits.

Homelessness has been increasing in Whatcom County in recent years, after dipping to a low in 2012.

Now, some 719 people are without homes, according to the 2016 Whatcom County Annual Report on Homelessness.

That’s up from the 651 people who were homeless last year, which in itself was a nearly 18 percent increase over 2014.

Still, it’s down 16 percent overall when compared to the baseline year of 2008, when officials and agencies in the county launched the 10-year Plan to End Homelessness.

The numbers come from the 2016 census of homeless conducted in January, which is known as the Point-in-Time Count.

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.

The tight rental market also has made it difficult for people to find housing. The apartment vacancy rate this spring in Whatcom County was 0.8 percent.

The increases seen here are part of a trend that’s happening in most counties in Washington, local homeless advocates have said.

They’ve attributed the spike to a number of factors, including a better job of reaching homeless people living in camps, lack of affordable housing, wage stagnation and an erosion in behavioral health services.

The tight rental market also has made it difficult for people to find housing. The apartment vacancy rate this spring in Whatcom County was 0.8 percent, according to the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington.

“Throughout the year, hundreds more face the prospect of losing their homes due to economic reasons, family break up, mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, and domestic violence,” the 2016 report states of other issues faced by those who need housing. “People being released from psychiatric hospitalization and incarceration face challenging community re-entry issues.”

To help, the city of Bellingham also has been working to open a low-barrier shelter for up to 200 homeless clients 24 hours a day, every day.

Mike Parker, director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center, said the news isn’t all doom and gloom.

The center has so far helped connect 234 households, most of which are single people, with some sort of housing or rental assistance this year.

“There are people who are moving through the system who are highly vulnerable who are getting housed,” Parker said. “We need to scale that up.”

Even if housing can’t be provided to people the day of Project Homeless Connect, they could be linked to other services like healthcare or worker retraining that could help provide some stability to their lives.

Project Homeless Connect is a community-wide effort.

The idea also is to encourage people who aren’t in need to come face-to-face with those who are, as part of efforts to end homelessness.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for people to connect,” said Barbara Johnson-Vinna, housing specialist for the Whatcom County Health Department. “Community engagement is so important to support those efforts.”

Those needing services should arrive early, if possible, at Project Homeless Connect. They also are encouraged to bring identification, even if an ID isn’t required for most services.

Free meals and personal items also will be distributed.

As part of the event, Whatcom Transportation Authority will provide free bus rides — except on Route 80X serving Mount Vernon — Thursday and Friday, July 21-22, for all passengers countywide to help people get to the event.

For bus route and schedule information, call 360-676-RIDE or go to ridewta.com.

More can be found online at unitedwaywhatcom.org.

The event end time was corrected July 20, 2016.