Since mid-summer, the Homeless Strategies Workgroup has been meeting frequently with the purpose of identifying additional temporary winter shelters and adding capacity for year-round shelters. We are happy to report that the workgroup has made progress, but we still have a long way to go to meet all of the needs and, eventually, to end homelessness in our community.
The workgroup has 19 positions made up of elected officials, staff members, advocates and non-profit agencies. Our most vulnerable face a variety of challenges, but most pressing is the need for a roof over their heads when the weather turns cold.
Thanks to our efforts, we are more coordinated in our response this winter than in years past. In addition to the year-round sheltering efforts of our nonprofit and faith communities, we have two winter shelters opening in December and four faith-based severe weather shelters on stand-by if the weather gets dangerously cold. These efforts have relied on the coordination, funding and organizational efforts of city and county governments, not-for-profits, and volunteers.
We cannot emphasize enough how important it is that when it comes to homelessness, there is not one answer nor only a single public or private agency that can solve this complex challenge. Poverty does not stop at the city limits, and we are all partners in this effort. All of us play a part to make sure everyone has a warm bed to sleep in at night.
This year, the City of Bellingham, in coordination with the Opportunity Council, has funded a winter women’s shelter, and the City and Whatcom County have also funded a youth shelter operated by Northwest Youth Services. Both winter shelters will operate from December through February. This will provide an additional 75 beds and open up capacity at the Lighthouse Mission’s Drop In Center, which has capacity for approximately 150 people. The Whatcom County Health Department is also coordinating severe weather shelters for up to 185 additional beds for men, women and families during the harshest winter nights. The county and the Opportunity Council also have a new Emergency Winter Shelter Hotline that is updated daily with shelter information.
The smaller cities also can play their part in looking after our most vulnerable. Earlier this year, Ferndale expanded the hours of the Ferndale Community Resource Center on Second Avenue, which allows residents to receive clothing, food, toiletries, shower passes, bus passes, job search assistance and more. The City also purchased two homes and, through the Interfaith Coalition, is providing transitional housing so that families in need can stay in the community where they are living and going to school.
While the goal is to make sure that homelessness is brief and infrequent and to provide enough permanent housing for everyone, we recognize the immediate need to provide options for those living on our streets right now. There must be incremental solutions and a continuum of services. We heard loud and clear last year that the public wanted government agencies to work together to find solutions, and we are continuing to do that through improved coordination and communications.
It will take all these efforts and more to solve this complex problem – and we need your help. If you are interested in volunteering for these efforts, please visit The Volunteer Center of Whatcom County’s website and click on “’Tis the Season for Volunteering.” For daily updates on which shelters are open, call the Emergency Winter Shelter Hotline at (360) 788-7983.
We wish we could do more and it’s not perfect, but we’ve improved our coordination and options for the coming year as we work to ensure that everyone has a safe place to sleep year-round. When we all work together, there is nothing we cannot achieve.
By Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, Whatcom County Councilmember Barry Buchannan and Ferndale City Councilmember Kate Bishop
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