Whatcom’s Homeless Women and Children
by Kara Spencer and Vanessa Thomas
It was her third pregnancy but her first baby. Cradling the newborn in her arms, Lauren smiled. “I’m going to do it all for you.”
Lauren, not her real name to protect her identity from her abuser, has finally found her chance to get clean, change her life and raise her newborn son. Without New Way Ministries in Lynden, Lauren said she would still be living in her car.
Coming from a past of physical, sexual and mental abuse, Lauren, now 40 years old, became homeless in 2004. She saw the street mentality that she had to maintain to survive, and was surrounded by the pressure to do drugs. The reality of her homelessness hit once she was able to escape her heroin addiction years ago — even finding that she had unknowingly been involved in a gang.
She found a lot of resources in Whatcom County but didn’t find the help she needed as a homeless pregnant woman trying to stay clean. “I still see a lot of women out there who are pregnant and still doing the drugs. They aren’t trying to get clean. It is sad, it really is,” she said.
Lauren’s story is a well-traveled story here of addiction, abuse, high rents, few affordable apartments and homes, forcing many women with children to stay in abusive situations or flee to the streets and wait for some temporary or permanent housing.
The facts speak for themselves: the Point-in-Time homeless count taken this year showed that 719 people were homeless in Whatcom County for the year of 2016 — up from 651 in 2015 and 493 in 2012. Twenty-three percent of all homeless in the county were under 18 years old and 16 percent of all homeless persons were less than 10 years old. Women account for 47 percent of all homeless people, according to “A Home for Everyone,” the 2016 annual report by the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness.
Homelessness in Whatcom County, while lowered by 42 percent, still maintains around 500 homeless people at any time, according to city documents.
With rising homelessness in Whatcom County and not enough temporary housing, not many homeless women have been so fortunate. Nationwide, as many as 3 million people experience homelessness every year, of which more than 1 million are children and 25 percent are women, according to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has created a goal to cut the number of families that “experience an episode” of homelessness in half by 2020.
There were 35,000 K-12 public school homeless students in Washington for the 2014–2015 school year, according to the state Office of Public Instruction; that was a 62 per cent increase in student homelessness since 2009.
Though housing is difficult to find for women both single and with children, it is even more difficult for women who are a part of intact families — There is no housing facility for homeless families anywhere in Whatcom County.
Contributing Factor: Domestic Abuse
Nearly 100 percent of homeless women have experienced sexual violence or domestic abuse in their lifetime, according to the Colorado Coalition. Reeves said 75 percent of women at Agape reference domestic violence as the reason they are there or that they have experienced it before. The worst domestic violence can be mental abuse, Lauren said.
Women often cling to their partners: “With domestic violence, it’s such a cycle. It starts slowly, and it slowly just starts chipping away [at the women involved,]” Vinup, Lauren’s case manager, said.
A lack of low-income housing and waiting lists for transitional housing often force women and their children to choose between abuse at home or living on the street, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Bridget Reeves is the women’s ministry manager at the Agape House, a Lighthouse Mission shelter in 910 W. Holly St. serving women and children needing temporary housing. The shelter houses 35 women and 15 children at any given time, and many applications sit while the shelter looks for an open spot, Reeves said.
Homeless women fall in two categories: those who need housing right now and are currently sleeping in cars, tents, or are couch surfing, and those who are actively searching for housing. For them, “They apply and apply and apply. It’s really tough,” Reeves said.
Contributing Factor: Housing
In fall 2015, the apartment vacancy rate was 1.3 percent for Whatcom County.
During the third quarter of 2015, the statewide apartment vacancy rate was at 3.4 percent, according to a Real Estate Studies survey from the University of Washington
The vacancy rate is defeating the women and children’s best chances — even women with full-time jobs can wait months for a place even while trying hard or with good rental history; the lack of affordable housing is the problem that needs to be addressed within the Bellingham area, Reeves said.
As a result, there are typically 30–40 active applicants waiting to get housing from the Agape House. The women and children’s shelter in Lynden, New Way Ministries, usually has 20–30. Women at Agape can stay 6–12 months and those at New Way stay six months, Reeves said.
And neither shelter has a strict cutoff time and extends residency when appropriate.
Jessica Brown, manager of the housing department for the Opportunity Council, said the council and city meet monthly to discuss possible solutions. The two are working to create a low-barrier shelter, a permanent supportive housing youth shelter and new housing for families.
If given enough funding, the first priority would be to build more affordable housing, Brown said. The Opportunity Council is currently seeking to end unsheltered family homelessness in the county by 2017. “There is not enough affordable housing and that’s a problem throughout the entire state,” Brown said.
In January 2016, Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville asked Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency throughout Washington due to an increasing homeless population.
In 2012, Bellingham’s voters approved a housing levy to allocate $21 million over a seven-year period to provide, produce, and/or preserve affordable housing in Bellingham and to also assist low-income tenants. The four programs that the Housing Levy funds are the Production and Preservation of Homes, Rental Assistance and Support Services, Low-income Homebuyer Assistance and Acquisition and Opportunity Loans.
The city’s Program Funding Plan is to administer $12.4 million for the Production and Preservation of Homes, $5.67 million for the Rental Assistance and Support Services, $938,084 for the Low Income Homebuyer Assistance and $875,000 for the Acquisition and Opportunity Loans. These sums, plus $1,101,502 for administrative costs, total $21 million.
This money is prioritized and allocated multiple times. According to the 2012 Levy Administrative and Financial Plan, the city gives preference for activities that are based on city legacies and strategic commitments, demonstrated need and gap, collaboration, mobility, geographic, equity and social justice, children and poverty, leveraging, probability of success and/or sustainability.
The city’s Consolidated Plan also sets priorities for the federal resources available from the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The first priority is homelessness, second is to increase affordable housing supply. The following priorities, in order, are to assist the housing and service needs of the elderly; assist the special needs populations; healthy children and families; preservation; geographic priorities; and coordination and delivery of services.
After all priorities and preferences have been sorted out, the city will once again give priority to applicants that have “demonstrated ability to develop, own, and/or manage affordable housing.” If applicants do not have previous experience in these areas, they will be expected to propose “an appropriate relationship with an entity that does have this experience” according to the 2012 levy.
The Agape House offers training courses and case managers for the 35 women and 15 children that reside there at any given time. Twenty-four single women live on the upper floor and 10 families live downstairs. Together, the case managers and women work together to set goals for obtaining jobs, building relationships and receiving housing upon graduation from the program. The classes teach the women ways to heal from past experiences and achieve success moving forward.
Residents at Agape are expected to pursue their set goals for pursuing jobs and bettering themselves in any way that will help them find housing on their own. If residents are not pursuing or reaching their goals in a timely manner, then a time limit may be imposed, Reeves said.
And there’s another motivator — their children. Seventy-five percent of the children at the Agape House are under 5-years-old, and while women and children are welcome, entire families are not.
Samya Lutz, the Housing and Services Program Manager for Planning and Community Development for the city of Bellingham understands that providing affordable housing is essential to get people off the streets.
“The city’s goal is to help people on the street get somewhere safe,” Lutz said.
But that’s a challenge when Whatcom County’s vacancy rate, at 1.3 percent, is so low.
For 2016 and 2017, the Production and Preservation of Homes program’s goal is to build a total of 125 units. The Rental Assistance and Supportive Services Program is aims to provide assistance for 500 households. The Homebuyer Program hopes to help a total of eight homebuyers, and the Acquisition and Opportunity and Bridge Loans Program wants to provide loans to for 47 units.
The city has enough funding for two more major projects by 2019, Lutz said. One of the potential projects, 22 North, would be a 40-unit shelter providing 20 units for adults and 20 for youths, proposed by The Opportunity Council and Northwest Youth Services. The city is looking to commit to these projects, Lutz said.
The city doesn’t provide direct shelters but contracts with different organizations to help provide services that are needed including The Opportunity Council, Northwest Youth Services and Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services.
While Lighthouse Mission Ministries, which serves both women and men, isn’t currently partnered with the city, it is still trying to do its part to help out, Lutz said.
Jan Ruiter is the recently-retired program director at New Way Ministries women and children’s shelter. In her 10 years at the shelter, she has watched the problem of chronic homelessness worsen in Whatcom County. “From the time I started to now, there are more desperate people,” Ruiter said.
Ruiter has witnessed over 400 families pass through their shelter. The shelters offer order amidst chaos for women coming from difficult situations, she said. “For many of them, the first night they were here was the first place they felt safe for a long time,” Ruiter said.
For Lauren, who said she found Bellingham to be a trigger for addiction, has found peace and quiet now in New Way. Working with her program supervisor and case manager, Shannon Vinup, Lauren said she has softened and has the chance to raise her son.
All of Western Washington is struggling with the lack of low-income housing, Ruiter said. To meet these needs, New Way has expanded its capacity by building two more wings in the past few years. The New Way shelter relies on community handouts and volunteers.
Even with that expansion, the shelter serves only 21 women and children. Those with subsidized housing through HUD can only give their couch to homeless relatives and friends for two weeks, and so the ability to help becomes weakened, Ruiter said.
The women residents have a 50-60 percent rate of achieving their goal to obtain low-income housing after graduating from the program, Ruiter said.
New Way offers three programs total: Transitional Housing, Great Expectations, and Next Steps. Transitional Housing is the shelter which allows women to stay six months in hopes to get them back on their feet. “It’s a hand-up not just a handout,” Ruiter said.
Great Expectations is for expecting mothers or mothers up to nine months after their pregnancy. After nine months, the mothers can move into one of the other programs.
The Next Steps program gives six apartments to graduates of the transitional program for which they can stay up to 18 months.
Ruiter said housing 21 families still doesn’t feel like enough, as she believes the number of applicants has been rising for years. A dream would be to find more space, Ruiter said.
Currently, men are housed with other men and women are housed with their children but only boys up to 12 years old are allowed; this poses problems of trying to keep families together in the face of fear of domestic violence.
The Opportunity Council often offers motel vouchers to families in immediate need of overnight housing, director Brown said, but currently, is not sure why an intact family shelter is not anywhere to be found in Bellingham. “No one ever built one, it takes a lot of funding and staff time to manage shelters,” Brown said.
Various shelters in Whatcom County directly work to aid minors. Northwest Youth Services, located at 1020 N. State St., takes in runaway, homeless, abused and neglected youth in the area. The Oasis Teen Shelter also caters to homeless youth, but is located in Mount Vernon, 24 miles south of Bellingham.
The Agape House hosts fun activities centered around the children. Every month there is a birthday celebration regardless of whether or not the children living there actually have a birthday that month.
“It’s important to continue to make happy memories for the children while they are dealing with trauma,” Reeves said.
Agape partners with a nonprofit organization inspired by A Loving Space School called Programs to Lighten the Lives of Adult and Youth or PLLAY. PLLAY organizes field trips, arts and crafts for Mother’s Day, Halloween parties, Easter egg hunts and even tutoring.
Asked what the hold-up is for new facilities being built and creating other solutions to the homelessness problem here, the common answer is lack of funding and community support.
The community plays a major role in the success and growth of facilities for the homeless, Brown said.
Those transitioning out of the shelter are in desperate need of good-used vehicles to help them get to work and take their kids to school and daycare. Those still sheltered always need the basic family essentials, Ruiter said. “Toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent — what every family uses, we need 21 times more,” Ruiter said.
Community members can support the housing levy, support affordable housing by writing letters to representatives and support the development of new housing.
“If we have the community behind it, we will make more progress,” Brown said.
While the struggle to solve homelessness in Whatcom County continues, Lutz remains optimistic. “We are very fortunate here in Bellingham to have so many agencies with committed people,” Lutz said, “We wouldn’t be able to do it without them or the people who helped to pass the levy.”
Kara Spencer and Vanessa Thomas are journalism students at Western Washington
Katy Cossette is a visual journalism pre-major at Western Washington University.