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A Home for Winter in Whatcom

Eden Hottman-Nance Eden Hottman-Nance

As winter approaches, many of us look forward to holidays, vacations, time with family, and home-cooked meals. But for many, the season brings with it not warm thoughts of relaxation and holiday cheer, but the stark reality that winter is again upon us. The nights are getting colder and the need for safe and stable shelter is growing more urgent by the day. All around the country, homeless individuals and families alike are preparing for another winter on the streets.

According to a county-wide Point-in-Time Count (PITC) administered by the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness (WCCEH) in January of 2016, there were roughly 719 individuals experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County. This count was comprised of 497 separate households, a majority of which were unaccompanied adults (73%). Eighteen percent of the homeless households encountered were families that included at least one child below the age of 18.

Though it is highly likely that these PITCs underestimate the total number of people experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County, this figure from 2016 does represent a 16% decrease in the homeless population since annual counts began in January of 2008. However, WCCEH’s 2016 Annual Report indicated a 40% increase in unsheltered individuals when compared to the 2015 report. A local response to the increase in the unsheltered homelessness population in Whatcom County is Bellingham’s Light House Mission Ministries. They have extended their drop-in hours and are now open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Eighteen percent
of the homeless
encountered were
families that included
at least one child below
the age of 18.”

While the ages of individuals encountered in WCCEH’s PITCs range from the very young to the very old, a whopping 35% of the individuals counted were youth ages 24 and under, with 24% being below the age of 18. This statistic is aligned with the Department of Housing’s 2015 report which stated that 34% of the homeless population in the US is age 24 and under. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that during a year, there are approximately 550,000 unaccompanied youth and young adults 24 and under experiencing a homelessness episode lasting longer than one week, and of that 550,000, only around 50,000 youth per year are being identified and served by programs targeting homeless youth.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are several factors which make addressing youth homelessness a particularly challenging task, including the fact that there is little data on this population. This group doesn’t often interact with standard homeless assistance programs and in Washington, minors are unable to give consent to be entered into HUD’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), an issue that Mockingbird is working to change. In addition, the solutions that have been identified for homelessness are often not an option for minors, who are ineligible to do things like rent an apartment.

Clearly, local and national numbers about homelessness in our community are nowhere near satisfactory. Homelessness is a complex issue that impacts urban and rural communities. The unique challenges presented by this vulnerable population require innovative solutions. Identifying and getting an accurate count of homeless youth is of paramount importance, as is increasing the visibility of services already in place. Emphasis should be placed on empowering youth to advocate for their own needs and steps must be taken to increase the visibility and accessibility of resources in our community.