by Sheri Emerson
Editor’s Note: There are over 100 organizations in Whatcom County working to provide supportive services to those experiencing chronic poverty and its associated effects: addiction, homelessness, incarceration, mental illness, and unemployment. Whatcom Watch believes these organizations often labor unnoticed by citizens — this column is designed to add daylight to their endeavors. We have contacted the organization appearing in this column and asked them to explain their mission. Because, in challenging times, being inspired and perhaps empowered by the acts of others is more important than ever.
Opportunity Council began in 1965 as a local “community action” agency charged with identifying and responding to community needs. This model started with the Economic Opportunity Act signed by President Lynden B. Johnson in 1964. At the time, it was a radical new model that allowed local groups, including people with low income, to determine the best local use of federal block grant dollars. People were charged with identifying local solutions to fight poverty in their own communities.
Today Opportunity Council continues to serve as the local community action agency and works in partnership with organizations, schools, government, and individuals to address local needs. The agency provides housing assistance, early learning programs, community resource centers, hot meals, energy bill assistance, home improvement, and other services. This month’s article focuses on two of the agency’s housing programs.
We All Need a Home
Among the many services Opportunity Council provides throughout Whatcom County, housing is always in high demand. For good reason.
In Bellingham, the average home sale price is now above $500,000 and the rental vacancy rate in Whatcom County has been consistently below 1 percent. As a result, there simply is not enough housing for what residents can afford.
Housing is not just a basic need, it’s essential to a family’s well-being and the cornerstone of stability. Over the years, Opportunity Council has helped develop multiple housing solutions for families, seniors, youth, veterans and others who need support to have a home.
Two examples of how Opportunity Council works with community partners to provide housing solutions are Dorothy Place and the Whatcom Homeless Service Center.
In 1998, the agency celebrated the opening of a new housing program, Dorothy Place, that was specifically for women and children who had experienced domestic violence. Like many good ideas, Dorothy Place began with a group of committed community members.
“When I arrived at the Opportunity Council, the question of providing housing for women with children who are escaping domestic abuse was in the process of being addressed by both the women of the YWCA board and the Opportunity Council,” said Kay Sardo, Opportunity Council executive director from 1995-2006 “This was the first big push to provide safe housing, not just for single female survivors, but their children, too.”
A Whatcom County Task Force on Domestic Violence formed in 1992 in response to a state law and justice committee report recommending counties convene a task force to address domestic violence. It included members from health care, housing, law enforcement, the court systems, education, and human service agencies. A subgroup, made up of shelter and housing providers, focused on housing.
“Our task was to do a needs assessment and gap analysis — find out what was needed and what was missing from our systems that addressed the needs of victims of domestic violence,” said Rebecca Johnson, who served on the task force.
The committee’s final report identified a key need for longer-term housing for women leaving emergency shelters or fleeing violent homes. At the time, there were short-term shelter options, but no longer-term housing programs.
A remarkably short six years later, in May 1998, a 22-unit housing complex named Dorothy Place opened its doors. The facility was named after long-time YMCA board member and volunteer Dorothy Giesecke.
“I’m grateful that people in this community have a history of not just coming up with great ideas — in Whatcom County we continue to figure out how to make it a reality,” said Johnson.
Dorothy Place has since served hundreds of women and their children, who have been able to live in safety, become more self-sufficient, and had the door opened to opportunity and hope. In recent years, Dorothy Place was enhanced to prioritize people who are assessed as chronically homeless and highly vulnerable.
In addition to providing a home, Dorothy Place provides opportunities for financial literacy, employment support, renter education courses, children’s enrichment, and other services all paving a pathway for residents to increase their income and achieve stability. These services are possible through community donations from people who continue to support this program. “We should all be proud of where we have come as community,” said Sardo.
Whatcom Homeless Service Center
In addition to Dorothy Place, Opportunity Council has continued to add housing programs over the years to address local housing needs, often working in partnership with others. In 2008, the agency helped launch the Whatcom Homeless Service Center (WHSC), a product of a Whatcom County Health Department-led research and planning process that produced the first “Plan to End Homelessness.”
“At that time, several local organizations were providing various types of housing and shelter assistance. All were doing important, good work,” said Greg Winter, Opportunity Council executive director. “However, the services were fragmented and there was really no systematic way to know who was getting help, who was not, or how effective the programs were.”
Due to every independent program and organization operating on its own, there wasn’t a good way to know if the community, as a whole, was maximizing opportunities to address housing needs and stability.
WHSC was the primary recommendation of the Plan to End Homelessness. It borrowed lessons from successful, leading edge programs in Minneapolis and Portland.
Opportunity Council agreed to host the WHSC in 2008 and set up Whatcom County’s Coordinated Entry System to coordinate the housing programs and providers, become a hub of real-time data about everyone who is homeless in Whatcom County. WHSC also monitors the housing assistance opportunities available throughout a coordinated network and develops and shares resources with partnering providers. WHSC’s Coordinated Entry System was the bridge for the current residents of Dorothy Place to achieve affordable, safe, supportive housing.
The program soon became a model for other communities and its basic functions became a requirement for all communities in Washington state several years after its founding.
In addition to providing community-wide coordination of housing resources, WHSC added a Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) in 2015. This team works out of their car and throughout the community to connect people experiencing homelessness with services.
The Homeless Outreach Team builds relationships that are key to delivering services and also helping people trust the process and resources offered by the Whatcom Homeless Services Center.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, this outreach team has become especially valuable in delivering services and resources to people who are homeless when agencies closed to walk-in traffic. The team has been out on the streets delivering food and basic hygiene supplies, including lots of hand sanitizer and masks. The team goes into the woods seeking out the homeless camps, passing out supplies and information about where to find food, showers or other resources.
Dorothy Place and WHSC are just two examples of how Opportunity Council is working to address local housing issues. Another agency program includes the 40-unit housing complex for chronically homeless, youth, older adults and veterans that the agency developed in partnership with Northwest Youth Services and opened in Bellingham in 2018.
Opportunity Council also has a Master Leasing program that works with local landlords, a Generations program that matches senior residents with roommates so they can afford a home, the Homeless Student Stability Program in partnership with local school districts, and a Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF). The list goes on.
Do Housing Programs Help? People often ask what is being done about housing and homelessness and is it helping? Concerns are expressed when they see people sleeping in doorways or see a homeless camp near their neighborhood.
So what is being done to help?
The short answer is: a lot is being done. As evidenced by the list above of just a few local housing programs and services. But the longer answer, and the reality, is that housing and homelessness are complex and challenging issues that are not resolved easily.
That said, there was some good news in the 2019 Point-In-Time (PIT) Count, an annual snapshot of homelessness in our community. The point-in-time count is an unduplicated count on a single night, usually in January, of the people in a community who are experiencing homelessness that includes both sheltered and unsheltered populations.
According to the Whatcom County Health Department, the 2019 PIT report shows the largest decrease in homelessness since 2012, with 14 percent fewer individuals living homeless than in 2018. That only happens because there is more supportive and affordable housing.
The Whatcom County website specifically notes the “combined services provided by several local nonprofit agencies, who in 2018 collectively helped 2,281 individuals to find temporary or permanent housing, or financial assistance to prevent homelessness.”
While a 14 percent reduction is worth noting and helping over 2,000 people with housing is significant, just as important are the 700 individuals who were still homeless in January. Of those, nearly 300 had a temporary place to shelter, but over 200 did not, sleeping in a car or on the street. Over 100 were 55 years or older and 72 were families with children.
As a community, we can do better. To do that will take the continued combined efforts of all of us. Opportunity Council is committed to continuing this work in partnership with others to find ways to meet our community’s housing needs.
If you are at risk of becoming homeless, please contact the Whatcom Homeless Service Center or the Community Resource Center to learn more about available resources: https://www.oppco.org/whsc/, 360-734-5121.
If you are currently experiencing homelessness, or if you encounter someone in a homeless camp who might need help or resources, please call Opportunity Council’s Homeless Outreach Team at 360-312-3717.
If you would like to support our community’s efforts to address housing and homelessness, visit Opportunity Council’s website today, www.oppco.org/how-to-help.
Sheri Burgler Emerson joined the Opportunity Council in 2000 and worked in several positions before becoming the Associate Director in 2013. She has experience working with various nonprofit organizations for over 30 years and currently serves on the board of Washington Nonprofits, a state organization that supports the nonprofit sector. Sheri and her husband Jim have lived in Bellingham for 40 years where they raised three daughters.