Saturday, February 7, 2015

Thoughts on homelessness in beautiful downtown Bellingham, WA

Jeff and Amy, owners of Naked Clothing in downtown Bellingham, selflessly hosted this morning a great meeting on the issue of downtown homelessness and its effects on local business owners. Five of us attended including COB Council member Michael Lilliquist, perhaps the most vocal and publicly engaging of all the COB Council member due to his Facebook posts. Michael really helped guide us through the discussion. Most of the information in this post came from our discussion. As the meeting was ending a member of the homeless walked in the store to ask Jeff for a job. This member of the homeless came with a resume and asked for instructions to find resources and support.

Homelessness is a disastrous and heartfelt issue for me. I know what it is like to be homeless. I seldom ever discuss this. Like some of my past in Oakland, CA, stories that would be  just normal survivalist bumps and bruises in a violent city laced with poverty might create shock among  a more suburban and middle American audience in Bellingham. Growing up in Oakland, I simply never walked downtown at night. Here in my chosen ex-urban escape of Bellingham, WA,  I somehow expect to do my late walks through downtown without incident! I guess having escaped the vortex that was east Oakland, I now feel it should be my destiny to live in peace and quiet.

Homelessness is serious problem nationwide and there are real signs that it is getting worse. The Coalition for the Homeless in NYC cites these statistics:
  • In recent years, homelessness in New York City has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
  • In November 2014, there were an all-time record 60,352 homeless people, including 14,519 homeless families with 25,640 homeless children, sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter system. Families comprise nearly four-fifths of the homeless shelter population. 
  • Over the course of the year, more than 110,000 different homeless men, women, and children sleep in the New York City municipal shelter system. This includes more than 40,000 different homeless New York City children.
  • The number of homeless New Yorkers sleeping each night in municipal shelters is now 64 percent higher than it was ten years ago.
Because of these and other reports concerning poverty levels, the wealth gap, diminished total labor force involvement, etc., it is clear to me that America's relationship with wealth is in process of breaking up into select population groups. I don't think homelessness in Bellingham, WA will decrease in the future. There are just too many lives that have been destroyed by the 'Great Recession'. Many communities have been plunged into poverty that they haven't emerged from yet. Our city's reputation as great tourist mecca, retirement residence, and ex-urban escape will make us a host for local and foreign 'travelers' for some time.  In this fate, I think we join cities like Santa Barbara and Salt Lake City who are beautiful and brilliant small cities that have struggled to find solutions to homelessness. Both Salt Lake City and NYC seemed to have found some success by stressing "housing first" as a solution to homelessness as opposed to criminalizing homelessness.

Michael reminded us that Bellingham has a quite a number of organizations and people working on the issue of homelessness. Some excellent video and success stories can be seen at the  Homeless in Bellingham Film Project provided by the Whatcom Homeless Service Center :

Homelessness is really a systemic 'feature' of America's capitalist economy. My first thought lately on these types of social issues is always: Really? How many F-35s would we have to not build in order to solve this problem? I will admit that logic is a bit reactionary. What is clear to me from discussion with merchants downtown is that there is a real economic cost to business from homelessness. At the same time that the Bellingham Tourist board is promoting us as a destination location, at the same time as we are building new hotels for our Canadian visitors, our businesses are feeling threatened by the growing number of (sometimes aggressive) homeless downtown.  I think the cost of homelessness should be quantified for the local economies. Local data analysts should be able to determine this cost and present non law enforcement based solutions.   Something like this was apparently the path that Salt Lake City took. Reports show they have had some success and San Francisco is apparently looking to them as a model.

Listening to the vocal downtown merchants I have known complain about aggressive members of the homeless is upsetting. But it is no less upsetting than the recognition that a country as well off as America should have so many homeless, so many without jobs (or homes), so many children who have to struggle with living in shelters. This is an issue that deserves public participation and thoughtfulness. Councilman Lilliquist encouraged all of us to send our thoughts and comments to the entire council and the mayor. Toward the end of our meeting, one participant noted that most of  us who walk by the homeless tend to avert our eyes. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves and our community to think of a more constructive response.


Unknown said...

this is such an informative video.. thx for making it and thx to the ladies who help out the homeless

Ryan M. Ferris said...

Hi Janet: These films were made for the Whatcom Homeless Service Center. There are more at : I have just embedded the video frame in my post; I did not create this video.