As Real Change readers may know, Whatcom County has joined you.
To work as a Real Change vendor, Jeremiah used to sell the only copies of Real Change in Whatcom, in front of the Bellingham Community Food Co-op. He had to drive to Seattle to pick up his papers or have them shipped, both of which cut into his earnings. It is a testament to his dedication to Real Change and to his job that he operated in Bellingham several years before Real Change Whatcom began in March 2017. Over the years, he earned an avid clientele, many of whom regard him as a friend.
Now, thanks to dedicated volunteers and a generous grant from the Whatcom Community Foundation, Real Change Whatcom is up and running. As a result, vendors incur no shipping expenses to work here.
Earlier this month, the Real Change Whatcom board of directors established Real Change Whatcom as a full-fledged, stand-alone 501(c)(3) nonprofit. We’re excited about this occasion to demonstrate our commitment to making Real Change Whatcom a truly local organization, responding to local opportunities and local needs for people experiencing housing instability.
Just as in King County, the need is significant. Whatcom County conducts an annual point-in-time homelessness count and gleans many statistics. Here are several:
Individuals experiencing homelessness range from 1 year old to 76 years old.
700 homeless people, including:
Unaccompanied minors aged 13-17.... 7
Families with children............................
................................. 72 (207 individuals)
18 years or younger.......................... 126
10 years or younger........................... 91
Total unsheltered............................... 294
While these statistics help illuminate the need’s extent, they fail to communicate the human depth of it. They also fail to show us those whom we see on the streets as anything other than “homeless people.” That term (or worse) makes no sense. We don’t define groups of people as “renting people” or “housed people,” yet our neighbors experiencing homelessness carry a stigma surrounding their worth, their prospects and their humanness. Real Change Whatcom is here to take part in changing that.
We have a plethora of nonprofits in Whatcom County, and many of them work overtime to address the crisis of homelessness. As difficult as mitigating the crisis is, making substantive progress on the root causes of homelessness seems, at times, daunting. What can help?
Do we turn to elected officials? As for political will here in Whatcom — not only to help our neighbors experiencing housing instability but also to address the roots of housing insecurity — well, it’s complicated. This year, we have two progressive candidates vying for the Bellingham mayoral seat, which will be vacant when the incumbent retires. The Whatcom County executive position is up for grabs as well, after several years under what was, arguably, business-centric leadership.
Will these imminent changes in elected leadership fuel community efforts to provide those who are homeless with shelter and to prevent any more of our neighbors from falling down the rabbit hole of housing instability?
In an oversimplification (for the purpose of this column), all the candidates advance the obvious solution of increasing the inventory of housing, generally, and affordable housing, specifically. How we should do that is controversial. A few years ago, a city ordinance that would allow detached, accessible dwelling units drew heated opposition from homeowners who claimed it would ruin their single-family neighborhoods. The more politically palatable proposal that is currently all the rage is to call on and incentivize developers to build affordable, working-wage housing.
Over the years, efforts to site a shelter in Whatcom have met opposition at every turn, such that we still lack a permanent shelter. While there is a major player in town that provides some shelter, even that is not without controversy, stemming from the organization’s unapologetic proselytizing and virtual requirement that residents participate in Christian activities.
I would argue that until we have a higher regard for our neighbors who are experiencing housing instability, we won’t garner the community will — or any other kind of will — to site a shelter, convince single-home residents to accept density in their neighborhoods, compel developers to build for affordability or effect any other change that would address the existing crisis and chronic nature of housing instability.
Real Change Whatcom advances the notion that Real Change news and opportunities can make a difference.
For our neighbors who experience the hardship and trauma of homelessness, Real Change offers low-barrier employment, regular income and a weekly newspaper that is respected for its journalistic integrity. (It most certainly is!) For Whatcom County, Real Change is a unique source of regional news and information that reports on issues of economic, social and racial justice — the causes behind the crises.
But here’s the big thing: Real Change Whatcom makes it possible for people experiencing housing instability to engage. Through Real Change, vendors make familiar and friendly relationships that add the humanity to all of this talk of help.
This creates a powerful opportunity for the Whatcom County community to better understand ALL our neighbors and — as a whole — to support, accept, innovate and demand changes to alleviate the crisis and courageously eradicate the root causes of homelessness.
Becky Spithill is a former board member of Real Change Seattle and the founder and current board president of Real Change Whatcom. Also contributing to this work and op-ed are Whatcom board members Liz Osteen, Daniel Simmons, Morgan Daniels, Brianna Morrow and Eric Bowen and dedicated volunteer Sherry Jubilo.
Read the full October 30 - November 5 issue.
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