Building a roof over the heads of those who don’t have one

By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal

Bellingham construction crews have built roofs on many apartment buildings. But the one going onto downtown’s newest housing project at 1022 N. State St. is a little bit different. Many of the people who will be living there will be sleeping under a roof for the first time in long time.

Bellingham nonprofits Northwest Youth Services and Opportunity Council have teamed up to build 22 North, a 40-unit apartment building for people experiencing homelessness. The $10-million project is set to open this October.

Opportunity Council will own the building and serve as landlord. Of the 40 studio apartments, 20 will house Opportunity Council clients and 20 will house Northwest Youth Services clients.

Northwest Youth Services serves homeless young people aged 13-24, and 22 North will house its clients who are 18 and up. Opportunity Council serves the entire homeless population, but will reserve five units for chronically homeless veterans.

The building will have case management, behavioral health and vocational services onsite and a 24-hour staff.

Northwest Youth Services had owned the vacant lot on State Street for many years. It bought the lot at the same time it bought the existing building, which serves at its offices, next door.

The lot sat empty for many years, but after Bellingham voters approved a housing levy in 2012, NWYS was finally able to get the local dollars it needed in order to get state and federal dollars to build a project.

“The city approached us and started talking a bit about how we could take advantage of that lot,” Riannon Bardsley, executive director of NWYS, said.

NWYS started working with Opportunity Council to look at developing the lot, and, after a feasibility study, realized that the lot could hold a much bigger building than NWYS could handle on its own. So it decided to partner fully with Opportunity Council on the project.

“They also had wanted to start doing more affordable housing projects,” Bardsley said. “Which is not something Northwest Youth Services wanted to do. We don’t want to be housing developers.”

Nonprofit-owned, ground-up developments like this one are just one piece of the puzzle of solving homelessness, Bardsley said.

“It can’t always be the same recipe,” Bardsley said. “Just like there’s a variety of people, they have a variety of needs.”

NWYS already offers some housing. It has some emergency housing and it master leases some units at scattered sites through the community for what’s called transitional housing — there’s an 18-month time limit on those. NWYS also helps clients find permanent housing, and helps case managing and subsidizes a portion of the rent to private, for-profit landlords.

This new development offers yet another option.

“The unique thing about this is this will be really the only units that we have full control over, where the landlord is going to be the Opportunity Council, so the landlord is committed to working with individuals who are not receiving housing opportunities elsewhere.”

The building will be especially geared toward those who need the kind of services 22 North will offer.

“We’re really looking for young people who haven’t had the opportunity to come inside before because of the support that they need onsite,” Bardsley said, “And young people who want to stabilize and start making some progress on their educational goals.”

While 22 North is permanent housing — meaning there’s no time limit — Greg Winter, executive director of Opportunity Council, said the goal is for 22 North to be a stepping stone for tenants to cycle into private housing.

Tenants will sign their own lease, and pay a third of their income in rent. The goal is that the services at 22 North will help them get back on their feet. Then they might be able to move on to private housing, with help from the Section 8 housing voucher program and other assistance.

Often times coming up with a deposit plus rent is the hurdle that keeps homeless people on the streets, Winter said.

“The biggest barrier is money,” Winter said. “The other barrier is simply finding a vacant unit, because there’s so much competition for every unit that becomes available.”

The vacancy rate in Bellingham is so low, every renter, homeless and sheltered alike, can face challenges finding an available unit. But it’s not just Bellingham.

“This is really a symptom and a demonstration of our nation’s affordable housing crisis,” Winter said.

Part of the increase in homelessness, Winter said, is because there’s simply not enough housing for everyone.

During the recession, new construction slowed dramatically, in Bellingham and the rest of the country.

“In the aftermath of the recession there were very few affordable rental properties being built,” Winter said.

Now builders are rushing to catch up. But at the same time, the cost of construction in Bellingham has risen as well. That means builders must put up higher-priced units to make the cost worth it.

“It’s very difficult for private developers to make affordable housing profitable,” Winter said. “It’s really hard for them to make it pencil out.”

There’s a direct correlation between rising rents and an increased number of people who become homeless. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Urban Affairs found that around the country, when the average apartment rent increases by $100, homelessness increases by 15 percent in urban areas and 39 percent in rural and suburban areas.

“We know that in Whatcom County our rents have been rising significantly,” Bardsley said, “and have been resulting in more people experiencing homelessness significantly.”

Young adults in Whatcom County are also disproportionately affected by poverty. An annual report by United Way found that in 2016, 55 percent of households under the age of 25 were at the federal poverty level. Another 11 percent were what United Way calls A.L.I.C.E. — Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed — people who are above the federal poverty level, but don’t make enough income to meet their basic needs in the local economy.

There are a lot of factors that can lead to a young person becoming homeless, Bardsley said.

“There’s been some studies that have shown five indicators that result in a young person being homeless for five years of more, which is a significant amount of time when you’re a young person,” Bardsley said. Those indicators are: becoming pregnant or getting someone pregnant before the age of 18, using marijuana before the age of 12, getting involved with the juvenile justice system, leaving home because of religious differences with parents, and leaving home because of violence in the home.

“It didn’t actually have to do with whether or not they’re currently using drugs, or whether they currently identified as queer,” Bardsley said. “It was all about this stuff that was happening when they were minors.”

Trauma from their youth often times means clients have a hard time trusting institutions or the community.

“Everyone of these young people have been harmed or disappointed by people that were supposed to keep them safe,” Bardsley said. “And from a really early age, experienced that it’s hard to trust adults or systems.”

Usually, it’s a compounding number of different factors, plus the lack of a good support network, that leads to a young person becoming homeless.

“I don’t know about you, but when I was 18 my mom could co-sign for an apartment for me, which means she had credit, which means she had a rental history,” Bardsley said. “So just being able to have access to those kind of resources and opportunities that a lot of these young people just don’t have.”

Disportionately, Bardsley said, Northwest Youth Services is working with young people in the LGBT community and non-white young people. Also recently, they’ve been seeing an uptick in the number of people with developmental disabilities who are becoming homeless and seeking services.

“We don’t have a community in which people with mental disabilities thrive,” Bardsley said. “There’s not enough space for them to be considered productive parts of the community. We don’t adjust.”

Part of Northwest Youth Services’ work is to create more of that space in the community, where its clients can be accepted.

In addition to its housing program, Northwest Youth Services works with the city, county and local school districts to offer teen court, an alternative to juvenile justice system for second-time misdemeanor offenders.

It also is in the process of partnering with the First Congregational Church of Bellingham to use the church’s basement as a daytime drop-in center.

It also has a program called the Queer Youth Project, which supports gay-straight alliance clubs in schools, and works with administrators to make schools safer for LGBT students.

“The idea of that program is ultimately to try and reduce the number of young people who end up experiencing homelessness because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Bardsley said. “So the more we can increase the capacity of the community, the goal is to decrease the disproportionality that we’re seeing.”

Most of Northwest Youth Services’ program have just built up steam in the last 10 years. During and the after the recession, the organization went through an upheaval, and ultimately organized into what it is today.

When Bardsley first joined NWYS, before she became executive director, the organization looked much different. It was working within the foster care system, it had some family reconciliation programs, a counseling department, and a small housing department working with homeless young people.

Then the recession hit. A lot of the funding dried up. NWYS had to close the bulk of its programs and lay off much of its staff.

There were only eight people left on staff, including Bardsley. The executive director at the time laid herself off as well. Bardsley stepped up to take over the position.

“I was the housing program manager at the time, and I volunteered,” she said. “Like why don’t I just do it? … I was dumb. I didn’t know what I was getting into.”

Under her direction, however, Northwest Youth Services was able to emerge with renewed focus.

“The staff were amazing. The board members were amazing,” Bardsley said. “We got together and talked about how important it was to try to give it all we had and make it work because there wasn’t anybody else doing this work for these young people.”

The organization just completed a long-term plan.

Over the next few years, Bardsley said, Northwest Youth Services will focus on community outreach, and building out it’s existing programs.

“We’ve had so much growth and we’ve changed so much over the past decade that we really want to make sure that the community understands who we are now and why we’re important,” Bardsley said, “and that they feel like Northwest Youth Services and the young people we work with are a good investment.”

She has seen firsthand that the right resources and the right interventions at the right time can make a huge impact in the life of a young person — and help turn a troubled teenager into a successful adult.

“Young people are so hopeful and resilient and creative,” she said. “They’re just pretty amazing.”


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