Homelessness is very present in Bellingham, WA

You don’t need to travel far within the city limits of Bellingham to encounter people living on the streets.

If you recall from my State of the City of Bellingham blog post, the #1 complaint of business owners recently has been “homeless people sleeping in our doorways.”

For any number of reasons, these people are not staying in the formal homeless shelters such as the Lighthouse Mission‘s main building or its Basecamp location.

Not that those facilities aren’t being used.

Basecamp, which offers space for 200 nightly residents, is at near-full capacity every night.

Here’s a graph of its occupancy over the last 30 days:

You have likely read about the (controversial) expansion of the Lighthouse Mission building located at 910 W Holly St.

The current building will be demolished later this year, and will be replaced by a brand new 75,000 square foot 5-story shelter capable of housing up to 400 homeless people.

The theories about the causes of homelessness are numerous.

  • Loss of employment
  • Racism
  • Family conflict
  • Domestic violence
  • Addiction
  • Mental illness
  • And more

In the most recently published Strategic Plan to End Homelessness in Whatcom County, the executive summary on page 5 states:

“The most frequent and direct hardship that leads to homelessness is the lack of affordable and available housing.”

Many would (strongly) disagree, and would point to mental illness and/or substance abuse as the primary reason(s).

Reports estimate that 33% of homeless people suffer from severe mental illness.

Do a Google search on addiction within the homeless population and most reports will state that about 38% of homeless people suffer from alcohol addiction, and about 26% suffer from drug addiction.

In running those numbers by the owner of the private security company employed by a large number of Bellingham businesses to patrol their properties during off-hours, he states:

“Those numbers seem incredibly, incredibly low to me.”

He estimated that the true number of Bellingham’s homeless people with substance addiction is much closer to 75 to 80%.

Regardless of the exact data, homelessness in Bellingham — and to be fair, in countless other cities too — is a very real problem.

In the next section of this blog post, I am going to share a summary of the unique approach now 10 years in, taking place in San Antonio, Texas.

How I learned about San Antonio

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I am a daily podcast listener.

In May of this year, I happened upon a short, 13-minute episode about a documentary focused on the homeless crisis in San Franciso called “Beyond Homeless: Finding Hope.”

You can watch the 38-minute, award-winning film for free.


(The podcast’s (not the film’s) creator is the Cato Institute, which a friend and reader of this blog post encouraged me to never cite because of their libertarian ideals.

I encourage you, in this case, to set aside your feelings and just listen to the content of this particular episode.

It is a very concise overview of homelessness in America, the approach taken by San Antonio, and the efficacy of the program over the past decade.)


The interview guest is the film’s creator, Mary Theroux.

She explains that, in 2013, at a federal level, there was a policy switch from shelters and transitional programming to a concept called “housing first“.

The theory — in alignment with the line I shared above that the “primary cause of homelessness is lack of affordable housing” — is that people are homeless because they don’t have a home.

So, give them a home, and they won’t be homeless anymore.

So simple, right?

Theroux explains why, for multiple reasons, this “permanent supportive housing” (PSH) model simply doesn’t work.

  • It is extremely expensive, so very few people get it.
  • The vast expense of the housing units does not generally leave funds for what is to come “second” after “housing first” which is actual treatment and services to address the problems that led to homelessness in the first place.
  • If you are someone who is living in PSH and trying to get your life together, but your neighbors are still abusing drugs and alcohol, it tends to derail your efforts.

(Want to read about a local “housing first” example? Here’s an article on Bellingham’s 22 North on State St. Be forewarned, the situation there is deeply troubling.)

In Theroux’s words, “Housing first sounds great, but in practice it’s not working.”

The film gives a compelling example to illustrate how the housing first philosophy falls short:

Imagine an elderly person with severe dementia staggering around on any given street corner in Bellingham.

What logical person would say, “All that guy needs is four walls and a roof!”

The very term “homeless” leads us all to incorrectly think that this is simply a housing problem.

So what did San Antonio do?

In 2005, a San Antonio business man named Bill Greehy had been watching the growing homelessness situation with deep concern.

He called the mayor at the time, Phil Hardberger, and said, “If you really want to move the needle on this problem, I will help.”

The mayor took him up on his offer, and they immediately did three (brilliant) things:

  1. They invited every public service, every non-profit, every organization and sector of the community having anything to do with managing, serving, feeding, treating, and handling people experiencing homelessness to have a representative on the newly formed task force.
  2. With the group assembled, they asked the question: “What will it take for our community to come together, and serve the needs of people experiencing homelessness, to transform their lives into their full potentials, rather than simply house them?”
  3. They spent the next two years studying programs, initiatives, and experiments from all over the country to see what works.

Let me pause right here for a minute.

This part stood out to me as what every elected public official should do in the face of every crisis.

If you need to learn a complex subject thoroughly and/or quickly, whether you’re trying to learn a new song on your viola or solve a major public crisis, the most effective thing you can do is to find someone else who has already done it, and learn from them.

If you have the time and resources to find a lot of someone’s and piece together learning from all of them, even better.

I can not overstate how much I admire this single element of the San Antonio story.

At any rate…

After two years of research, the task force was ready to take action.

Here’s what they did:

They built a comprehensive housing-and-services campus on 22 acres right next to downtown, in what was formerly warehouse space.

Greehy raised money for construction, and the City bought the land.

They invited every organization involved in serving or treating the homeless to have a presence there.

With that, Haven for Hope was born, and it was unlike any homeless shelter or permanent supportive housing project ever built.

What is Haven for Hope?

Haven for Hope serves every layer of the homeless community:

  • Youth
  • Families
  • Single people
  • Veterans
  • And so on…

It has a low-barrier sleeping area for anyone in any condition to have a safe place to sleep and get a hot meal.

It has apartments, transitional housing, daycare, mental health, medical, vision, and dental treatment centers, job skills training, even a kennel.

And it is highly individualized.

Every non-profit serving the homeless (183 partner organizations, 67 actually on-campus) provides services there.

They create individualized programs to overcome the specific needs of each individual, to — again — not just house or shelter them, but to provide a continuum of care that actually helps people transform their lives and get back on the rails.

To date, Haven for Hope has helped over 6000 formerly homeless people re-enter society in a functional and productive manner.

Because it is consolidated, it has lowered costs for emergency medical services, hospitals, and police.

The documentary explains that, while in San Francisco over the past decade, homelessness has sharply increased and the cost of trying to handle it has gone up at least 100%, in San Antonio the cost has declined and homelessness has been reduced by 77%.

Challenges faced by Haven for Hope

Despite being one of the most effective, nationally recognized initiatives in the battle against homelessness, Haven for Hope is not without its challenges.

Primarily, it is expensive to operate, with a reported $30 million annual budget.

According to this article, Greehy himself (who is now in his mid-80’s) still personally donates many millions each year.

Despite the efficacy of the campus, the City of San Antonio (with a population of over 2.5 million people) reportedly only funds $5 million of the annual budget.

That $5M represents 1/6th of 1% of San Antonio’s annual $3+ billion budget.

I guess it’s a matter of priorities.

Should Bellingham follow this lead?


I mean, I praise everyone who gives their time, money, their career, their life, to fighting this awful situation affecting so many unfortunate people suffering from homelessness, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, trauma.

I appreciate the intention behind the existing initiatives.

And I am certain that I don’t even remotely understand the complexity or depth of the overall situation.

That said, I strongly encourage our elected officials to look with open, curious minds at what programs are making the biggest difference, and then earnestly copy them.

In the context we are discussing, housing without comprehensive transformational services is simply warehousing humans.

Bellingham could become its own nationally recognized example of a city that largely solves a sad and desperate situation.

The going-bankrupt Bellis Fair Mall property could be the campus.

It’s not science fiction; it’s already being done elsewhere, and can be scaled appropriately and copied here.

I guess it’s a matter of priorities.