Editor’s Note: This story is part of an occasional series covering the impact of homelessness in Whatcom County.
Running a severe weather shelter is not an easy job.
Last year, Road2Home ran the shelter, which activates when temperatures dip below a certain threshold in the winter.
A perfect storm of circumstances led to a situation that was difficult for many employees of the small Bellingham housing nonprofit, said Executive Director Ashley Buerger.
First, was the demand. A few nights the shelter stretched to serve 70 homeless people, double what they were prepared for.
Fentanyl was another challenge. Impacting cities nationwide, Buerger said it was difficult to support people dealing with addiction without adequate resources.
And on top of that, weather: Road2Home anticipated being open for 15 days but operated nearly 30 due to colder-than-expected temperatures.
“I think at the end of the day we did more good than harm,” Buerger said, “and it came at a very high cost to the staff and to the volunteers around compassion fatigue.”
Road2Home’s difficulties in running the severe weather shelter mirror those of other small nonprofits in Whatcom County struggling to handle the community’s growing homeless population.
Demand is greater than capacity, both in physical spaces and in the people needed to keep shelters and programs running. Four small to midsized nonprofits — the frontline assistance for homeless people — told Cascadia Daily News they can’t keep up with the growing waitlists for housing.
The results of a study conducted by the City of Bellingham last summer examining the needs of local housing nonprofits were no surprise. It reported a significant increase in waiting lists for housing, overtaxed emergency services, an increase in the complexity of needs, financial stress and declining availability of volunteers.
“We knew this, and that’s why [City Council] set aside these funds and we wanted to do what we could to support these agencies,” City of Bellingham Community & Economic Development Manager Tara Sundin said at an October meeting when presenting the report. “We’re seeing in our community a need for our agencies to grow, and we want them to grow. But we’re going to need to figure out how to help them.”
The report was paired with $200,000 allocated from general funds to capacity-building initiatives — each nonprofit will receive around $10,000 for technical assistance, professional development and more.
At the YWCA, which runs housing programs for women, Housing Director Theresa Hohman said not only has the number of people eligible for their services on the Opportunity Council’s coordinated entry waitlist increased, but the length they’re staying in programs intended to be emergency services has also increased.
“We have people who have been in our emergency programs for over a year already,” CEO Alle Schene said.
Lydia Place, which serves homeless families, has also seen a growth in demand. Also done through the coordinated entry system, Executive Director Ashley Thomasson said the waitlist before the pandemic was less than 50 families. Now it’s 200.
Thomasson also reported seeing families take longer to move off of the programs and reach financial stability. “That’s part of what has slowed us down, not being able to serve families quick enough,” she said.
Jason McGill, executive director of Northwest Youth Services, said he’s seen an increase in the number of young people accessing Ground Floor, a day-use center for youth ages 24 and under experiencing homelessness.
Capacity has expanded in many agencies, but can’t keep up with the demand. Lydia Place opened up its own 11-unit apartment complex in 2022 and has expanded wraparound services.
YWCA has been able to secure more funding for subsidized units and recently acquired a second building which would allow 11 more units.
“We are literally looking at every possible way that we can expand opportunities to bring people in the doors,” Hohman said.
While working around the clock to try to provide the best care and services possible, nonprofits face both old and new challenges in a post-pandemic world.
Retention is one, as is maintaining employee wellness. Nonprofits that spoke to CDN discussed their efforts to provide mental health support, time off, and space to talk about the difficult work they’re doing, but burnout is still present, Buerger said.
“It’s screaming at us,” she said. “It affects our continuity of care, it affects our quality of care, and it affects our resources if we’re constantly turning to recruit and hire and then train.”
The impact of the work on employees, and the secondhand trauma they’re exposed to, can be difficult to manage.
“I was working with staff [at the] severe weather [shelter] who were having a very hard time in this work because it wasn’t enough,” Buerger said.
The PAD, Northwest Youth Services’ youth shelter for 13- to 17-year-olds, has trouble keeping a consistent employee base, McGill said. He credited that to the 24/7 nature of the shelter and the emotional drain it can take on people who work there.
“Retention is definitely an issue in any nonprofit, specifically here, and definitely at the PAD for many reasons,” he said.
‘A glimmer of hope’
Schene of YWCA called the city’s report a “rare and welcomed” opportunity to talk about capacity, while Buerger of Road2Home called it a “glimmer of hope.”
Schene said nonprofits are often so focused on making sure programs run properly that things like the “complexities of staff burnout” and trainings get pushed to the side.
“It was a great way for us to kind of vocalize those things,” she said.
While stretched thin, success stories are common in these small agencies, and keep many in the industry going.
Hohman said the YWCA served 100 women from July 2022 to June 30 this year, and half of the 60 women who exited their services got into permanent housing.
“Service to others is my highest joy,” Hohman said. “I think that anybody here would say that this privilege of serving in this capacity is intensely rewarding.”
Lydia Place has a 92% success rate in exiting families into permanent stable housing, Thomasson said. The nonprofit also recently hired a manager of grants, contracts and impact to have a full-time person devoted to procuring grants.
This year, Road2Home is running a winter shelter, instead of a severe weather shelter. The difference is in consistency and continuity: the winter shelter will be open every night from Dec. 1 to Feb. 29, which Buerger thinks is a safer model for all involved which will lower the “threshold of crisis.” The county is running its own severe weather shelter, which will only be activated on the coldest nights.
Buerger said Road2Home will grow and need capacity support “until we get to a place where folks are not suffering in our community.”
“The capacity needs won’t go away until we as a community can rally around, prioritize, triage … the greatest need and prioritize that right now and scale back from there.
“Healing takes time. It takes resources,” she said, “and in order to have a healthy community and society we need to talk about what it’s going to take to support and to help folks heal.”
If you’re interested in supporting housing non-profits or helping homeless people in the community, a list of resources can be found here.