Community steps up, but people could still freeze in Bellingham and Whatcom County / Noisy Waters Northwest

February 4, 2019 Dena Jensen

Accuweather said that it got down to 18 degrees last night in Bellingham and tonight the low forecast is for 16 degrees. Below freezing nighttime temperatures are expected for the next few days. In such extreme conditions, people who don’t have houses or other shelter which provide warmth and protection are in extreme peril. It just takes some sudden bad fortune, like slipping on ice unexpectedly, or having your car/sleeping quarters window smashed, to bring on deathly outcomes.

HomesNOW! Not later, a local organizing dynamo who, according to their webpage is “an all-volunteer, privately funded group of people working to provide shelter for the homeless in Bellingham and Whatcom County,” was immediately on the case yesterday both in the community and online, rallying community members, and appealing to government officials to take action to ward off disaster for their homeless neighbors. Successful appeals for donations were made to get a number of people into hotel rooms for the night.

This morning, after that first February low-teens-temp night, community members were working independently, as well, to take coffee and food items to people near where people were standing outside the Lighthouse Mission, waiting to get inside their drop-in center (which, due to frozen pipes, was without running water). Posts were popping up in many groups and pages on Facebook trying to coordinate other food, drink, warmth, and space provisions for people during the daytime, and were raising money for more hotel stays tonight.

People were are also encouraging their friends and neighbors to call Mayor Linville at the City of Bellingham (360-778-8100 ) to demand warm places for people to stay overnight.

Sandy Robson, local writer for The Searchlight Review, first called the Lighthouse Mission to know what aid they were offering to people caught in the cold today and tonight. The City of Bellingham partners with the Lighthouse Mission and seems to rely heavily on this private religious non-profit to provide them with awareness about sheltering needs in the community. After some inquiries there, Robson then called the Mayor, as well as Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws’ office, and Fountain Community Church (another place COB states it partners with) to find out what was available for people in such emergency situations. Below are notes, and some observations on what she found out, that were assembled from a number of Facebook comments and posts that Robson made today.

I called the Lighthouse Mission (360-733-5120) at approx. 9:00 AM today, and asked:

“I wondered if there is room there for people, and if so, for approx. how many people?”

The person who answered my call said they will transfer me to the DIC (I assume that is Drop In Center). I asked the DIC person who came on the line if there is room there for people and if so for approx. how many, and the answer was something like, “we’re open and doing the best we can.” 

I wasn’t sure what that meant in terms of my question so I politely tried to get some clarification on his answer. I said I have a couple friends who are homeless and I’m concerned for them so is there room there for them or maybe around 10 people or so who my friends may be with. The response was something like, “yes, they can come in for a hot meal and coffee (I think he said “coffee”?). I thanked him for letting me know. 

But after that communication I realized nothing was said about sheltering people overnight. 

A few minutes after that I called Mayor Linville’s office

(360-778-8100) and asked: “What is the city doing or what can it do to help shelter homeless people right now during this weather? Especially overnight?”

The woman answering said that the Fountain Community Church and the Mission’s Drop In Center are working together to help. I told her about my experience talking with the Drop In Center which made it seem like it was for a hot meal but no mention of shelter for overnight in this cold weather. 

I asked if she knows if the Mission has space for overnight shelter and she said there are 50 spaces available. I asked her if she could please follow up with the DIC to see if they definitely have room for 50 people overnight because nothing was said to me about that when I inquired. She said she would.

I also said I imagine city law enforcement has knowledge of some of the areas where people without homes are gathered/located and asked her how is the city proactively informing them about what/where overnight shelter is available for them, and help getting to it if needed. She said they have a “Hot Team” that does that kind of work. I asked her if they are doing that right now during this weather. She replied that they are doing it all the time. 

After these calls to the Lighthouse Mission and Mayor Linville, Robson called County Executive Louws office:

A summary of my interaction with the Whatcom County Executive’s office and County Human Services Dept., after already having contacted Lighthouse Mission and the Bellingham Mayor’s office today to inquire about emergency help for people without homes in this very cold weather. I will add a summary of my previous interaction today with Mayor Linville’s office and the Lighthouse Mission in the comment section under this post.—

I called Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws’ office around 11:00 AM today and asked this question of the staff person who answered the phone:
“What is the county doing or what can it do to help shelter homeless people right now during this weather? Especially overnight?”

She replied that it’s probably best 
to talk to the County’s Human Services dept. (360-778-6002) and she transferred me.

A staff person from the Human Service’s Dept. answered and I explained I had called the County Executive’s office asking a question and was told that it’s best to talk with Human Services. 

I asked the same question quoted above and the staff person said that there is an emergency shelter center at Fountain Community Church with room for about 40 people — all women. I asked what is available for men, and he answered, “Lighthouse Mission.”

I told him I had called the Mission earlier this morning and spoke to someone at their Drop In Center and it was hard to understand from my interaction with them whether they had room for people or not. I explained to him what the DIC person had told me and added that I had not thought to ask the DIC specifically what room for overnight shelter is available. 

The Human Services Dept. person said something like, “Lighthouse Mission does have a hard time estimating that” and he added that the Mission does fill up sometimes.

He said during days the public library is available. I asked him which library, or is it all libraries. He said he was referring to Bellingham Library. I said I heard about an hour ago that someone had called the Bellingham Library after being told that the public meeting room was supposed to be open, but that the library staffer said that meeting room is not open and they would need instruction from the mayor to open it.

I told him that it’s been hard to find out exact information about these things and I’m concerned for people without homes in this cold weather so I’m trying to get information to share with people to get the word out. I also identified myself and said I follow local politics pretty closely so in that respect I’m additionally interested. He said he will make some calls and try to find out more (in terms of the information we discussed) and asked if I wanted him to follow up with me. I said “yes.”

I asked what is the County and our law enforcement doing proactively to get to people without homes who are in various outdoor locations who may need help. He said there is a Homeless Outreach Team that’s part of the Opportunity Council and they might know about going out to where homeless people are to let them know what’s available. 

About 15 minutes after we hung up, the Human Services Dept. staffer called back and had spoken to someone with the Bellingham Library and was told they are not using the public meeting room (he referred to it as the “warming room”) at the moment. I asked him why not. He said that warming room is a counterpart to another part of another plan (if I heard him correctly) so that if the Lighthouse Mission fills up then the Bellingham 
Library warming room can be made available. But in asking more questions to him, it sounds like that only happens if the Mission requests the warming room to be opened up and it’s for people from the Mission shelter who would then use the warming room during the day.

He also told me he checked with the Lighthouse Mission and was told that they have room at their DIC. I asked how much room and he said he was told they had a significant amount of space last night and expect there to be room tonight. 

I thanked him for his help and asked him to share a comment from me that it seems like there is no coordination and unified effort on getting the information accessible to people who inquire and most of all it seems like all of the emergency services have to be funneled through the Lighthouse Mission which seems, to me, to be problematic when some people without homes do not want to interact with the Mission for various reasons. 

And, each entity such as the Lighthouse Mission, the County Executive’s Office, the Human Services Dept., and the Bellingham Mayor’s office, all of which I interacted with today, all appear to believe that some things are, or will be, happening that may not in fact be happening in terms of ensuring the health and safety of members of the public who do not have homes/adequate shelter in this terrible cold weather. I said I hope that can be addressed very soon.

Another place that Robson contacted was Fountain Community Church, that was additionally referenced by the City of Bellingham as a place where people could get nighttime shelter.

I called the Fountain Community Church this afternoon and asked some questions about their overnight shelter option/s their church provides that the Bellingham Mayor’s office and County Human Services Dept. had referenced in my calls with their offices. 

First, it’s important to note that the Fountain Community Church shelter option is only for women (no men). I think (if I understood it correctly), I heard the church employee I spoke to say that if there is a family then they may be able to be interviewed by “Pastor Rick” to see if they could stay together there.

In order to stay overnight at the Fountain Community Church there is a screening process and that screening process is conducted through the Lighthouse Mission, and part of that screening process is that the person would have to have stayed 3 overnights at the Mission. 

After that, the mission makes that call of whether the person passes the screening based on their behavior over those three nights. 

If the Mission approves them and wants to send them to the church, then the church would accept them and would bus them over to the church. 

What seems very problematic to me is that the Lighthouse Mission seems to be the chokepoint for emergency sheltering and we know there are numerous people without homes who do not feel comfortable or safe there, but that seems to be the starting point for emergency sheltering in our county. I think that is too much control by one private entity.

Meanwhile, here are some additional notes from a video update which Jim Peterson, president of HomesNow! posted at around 11 a.m this morning:

  1. Arrangements were made for everyone from the Winter Haven temporary emergency tent encampment behind Bellingham City Hall, to have hotel rooms for tonight and the next two nights courtesy of a personal donation by Mayor Kelli Linville. 
  2. Mayor Linville also had said she was looking at opening a couple buildings for people to be in tonight for emergency shelter. [according to a press release on the COB website after Jim’s discussion with Mayor Linville, such facilities would only be made available if the Lighthouse Mission and Fountain Community Church were to reach capacity for sheltering people]
  3. Jim thanked people for calling the Mayor because their voices were heard. The mayor’s phone messages and city email inboxes were full of people’s requests for help.
  4. There was supposed to be an emergency meeting at the City that afternoon. 
  5. People’s lives were saved last night.
  6. $1000, to help get people into hotels, had been raised at the time of Jim’s update.
  7. People from HomesNOW! will be going out tonight again to find people who might need hotel rooms. 
  8. Markis Dee is requesting anyone with a bus they can share to contact him to set up a mobile warming space for people. 

And now, here are additional things that we all can still do to help save people from these freezing temps:

‼️Time to take action‼️ during this weather emergency affecting our community members who are out in the extreme weather conditions without a house or other shelter! Here are things we can do:

  1. Call Mayor Linville at 360-778-8100 and demand that overnight warm shelters be opened!
  2. If you have relationships with officials, agencies, or businesses that could help out to provide warm spaces, food, or drink, now is the time to connect!
  3. If you have friends with large RVs or busses that could be mobile warming centers, please call on them to see if they can help out. Message HomesNow. Not Later. on their FB page to coordinate efforts. @HomesNowNotLater
  4. Make donations for hotel rooms for people with no shelter resources. Donations can be made by Paypal to
  5. If you are close by, you can visit the Winter Haven temporary encampment behind City Hall to ask if there are ways to help the residents there.
  6. If folks need direction on other ways to help, check in with HomesNow. Not Later. You can message them on their FB page, @HomesNowNotLater.

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