Severe weather homeless strategies: picking up the pace to come from behind / Noisy Waters Northwest

Click the graphic of Bellingham City Council Member Dan Hammill wearing a gray and white plaid shirt sitting in a black chair in Bellingham City Council chambers to access video of the 8/26/19 Bellingham City Council Committee of the Whole meeting

August 30, 2019 Dena Jensen

“Okay, I’ll just take a quick point of privilege just to say that we absolutely recognize we have the need for shelter, especially – we have it all year round – but especially in the winter months. The group I believe, that Council Member Lilliquist is referring to, is the Homeless Strategies Workgroup. Council Member Barry Buchanan from the County’s side of the street organized that group. Stakeholders, several of us, attend that every two weeks. We take that issue very seriously and we want to come to a resolution on providing safe shelter for our most vulnerable neighbors. So, we absolutely take it very seriously.” – Bellingham City Council Member Dan Hammill

I’ve listened to about two thirds of the August 26, 2019 Bellingham City Council Committee of the Whole meeting yesterday and wanted to get some information out about one section of the meeting.

One of the things included in the list of items on the agenda for that meeting was a discussion of an interim ordinance allowing temporary encampments in Public zoning districts. A provision of the ordinance would be to exempt short term adverse weather shelters from the Type II review process that was being used under regular conditions.

The ordinance was approved 7-0 and that approval made way for the City of Bellingham to apply for, and hopefully receive a prompt approval for a “permit to operate a women’s overnight winter shelter in a building on the grounds of Civic Stadium.” There is an announcement on the COB webpage with some details about this proposed facility.

Council Member Pinky Vargas had asked, before the vote, if the ordinance would cover a member of the public offering their property for a shelter location or if this would only be for the City to be able to do with City property. COB Planning Director Rick Sepler answered that this would be for Public zoned properties, which would include properties that aren’t just City properties. However, the implication seemed to be that the ordinance would not cover privately owned properties.

The process of outlining and approving the ordinance prompted a discussion of the ongoing work of Whatcom County’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup, regarding temporary severe weather shelters, as well as permanent sheltering options for people who don’t have homes. 

Council Member and Committee of the Whole Chair Dan Hammill provided a quick run-down of shelter resources that had been available to community members last winter (during which time, those resources fell painfully short) that would not be available this winter.

Fountain Community Church, which early this year, had generously provided shelter and meals for around 40 women during extreme weather conditions, will no longer be providing this service. The church is still offering to provide their facility on a “very conditioned use,” according to Council Member Hammill.

Additionally, Council Member Hammill explained that Whatcom County had three to five motels or hotels that used to accept vouchers that were provided to people needing shelter in severe weather conditions by the Opportunity Council, under specific circumstances. This year it is anticipated there will only be one local hotel willing to participate in this program.

Council Member Hammill stated that the workgroup recognizes that the month of August is nearly over and that therefore there is a need to work very quickly. He indicated he believed that Whatcom County government has been showing positive new leadership on the front of providing emergency sheltering opportunities.

According to Council Member Hammill, there is what he called an “all hands on deck” recognition that all government agencies need to be working on this issue together and that each municipality alone would not be up to the task of successfully addressing the type of national epidemic problem that homelessness is.

Numerous stakeholders from throughout the County have been attending the Homeless Strategies Workgroup meetings. Council Member Hammill gave the example that representatives of the City of Ferndale, Lummi Nation, and the Port of Bellingham, are all attending the workgroup meetings.

Below is a list of the current workgroup members from the Homeless Strategies Workgroup page on the Whatcom County website:

Name  Appointed Position
Barry Buchanan, Chair Whatcom County Councilmember
Tyler Schroeder Whatcom County
Rud Browne Whatcom County Councilmember
Michael Lilliquist City of Bellingham Councilmember
Dan Hammill Bellingham City Councilmember
Kelli Linville City of Bellingham, Mayor
Riley Sweeney City of Ferndale
Michael Shepard Port of Bellingham, Commissioner
Hans Erchinger-Davis Lighthouse Mission Ministries Representative
Mike Parker Opportunity Council Representative
Nick Lewis Lummi Indian Business Council
Ann Beck Whatcom County Health
TBD Housing Advisory Committee Member
Emilio Vela, Jr. Northwest Youth Services Representative
Florence Simon Bellingham Police, Deputy Chief
Doug Chadwick Whatcom County Sheriff, Undersheriff
Mike Hilley Whatcom County EMS
Guy Occhiogrosso Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce Representative
Markis D. Stidham Homeless Advocate

Mayor Kelli Linville shared that Whatcom County Council Member Barry Buchanan had indicated that there would be outreach to the small cities – Nooksack, Sumas, Everson, Blaine, Everson, and Ferndale – to see what they felt they could contribute to the effort to safely shelter people this winter.

City Council Member Michael Lilliquist noted that the Port of Bellingham was making a new attempt to identify a property that could be used for a short-term winter shelter facility. The Mayor added that she felt that a specific property the Port has located could potentially serve as a space that could be used by many parts of the community, but that an operator for that space still needs to be identified.

Shortly following this, Council Member Hammill made this statement:

“So, there seems to be a notion that overnight [shelter] providers grow on trees out in the community. That is absolutely not the case. And there’s not someone – if we just would find them – that they would do it. That’s just not the case.”

Council Member Hammill went on to point out the Lighthouse Mission. The Mission is Bellingham’s one current low-barrier temporary shelter provider and has the largest permanent sheltering capacity for people without homes. The Council Member went on to minimize the significant fact that Lighthouse Mission Ministries is a religious organization of which the stated vision is to have homeless people become god-dependent.

The goals of HomesNOW! to expand their ability to create multiple tiny home communities throughout the County went entirely unmentioned during the committee’s conversation. Instead, Mayor Linville elaborated on the subject of other shelter providers, expressing that she knows of providers outside of the area who were interested in offering long-term permanent shelter services, but not short-term temporary services.

As it stands, it seems that stakeholders involved in homeless strategies through the County’s workgroup have entered into their efforts, in some ways, from a worse position than that from which they started last year. Some of the critical, but scant, resources they could rely on during the relentlessly freezing and hostile month of February 2019 are no longer available.

Be that as it may, these stakeholders seemed to be much more engaged than they were at this point last year, and leave the impression that they are working hard and with urgency to address upcoming extreme weather needs that will provide shelter for people who otherwise may be left out in potentially fatal elements.

It will be critically important for community members to keep these stakeholders informed and insist that they are bringing in much more input from the people who are living on the streets. People who are living without indoor places to sleep, be stable, and safe are the most knowledgeable about many vital factors required for solutions that will successfully address their needs and save their lives this winter.

Here is a link to meeting schedule, agendas, minutes, and audio recordings of the Homeless Strategies Workgroup:

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