‘She comes and goes addressing the camps’: Who decides homeless camp ‘clean ups’ for the City of Bellingham? / Noisy Waters Northwest

Click the screenshot of a HomesNow. Not Later. Facebook post with text and picturing a Zoom meeting still frame of the 9/11/20 Homeless Strategies Workgroup meeting in order to access a recording of that meeting


September 12, 2020 Dena Jensen

On Friday, September 11, 2020 Whatcom County’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup (HSW) held their most recent meeting. Many critical issues were discussed and people should watch and listen to the whole meeting. Homelessness is an emergency for many members of our community.

In this blog post, however, I am providing a transcription of a discussion during the meeting, which began shortly before public comment was taken and continued throughout some of the public comments later on. The discussion focused on Bellingham Police Department (BPD) policy/procedure related to City of Bellingham unauthorized homeless “camp clean ups”, as they are referred to by COB.

Numerous HSW meeting attendees sought to confirm whether there was an existing written BPD policy regarding unauthorized homeless camp clean ups and what person or entity has been responsible, during the months of the COVID-19 emergency, in deciding which camps are chosen to be cleaned up, and have their residents evicted.

There were numerous details revealed during the discussion that were previously unknown about current actions regarding homeless camp clean ups. However, BPD Lieutenant David Crass’s account of camp clean up decision-making remained in flux to the end. Observers are left to put two and two together from the totality of his remarks.

Many important questions were asked at the meeting but here is one that did not end up getting directly asked or answered during the discussion: If Claudia Vizcarra was “coming back and forth,” and visiting homeless camps “infrequently,” according to Lieutenant Crass, during some periods in the last few months, did she always visit camps personally to verify assessments that had been made by individuals from the Opportunity Council?

Markis D. Stidham, known as Markis Dee on Facebook, is the Homeless Advocate member of the HSW. He participated in portions of this discussion. Stidham has been researching BPD’s camp clean up policy over the last few months and published an in-depth report, yesterday, September 11, 2020, about his observations and fact-finding on Northwest Citizen.

Here is some additional information to provide clarity as to which individuals or organizations are participating in, or are related to the discussion below.

Barry Buchanan is Chairman of the Whatcom County Council and Chair of the Homeless Strategies Workgroup

Seth Fleetwood is the current mayor of the City of Bellingham

Hannah Stone is a Bellingham City Council Member

Michael Lilliquist is a Bellingham City Council Member

Cathy Halka is a legislative analyst for the Whatcom County Council, according to her Linked in profile, and helps facilitate the remote meetings for the Homeless Strategies Workgroup

Lieutenant David Crass oversees BPD Outreach Officers in the Community

Joe Leighton is Police Sergeant at Bellingham Police Department according to his Linked-in profile

Krystal and Mary are community members who offered public comment at the September 11, 2020 HSW meeting

Claudia Vizcarra is listed as a Code Enforcement Officer at City of Bellingham on her Linked-in profile

The HOT team is the Whatcom Homeless Service Center, Homeless Outreach Team for the Opportunity Council

I am providing a link to the recording of the September 11, 2020 Homeless Strategies Workgroup meeting that Doug Gustafson of HomesNOW made and posted on Facebook. There are some time-stamps in my transcription that give a sense of timing on this particular recording of the meeting in relation to this discussion: https://www.facebook.com/HomesNowNotLater/posts/1266121893730428. There is also a recording of the meeting that is posted on Whatcom County’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup page.

Here is the transcription which begins at the 00:50:30 mark in the recorded video:

Markis Stidham: Yeah, I’d like to, you know, I’m taking space, but I really want to offer the space, again, to any civic leader, would like to speak to the clean-ups issue going on with BPD. I don’t – or if anybody from – if maybe David Crass [representing for HSW member Florence Simon, Bellingham Police, Deputy Chief] has any news. We’ve been expecting documents – asking for documents – Hannah Stone asked for documents from the BPD on July 24th. We’re talking about 4 pieces of paper. They still have not showed up. Anybody? Seth? 

00:51:03

David Crass: I’ll talk about that. We’ve been corresponding back and forth with Council Member Stone. She has a document. She’s made edits. We’re meeting with her, probably Tuesday to go over that and finalize it. We’ve also – gathering information for public disclosure requests on the same topic. It’s all in the works. It’s been back and forth. She’s aware of it. She’s seen the document, and like I said, it’s in a draft mode now. We’re finalizing it next week, should be ready to go. 0051:32

Markis Stidham: Thank you for that. I appreciate that. As, so far, the only public person who’s been dealing with this, I would appreciate being in the loop with any information that comes down. I haven’t had a reply from Hannah since I last heard from her on August 27th. Seth, I see that maybe you’re here – can you offer any, shed any light. The last time we spoke on September 1st we were talking about the veracity of my statements in this 7 page letter and I’m wondering if you’d made any headway? 

00:52:08

Barry Buchanan: It looks like Seth is frozen to me. 

Markis Stidham: Okay. Well anyway, and again –

Michael Lilliquist: I’m not going to address this question in detail here. I’ll just let you know that I certainly have been in communication with the Mayor, with Hannah, with the Police Chief. As I have indicated all along, my concern is that not only that we have policy, but that we’re following our policy. And so, I’m going to leave my comments there. That’s been my focus. That’s my effort. 

Markis Stidham: Okay, I’ve just got to say that I’ve heard the policy preached to me from all sides – from Councillors telling me what Dave Doll’s policy is, that’s fine. Except the policy is definitely not being followed and I stand 100% by the veracity of the letter that I submitted to the work group and I would testify to every bit of in court. 

Barry Buchanan: Seth, it looks like you’re not frozen now. Go ahead.

Seth Fleetwood: Yeah, I don’t know if you heard me or not. Suddenly everything went screen – everything went blank for the last minute. 53:12 [cross talk] Well, I’ll repeat myself, if I wasn’t heard at all. I just – the last thing I heard, Markis, was you asking if I had anything to add to what David Crass had mentioned. My understanding is that we’re compiling data and I’m hopeful that we can provide an update on that at our next Homeless Strategies Workgroup meeting in two weeks, if not before. But certainly will report on that at our next meeting. 

Markis Stidham: I appreciate that and I hope we can all speed it along faster. I remind you all we’re in a pandemic emergency and as far as I’ve been aware, we’re still operating with – in the absence of any policy on camp clean ups, so thank you. 

00:54:00

Barry Buchanan: Okay, thanks all, for that. Let’s go ahead and move into public comment. Cathy is there anyone with their hand raised? 

After this in the meeting, Doug Gustafson offers his public comment unrelated to this discussion.

Cathy Halka speaks regarding the next public commenter.

Then a public commenter, Audrey, is called on to speak. 

Barry Buchanan notes that they are not getting any audio from Audrey, and then, discussion continues.

Cathy Halka: The next speaker is Krystal

Barry Buchanan: Krystal.

Krystal: Hi there, thank you. I just have a quick question from what David Crass just said. He seemed to imply that a policy is newly being drafted and reviewed by Hannah Stone, so I’m curious what procedure Bellingham Police is following now and I’d like clarification on his statement. Does that mean that there, there’s been no policy in effect since the pandemic to follow CDC and County Health recommendations to leave unsheltered homeless in place and only address when health situations in this emergency – I’m trying to understand. Has there been no change in that policy? Is this a newly drafted procedure and it’s not yet being followed by police?

57:16 

David Crass: I’ll explain to you. There is no policy specifically. It’s a procedure, just like how we handle various situations. It’s pretty in-depth. There were changes made due to COVID. It’s kind of the totality of the impact and hazards at a site. That was the criteria. When stuff was deemed unsafe, we were gettin’ notices from several [indistinguishable] from around the city that certain sites were creating hazards like fire, like health hazards, things like that. So, there’s no exact science to it. It’s the procedures that were given to Council Member Stone. There is no policy. It’s, I guess that it’s a procedural document. 

Krystal: Okay, yeah – just for clarification – then I used the wrong word. Is there no specific procedure in place right now. Is that newly being drafted? 

00:59:23

David Crass: No, nothing’s changed. The criteria was, I guess, more restrictive. When we came back after the six weeks pause – if – the camps are prioritized, and so camps are still on the list that were there previously but the ones that are being addressed are the ones that create the greatest impact. It’s a long process. I’m happy to talk to anyone about it, if you want to give me a call. Again, we should have our document that went to Council Member Stone completed and out of drafts form next week, for sure. 

Yeah, I’m happy to talk about – I don’t want to take up everyone’s time. It gets very detailed. 

Krystal: Thank you. 01:00:04

Barry Buchanan: Okay, next speaker. 

Cathy Halka asks Krystal to state her full name for the record, which she does.

01:00:18

Barry Buchanan: Okay, who’s our next speaker?

Cathy Halka: Next is Mary McIntosh

Barry Buchanan: Mary, go ahead.

Mary McIntosh: Hi, my name is Mary McIntosh and I’d like to speak to what was just said. With the camp clean-ups, it appears now if the policy or the procedure is just being drafted now that Krystal’s absolutely correct. There was nothing in place up until this current time, which means for all of these months, these six months that COVID has been in an emergency status here in our county and city and the entire world, we’ve had no policy or procedure in place to deal with the homeless people.

Also, I understand that Claudia Vizcarra, the police officer that is deemed responsible for tagging the camps that are to be cleaned up is working remotely. And so, I’m curious as to who is the person, or who is entity that is tagging these sites that are being cleaned up? Who’s making this decision without a health professional available to decide if a camp is healthy or if it is something that needs to be cleaned up for health reasons. Is there anybody who’s able to answer that question? 

David Crass: Yeah, I’m happy to talk about that. No, there’s always been procedures in place. 1:01:44 They became more restrictive of which camps were prioritized to be scheduled for clean up. So, we had to look at the impacts and hazards and things like that. There’s a misconception that it’s just a health hazard. It’s many hazards that are involved with that. Claudia Vizcarra is not a police officer, she’s a civilian. She’s an encampment clean-up coordinator. She does direct folks. She’s in charge of scheduling and determining which camps are tagged. They’re done by the officers on the days of the clean up. Markis is familiar with how that goes. He’s seen it. She goes out and decides what’s tagged and how that goes. She gets an assessment kind of through HOT. HOT doesn’t determine what gets cleaned up. They just verify is there a camp there? Does it look big? Does it look small? And they communicate through that. 01:02:32

 Mary McIntosh: So it sounds like the HOT team is the one that makes the decision. 

David Crass: No, not at all. It’s Claudia Vizcarra. 

Mary McIntosh: Claudia Vizcarra makes that decision depending on what the HOT team says.

David Crass: No. In conjunction with the information. They kind of verify, yeah we saw a camp here. Is it big? Is it small? What is the impacts there. She goes to the sites. She goes out there. And then we made some changes. We saw we could do things better. She’s there more frequently than she was. But yeah, she’s the one that makes full determination of what is scheduled. 

Mary McIntosh: Oh, so she’s not working remotely at this time. She is actually going to the camps.

David Crass: She’s been out on and off. She works remotely a lot of the time, but she comes into the office several times a week just depending on the nature of if there’s work available that she has to physically be here for –

Mary McIntosh: I guess I was just asking if she’s actually physically gone to the camps or not. 

David Crass: Yes, she is. 

Mary McIntosh: Okay, that’s good. Alright, thank you.

No other members of the public were able to speak right then due to technical difficulties (they were not able to unmute their speakers). Then, the discussion continues.

Barry Buchanan: Okay, thanks Cathy. We will close the public comment section and I will call on Markis.

Markis Stidham: Hi, I don’t mean to take up too much of this, although this is an emergency and this has been going on all summer. Thank you, Dave Crass for explaining some of that. There – I need a little clarification, if you don’t mind. I’m – when did Claudia start going out on – in the field this summer?

David Crass: She’s been going out at different times with the Kit crew. Sometimes for the briefing, sometimes not. She comes in to impound evidence, if it’s needed. She’s come back and forth. Most of our division is working remotely when they need to, just to limit contact. She’s been going to the camps for the last couple weeks prior. 01:05:41 And the day of the clean up she’s been going to the camp with officers ahead of the clean ups.

Markis Stidham: And when did that start?

David Crass: Probably three weeks ago. 

Markis Stidham: So up until three weeks ago we’ve been operating without Claudia.

David Crass: No. No [indistinguishable] having her go out more frequently. And that was based off your information that it wasn’t probably as frequent as it should be.

Markis Stidham: I just, to be clear, [crosstalk]. Do I hear? I’m hearing okay. Okay, anyway, I – just to be clear, you were meeting with me too, Dave. 

I think we’ve got Shari unmuted or Audrey is too right now. 

But, I just, you were in the meeting where Claudia had said, I’ve not been going out at all during the COVID crisis to any of the camps. And it was somebody else who was telling her all of the information about the camps and she would write the orders to the officers. Now, I just want to make sure that we’re clear on that. So, up to three weeks ago that was the status is what I think I’m gathering. 01:06:44

David Crass: It was that she wasn’t going out as frequently. I don’t know that [indistinguishable]. She comes and goes addressing the camps. We did direct her to go on the days of the clean up so there was a closer proximity to verify the activities of the camp. And that was strictly based off the conversations I had with you. I said, why don’t we start doing that? [cross talk] Prior to that, she was going infrequently. She was going, but it wasn’t all the time. 

Markis Stidham: Okay, well I thank you for clarifying. You know, I welcome anybody. I’m trying to keep this an open dialogue. I have been asking for leadership from the beginning. I don’t want to feel like I’m dragging everybody through this. So, if you have information that you can share with me that says, we’ve made some progress somewhere, boy, do I want to hear about it. That goes to the civic leaders. That goes to the police department. I want to be seen as a partner. I’m a sheltering agent, but I also happen to be Homeless Advocate on this workgroup and I have to do that. And that’s, so I appreciate all of your time with this and if you see me beating my head against the wall with passion, it’s because I’ve been the only one talking about it. I thank the speakers who spoke today. And so, I think there’s more work to be done. I appreciate being cut into the loop. I thought – I was told by Hannah that Leighton was going to be in charge of getting the paperwork finally dealt with and so now it is you, correct, Dave?

David Crass: It’s Leighton, Vizcarra, and myself. 

Markis Stidham: Okay, well I look forward to hopefully hearing from all of you soon on this just so we can bring it to a speedy resolution. We’re in an emergency. Let’s come up with solutions, as well, not just policy. Thanks. 01:08:20