Fall, wind, and rain are here; legal homeless camping or emergency shelters aren’t

Click the graphic of the agenda for the 9/25/2020 Homeless Strategies Workgroup (HSW) meeting to access the HSW meeting materials page on the Whatcom County website

September 24, 2020 Dena Jensen

Fall, wind, and rain are here. Late-November, (which is the last time severe weather shelters were offered) is two months away. At Friday’s 1:30 p.m. Homeless Strategies Workgroup meeting, 5 minutes are scheduled for discussing Winter Shelter (temporary and emergency) and 5 minutes are scheduled for discussing Encampment clean-up/sweeps. How are these critical topics not a priority topic when people who are unsheltered are in positions -right now – to have their tarps and tents either blow away or be flooded, and freezing temps are weeks away? 

There is, however, more time budgeted during the meeting for public comment, so we can turn 10 minutes into 30, if we all attend the virtual meeting and call for an end to the displacement of unsheltered community members and for truly increased and more accessible severe weather shelter during COVID-19. Here is the link to attend: https://zoom.us/j/93589073199?pwd=Nk13NzlQTUNaTml4b3JVUTU4ZnRHZz09 

In the meantime, below is a link to a copy of the newly created Bellingham Police Department “Camp Clean-up Procedures” for September 2020 that was presented yesterday by Chief Doll to the Bellingham City Council. This version does not note that it is a draft copy. A former copy did: https://noisywatersnw.files.wordpress.com/2020/09/clean-up-procedures-september-2020.pdf 

This is something to read up on and get a feel for how community members are being vacated from their campsites in a county where there is no legal camping provided for people who don’t have any type of housing. You can comment on this at the HSW meeting or at the Bellingham City Council meeting on Monday, at 7:00 p.m. 

If it hasn’t been clear to folks before, like it wasn’t to me, for the camps that are chosen to be “cleaned-up,” the campers are always vacated if the camp is “cleaned.” Cleaned means removed. Campers are given notice, they are offered services, but if people are not a match for the services offered, those people are simply told they have to leave, even if offending health or safety hazards have been removed before officers and contractors show up. The camps are removed and the people are removed.  

This is the definition that Bellingham Police Department is using for camp clean-ups: “Clean-ups – Bellingham Police Department Encampment Clean-up Coordinator determines if an active camp site requires a scheduled clean-up according to the guidelines and criteria described in these procedures. A clean-up is a prioritized complaint driven intervention with illegal camp sites to asses health, environmental, and safety concerns; offer outreach services related to housing, behavioral health, and drug addiction; provide a five day notice to vacate the premises; and then clean the camp site to redress identified health, environmental, and safety impacts and hazards.”  

The term clean-up does not accurately encompass a process where camp residents must always vacate the site. This is especially true when they must vacate the camp regardless of any improvements that have eliminated environmental, health, or safety hazards during COVID-19 at a camp, when CDC recommendations state that those that are homeless should not be moved.  Says the CDC: “If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/homeless-shelters/unsheltered-homelessness.html#facility-encampments