The City of Bellingham and Whatcom County Government have been increasingly focused since the cold weather season has hit, on putting out information about their housing and sheltering efforts. There is no doubt that they have been making efforts to create low income housing and to sustain and enhance some sheltering solutions. But a significant challenge being faced right now by our community is a failure of our government agencies to respond effectively to hostile weather emergency sheltering needs, especially during a pandemic.
Once agencies dropped pursuing and developing a large secular congregate emergency homeless shelter in 2018, Whatcom County’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup, which had been focused on that effort, disbanded for about a year (June 2018 to July 2019).
Warnings about insufficient emergency shelter options had been issued. In 2017 there was a campout on the City Hall lawn. A few measures addressing facets of the homeless crisis ensued. A year later, people in HomesNOW’s first sanctioned village, that consisted of standardized, reinforced tents behind Bellingham City Hall at that time, were moved to hotels during a spell of freezing temperatures.
A cold snap in February of 2019 found our County Health Board (made up of the Whatcom County Council), and the City of Bellingham scrambling to respond to urgent calls from the community that people were going to die of exposure if additional hostile weather sheltering was not implemented. The City opened a warming center that was staffed, in part, by City Council Members, for two nights and then closed it with the Mayor moving to end her emergency declaration, and the County opening their own warming center and staffing it, in part, with City And County Council Members. They left that sheltering option open for 2 weeks. Even though the response was inadequate and short-lived, the participation of civic leaders in volunteering to provide shelter helped build respect with the community.
During all that time and to this present day scores of community members have been out on the streets during winter days and nights providing triage services and some community-provided sheltering solutions to those who are living and sleeping outside.
Meanwhile, after the Homeless Strategies Workgroup was revived again in the summer of 2019, with a goal to:
• Additional temporary winter shelters,
• Added capacity for year round shelters.
• Additional opportunities to address the needs of the county’s homeless population, and
– An additional purpose of the Homeless Strategies Workgroup (as per 8/9/19 meeting) is to create a communication network for organizations to work together better.
• Strategies to prevent people from having no other option than to sleep outside.
The preparations for winter sheltering that year included the addition of youth sheltering for about 20 through Northwest Youth Services. There were three church-led severe weather shelters that were enabled, which could have served well over 100 community members, but which were not sufficiently made accessible when freezing nights set in. There was an overflow shelter at Civic Field that was opened in December of that year to take unsheltered women when the Lighthouse Mission was not equipped to take them into their Drop-in Center. (Fountain Community Church offered this overflow service the year prior.)
At the Homeless Strategies Workgroup, members were warned that existing provisions would not be effective in sheltering all the community members who did not have it. Community members were testifying at civic meetings with the same messaging. As during the hostile weather season before, people were injured and died due to sleeping in the cold.
This year, HSW members were warned at virtually every meeting that the coming hostile weather season was an emergency for which urgent preparation was necessary. Doug Gustafson from HomesNOW gave public testimony every meeting to the HSW and frequently at other civic meetings, offering to submit a proposal for at least one, if not two new tiny home communities. Other community members submitted written recommendations that could be components to solutions. Officials at those meetings never took Doug up on his offer or engaged with him to examine potential obstacles.
The Health Department reported that no churches or other providers that they reached out to were available to provide severe weather sheltering for the coming cold weather season.
Also, the matter of COB encampment sweeps, which, in effect, are against CDC COVID-19 recommendations to leave people camping outdoors in place, were brought up frequently at HSW meetings. After sweeps were suspended for about 6 weeks, they resumed again. Then, shortly after BPD created a Camp Clean-up procedure manual over the course of a couple months (this was subsequent to their saying they already had an encampment clean-up policy) the sweeps were again reported as being suspended.
A quick mid-winter update and heads-up
People should be aware regarding the 2019/2020 vs. 2020/2021 comparison placed on the Whatcom County Government Facebook page saying that “This winter the number of beds for the unsheltered has increased more than 40%,” that the motel stays (for which they don’t state the length of the motels stays or what it takes to qualify to receive them), plus the 44 added beds at Light House Mission-controlled facilities (Base Camp plus overflow), are the only significant contributors to the 40% increase being noted in the comparison. The County and City action to bring about HomesNOW’s new village of Swift Haven units were severely delinquent (despite HomesNOW making repeated offers), coming late in December. But thank heaven for people speaking up, and not letting up, and for our governments finally taking action to make it happen.
I am calling on people to not stop speaking up, not stop letting up, and to bring on ample, diverse, and appropriate sheltering solutions for all our unhoused friends and neighbors.
Contact your representatives here:
Whatcom County Executive:
Satpal Sidhu <firstname.lastname@example.org>;
Whatcom County Council:
Entire Council (for the record) <email@example.com>;
Barry Buchanan <firstname.lastname@example.org>;
Todd Donovan <email@example.com>;
Carol Frazey <firstname.lastname@example.org>;
Rud Browne <email@example.com>;
Tyler Byrd <firstname.lastname@example.org>;
Kathy Kershner <email@example.com>;
Ben Elenbaas <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Bellingham Mayor and City Council:
Seth Fleetwood <email@example.com>;
Hannah E. Stone <firstname.lastname@example.org>;
Hollie A. Huthman <email@example.com>;
Michael W. Lilliquist <firstname.lastname@example.org>;
Daniel C. Hammill <email@example.com>;
Lisa A. Anderson <firstname.lastname@example.org>;
Gene R. Knutson <email@example.com>;
Pinky T. Vargas <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Seth Fleetwood (Mayor) – (360) 778-8100
Hannah Stone (1st Ward) – (360) 778-8211
Gene Knutson (2nd Ward) – (360) 733-1640
Daniel Hammill (3rd Ward) l – (360) 778-8213
Pinky Vargas (4th Ward) – (360) 778-8210
Lisa Anderson (5th Ward) – (360) 778-8217
Michael Lilliquist (6th Ward) – (360) 778-8212 and 360-920-2684
Hollie Huthman (At-Large) – (360) 778-8216
Seth Fleetwood (Mayor) – (360) 778-8100
Phone: (360) 733-1640
Phone: (360) 778-8217