Thoughts on the Camp 210 Sweep / Commentary by Kai Rapaport

Police presence at Camp 210 Sweep. Photo Credit: Kai Rapaport

February 5, 2021 Kai Rapaport

[Author’s Note: I am not a representative of Camp 210, but a concerned community member and volunteer; mistakes are my own]

Dear Bellingham,

This message is a plea to our Mayor Fleetwood to stop the sweep of our houseless neighbors at Camp 210, in their new location by Puget and Fraser near Civic field Friday at 4pm. This article is also an invitation to the community to support our houseless neighbors in voicing their concerns about this sweep. 

I understand this message is long so I can summarize it now:

Please contact your Mayor, principally; your health department; the parks department; your City Councilmembers; and encourage your organizations to denounce this sweep. Sweeps do not solve houselessness, they only move our houseless neighbors.

On the City’s violent sweep

As time ticks towards the sweep that was ordered on this Friday at 4 p.m. of Camp 210, a page has stained Bellingham’s history. A page when our city let a heavily militarized force of snipers, SWAT, Whatcom Sheriff, Bellingham Police, Customs Border Patrol and others to break up a homeless encampment. The City’s use of force in this sweep was so excessive to respond to a force of a few dozen protestors with their hands and their signs. This is during a pandemic, in the winter, in 30 degree weather.

Photos circulating online show a majority of these officers with their masks below their noses even when they are on the “safety line.” This is instead of sending social workers, nurses, advocates, and others to help the campers in this spot or help them to a new spot. Was this an exercise to fulfill a quota, given that there have not been many protests (including no significant inauguration protest) recently, and the police had nowhere to exercise their fancy equipment that was often granted by the military? Equipment able to assassinate, inflict mass murder, is deeply concerning. I am grateful that this equipment has not seen light (used fully today); that shots were not fired. But there is no expectation that this will not happen next time.

Many camp volunteers were not aware of any presence of social workers from the City in the past weeks. Bellingham has a long dark history of working with its cops to displace minority groups, including its history of alliances with the KKK; kicking out of our Sikh, Chinese, black community members; as well as violence of land theft and continued occupation of native land. It would be ignorant to think that this was largely a surprise, that this would not happen again.

This day marks a new direction that our city’s leadership is not afraid to employ. Gone may be the days of muted cop response to BLM protests, hello to a world of a more visible and not ignorable militarized state. A thorough review of the evidence for escalation of this sweep is necessary. Needless trauma was done. Our community members who were already enduring dire conditions in the midst of a pandemic and frigid temperatures were targeted, forced from the space they made for themselves, displaced as though they were disposable, along with their belongings.

Encampment clean ups are sweeps; to force our neighbors out of public spaces with no other viable option is displacement, and it jeopardizes the well-being of our community.


The City claimed that belongings that were seized by the City from those camped at the lawn in the previous Camp 210 site would be held for 60 days, but there has been a lack of communication about how those belongings can be accessed.

On City misinformation:

Many were working during the last sweep and will likely not be able to attend this time, having to focus on making sure they pay their bills in this already challenging time. At last week’s sweep, locally CenturyLink and many other internet providers saw their internet go down when a local fiber cable was cut just in the time of the sweep. While I do not claim that there was a definite attempt to remove internet access to limit access to info about this sweep, I do know the City and police have power to do so.

Additionally, the City of Bellingham has been censoring its comments on its social media platforms, including instagram, with – most notably – their most recent post of a City worker working on broadband issues. and More than daily, comments are removed that tell the mayor to stop the sweeps. It isn’t a surprise the City is censoring public input. The Mayor claims that community members are largely for the sweep. So why should they censor public input if they claim they are even listening to this community? 

Disappointing City Council response

This sweep was administered principally by your own mayor, who decided to sweep one day earlier than given notice, outside of any City Council meeting. Many have emailed and called and contacted, via social media, our City Councilmembers asking them to stop the sweeps.

Many of our city Councilmembers have their voicemails set up to forward all calls to their voicemails and have either disabled or had their voicemails full at every call. This has been my and many others’ experience since trying to engage the City on any issue for years. If you call Councilmember Dan Hammill, Hollie Huffman, Michael Lilliquist, Lisa Anderson you will experience this, and I invite you to keep contacting them and see for yourself. The other City Council members have largely not responded at all to any message.

From email communications I have had with City Councilmembers, I have been told that several are concerned about the type of sweep that happened, but none of them claim any responsibility or action they will take around it. Michael Lilliquist has seemed to have responded the most, citing in our City code that our mayor has much more power than the City, but that does not prevent our councilmembers from denouncing the actions of the sweep, whether or not they can stop the actual event. 

Dan Hammill agrees that Border Patrol and snipers were not the best thing to do. But he wants you to care about our homeless, even though he has not committed to any action, statement about camp210, and wants to assure us it will be discussed at the next meeting, by which time a new sweep will already be conducted! Ethics, advocacy, illegal actions of the City cannot be delegated to a once every 2week/1month action. When the City decides or does violently sweep the community they need to discuss with each other the actions that have passed.

Of members of the County Council who were also contacted, several claimed they do not have jurisdiction over the City of Bellingham and its sweep. However, the Whatcom Sherrifs were at the scene. Bellingham and Whatcom County collectively work together on housing issues. It is well known there is extensive communication between our law enforcement agencies, as partly exposed by records obtained in groups such as the immigration advisory board.

There will be a discussion at the next City Council meeting about public comment. Public comment in a the last meeting was threatened to be cancelled. This is because some community members were talking about Camp 210 and about stopping the sweep, and were swearing in the process. No doubt that may be discussed. Additionally, the HSW, or Whatcom County’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup, just announced that it was cancelling public comment for their February 5, 2021 meeting. In their statement, they made no mention of the sweep at all. 

Direct response to Councilmember Lisa Anderson:

Other City Councilmembers, including Lisa Anderson, claim that they are so busy with their job that they can’t respond to this issue. Why isn’t this their major priority right now? Many of us are busy too, I as a full time student, holding two jobs, and volunteering many hours each week, spending countless hours trying to send emails and do work to prevent this sweep. It is not my job at all – I am not paid by the city to advocate – I am just a community member. Instead, it is your job, people voted for you to represent us. Your message does come off as an excuse. As to masks: where is this adherence to masks? Look at Lighthouse missions social media posts on instagram. 90% of the photos are unmasked and indoors. Sanitation: No support is given to campers at camp 210. Base camp? Millions of dollars. Covid checking: Health department in full strength support with Base Camp. Camp 210? Nothing, some COVID testing before because of demands, but nothing at all now. There are reasons folks are leaving voicemails, it is because they are passionate about something. You may have people yelling at you, but you can delete those as soon as you want if you like, but if you agree you are not listening because of yelling, then you are blocking off constituents. People may swear, but people are also houseless in near 23 degree weather at 210 Camp. City councilmembers refuse to condemn seth’s action to sweep Camp 210 and trust that Seth is a caring man. Why would a caring man send swat troops, 100 police, sheriffs, snipers, on a day without a single social worker to sweep? Is this based on working from the heart? In terms of facts, we do not have appropriate shelter solutions. Until then, this camp sweep needs to stop. Continue to communicate, but make it faster, and have empathy, and listen to your constituents who are overwhelmingly against the sweeps. How about communicating as an individual and as a human denouncing these sweeps? 

City councilmembers say that they don’t want to move folks from site to site, and make comments to the mayor, but yet don’t condemn the sweep.

On immediate health needs

I would ask the City and possibly health department to please ensure power, water, bathrooms, and trash service like at the previous camp. However, at this point it doesn’t seem the City will do so despite the obvious need for it. We are in a pandemic and the lack of viable sheltering is a public health emergency. 

I am grateful that our health department has recognized racism as a public health crisis. However, many people who are homeless are people of color. According to the organization endhomelessness, 40% of the houseless population is Black (https://endhomelessness.org/resource/racial-inequalities-homelessness-numbers/).

When the health department was called to ask what their thoughts were on the sweep, they said they are in communication with the City. They said they cannot commit to describing or visiting or negotiating about providing basic health hygiene necessities like hand-washing stations. I understand our health department is busy with a challenging COVID response, but this community includes our houseless neighbors as well. Yes, they support non profit shelters which all have high barriers, but they are inadequately supporting this group of community members.

In addition, officers were not doing their duty in wearing face masks correctly, despite wearing gear that was military grade, and should be reprimanded for doing so in a pandemic. The health department claimed that they spoke with the police about this, but the police have been always interacting with the homeless without masks or wearing them improperly. Even though the police and jail recently reported a COVID outbreak.

Some history 

Several months ago, houseless community members were scattered amongst riverbeds, under trees, under bridges, under storefronts, in their cars, or in between places. This still goes on, but this pandemic has clearly increased economic tensions and widened disparities. And one day, houseless folks decided to gather up at City Hall together because why not – it had been done before; it was a public area; it was cold; it was somewhat sheltered. City of Bellingham wasn’t having it and they did what they knew best in responding to the homeless: sweep them. They swept them at a time when a sweep policy was not public, and when made public, regarded sweeps as illegal. And people showed up. Dozens of people circled the campers and the cops did not show up. The camp grew. 

Lack of support 

With growing size, tensions increased when no other good alternatives were in place. Tensions do exist at camp because there are no reasonable alternatives and no funding for case workers, health professionals, no housing, no support in food, people here have largely been abandoned by the City and nonprofits in town.

Alternatives which were not accessible to the houseless at the Camp 210 include: many nonprofits, who were and are at capacity and offered little support to these houseless at camp 210 (Opportunity Council, HOT team, etc.) (with exception of some gloves). Lighthouse Mission, contracted with the City in their new place called “Base Camp” was able to house 200 people under a Christian mission that aimed at making them know god and believing that once they built this connection, they could heal from the mental health conditions or other challenges that faced them. The reality is that there are concerns of folks of a wide range including being triggered by religious trauma, and there isn’t enough to house the nearly 150 people at Camp 210’s peak.

Grief

I and many others will miss the rich conversations we had with the houseless at Camp 210. Each day, each person, each visitor, each volunteer, each of us who has come through the Camp, I’m sure, has a story to tell. I grieve for the space where this community banded up to support those that were houseless when there are no reasonable alternative places for them to be.

I miss the conversation with one camper whose eyes shined when she heard in a camp meeting that she could park in this lot and people would keep in eye on her, when previously as an individual in a private place she would constantly be at risk of harassment from cops and other folks. But Camp 210 is not over, Camp 210 will not stop until houselessness ends, and its current focus is at their site at Geri Fields. 

On negotiations and zero barrier shelters

Camp 210 is not all of the houseless in Bellingham. It is not, never will be, or ever was all of them. But it was a success when it went on, despite challenges through negotiation. Negotiation that had gone on for months with advocates arguing for immediate shelters, and when each time the city would argue for less, the camp grew and grew, and the City kept its original promise at the beginning of the start when there were only 25 campers. Constantly the City pushed back against a zero barrier shelter that is evidenced-based practice.

(https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19336710/

Trust in the City

Promises and words and law are meaningless if they are not kept by a government that we are expected to respect and trust. Campers were ordered to be swept another time (how many times were folks ordered to be swept? – so many times to be counted, despite not having a reasonable place to go) for a Friday, but instead, at around 8 a.m., 100 cops showed up, and more and more, to sweep early.

The scene of the sweep was chaotic. The militarized response, the lack of accountability of our government to come down and try to calm things down, the anger of protestors, several campers, several of those that have previously been houseless, people who often have already been struggling with similar threats of eviction notices from their landlords.

The sweep was traumatic for many there, likely for many of us watching, and I can’t imagine what it must have been like for those living these experiences, the campers themselves. All of this to reduce the Bad PR of a homelessness crisis at this own City’s door at City Hall. 

An apology is needed

This sweep was a mistake and community members and taxpayers expect an apology. Now I anticipate an announcement of relief from our mayor, saying, we successfully ended the encampment, the one promise that was kept through this. This is the second time in recent history campers have posted up at City Hall.

Congratulations to some of the folks who walked down City Hall who don’t have to recognize the City has a large homeless problem. Congratulations to our police who can now survey more homeless people without any significant press. Congratulations to our City who can move forward towards doing things like patting themselves on the back on some greenway in a rich neighborhood for rich people with anti-homeless features and consider that green.

But we deserve more than an apology, we deserve that the City cancel this sweep and actually commit to its statement of postponing sweeps, “Based on recent court rulings, legal requirements and COVID restrictions, occupied camp and vehicle clean-ups have been suspended for the time being. (posted 11/19/2020)” (https://cob.org/services/safety/police-services/reporting/homeless-camp). In addition it says it will keep things for 90 days rather than the 60 days they claimed. 

Any of us could be houseless

Camp 210 wasn’t a mistake. Camp 210/Camp 210 Love/BOP/Bellingham Occupied Protest/just people having a place to stay and appreciated some help and not knowing where they lived/a community that was built was a success. A community that is not tied together now by location, but transcends this. Yes there have been tensions among volunteers, among campers, among community members, and all numerations of in between. But it grew from two tents, a piece of paper ordering to vacate, to a community of 150 people, 100s of supporters, and an easy opportunity for folks to support each other in these hard times. Many of us could be homeless in a second: a bad medical accident (and maybe we didn’t but maybe we did have insurance but our insurance wouldn’t cover it or wouldn’t cover all of it and we dived into our savings and recognized there was so few since we had lost a restaurant job); we had not yet been accepted to unemployment; or whichever combination.

Thread on camp sweeps policy:

According to the Bellingham Police sweep policy, obtained by a community member, dated Oct 2020, states it says a notice should be made 5 days before to vacate. Instead, this was done in 3 days. Many houseless do not even know it is going to happen there. Houseless are coming in, and those who have been staying for days now at the new Camp 210 have not been notified, other than one post that was staked near the Camp 210 entrance.

According to the sweeps policy, when there is no shelter capacity, cleanups occur only when health and other impacts are established, but there is no evidence and statement from the City publicly about any of this. It says a camp cleanup will, “assess health, environmental, and safety concerns; offer outreach services related to housing, behavioral health, and drug addiction” – when was this offered? It is clear that sending in social workers instead of police would be a cheaper and more humane solution, as the Denver STAR model has proven.

The Director of Parks and Recreation apparently has the capacity to allow camping but has not:

“8.04.080 Overnight camping

A. Overnight camping is prohibited on park property except by written permission of the director of parks and recreation.” 

I encourage our community members to hold our electeds accountable. Why hasn’t the City director, Nicole Oliver, not denounced the sweep?

Additionally, the camp cleanup guidelines of the City Police reads:

“23. The above listed procedures are subject to change based on changing conditions, legal rulings, and best practices.”

Why is the City ignoring laws like what came out of the 9th Circuit Court that stated that sweeps may violate law as cruel punishment if there is no genuine alternative to go? (https://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2019/04/01/15-35845.pdf)

I am not defending our sweeps policy, rather I stand with many organizations who are against all sweeps in Bellingham. Sweeps in Seattle have reported 7% of belongings inventoried. I wonder how much our city, too, has returned and recognized personal items taken from sweeps. Houseless community members would have to call the City to retrieve their belongings, when many homeless folks do not have phones. 

In conclusion, please contact your mayor principally, your health department, the parks department, your City Councilmembers, and encourage your organizations to denounce this sweep. Sweeps do not solve houselessness, they only move them people who are houseless. 

Thank you,

Kai Rapaport

Bellingham, WA