Take a hard look at Whatcom County’s Severe Weather Shelter history / Letter to the Homeless Strategies Workgroup

Click the graphic image presenting Recommendations for Consideration by the Homeless Strategies Workgroup discussed at their April 16, 2021 meeting to access a text version on the Whatcom County website

April 21, 2021 Dena Jensen

Below is my email, sent today, to Whatcom County’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup:

Subject: Regarding the presentation related to severe weather shelters at the April 16, 2021 Homeless Strategies Workgroup meeting

Dear Homeless Strategies Workgroup:

Near the end of the the April 16, 2021 Homeless Strategies Workgroup meeting discussion, a motion was approved by the workgroup to recommend to Whatcom County Council a recommendation from Health Department/County staff. This guidance was a short term action step to establish a data collection process to assist in ongoing analysis and planning. 

While, in general, I am supportive of our government agencies gathering information and making it transparent and accessible to the public, I also urge all of us to look hard at the information we currently have and put it in proper context, making a variety of comparisons and contrasts, to provide for meaningful, dynamic, and restorative action. 

I want to offer some input regarding some remarks that Whatcom County Health Department Human Services Manager Anne Deacon made at that meeting related to emergency sheltering options. 

Prior to that, I want to thank Ms. Deacon for noting to the workgroup that with the efforts of “a village,” individuals with seeming insurmountable challenges related to their addiction issues can have needs met that serve to stabilize them and get them into housing. 

I will move on to say that during part of her presentation, Ms. Deacon was speaking on a list of proposed short-term recommendation action steps regarding sheltering. The first recommendation had been related to providing motel stays for families with children.

After speaking on that recommendation she went on to say the following:

(From 00:50:45 on the 4/16/21 HSW meeting audio

“The second one is, obviously, establishing another winter overflow shelter, and this is simply just to ensure that the single people experiencing homelessness have a place to stay warm, dry, access to critical services, running water, toilets, etc., meals. And that again, we thought last year, November 11, 12, is when weather was unseasonably cold, and so we’re recommending that we consider expanding the time for this over shelter – overflow shelter, again, from November through March, so, two more months. 

“And the third is, the severe weather shelter. We didn’t use it last winter because there was never the need. The shelters remained vacant – shelter spots remained vacant. But hopefully next winter, people who need shelters will be using them and if, in fact, the weather gets really bad, what we noticed in 2019 is that people used these severe weather shelters, when they typically don’t use any other shelter, but when the weather became very severe, they were happy to take us up on this offer. And we had a number of great organizations providing those services. So, we would want to still always have that available to us every winter.”  

So, regarding severe weather shelter last winter, Ms. Deacon said the County didn’t use it and there wasn’t a need for them because shelter spots were vacant. There are some pieces of information that contradict this claim. 

It wasn’t that Whatcom County didn’t use severe weather shelter facilities last winter. They were actually made available, while on a very limited basis and with considerably restricted accessibility, both for a few days in November of 2019 and a few in January 2020. There was a very narrow window of notice and availability, which was nearly on a day-by-day, or two or three days at a time notice. 

For these severe weather shelters, check-in was at a remote location and had a deadline for people to do so and, in some cases, to be able to get a required ride to the severe weather shelter. Without remote check-in and the ride, it’s my recollection that people were given to understand there was no admittance. I don’t know if exceptions were ever made. As I recall, few people accessed the shelters under the conditions that were offered. 

I have attached to my email a screenshot of a page from Whatcom County website’s Winter Emergency Shelter Options for Individuals Experiencing Homelessness (2019-2020) around the timing when the January shelters were being offered, as well as some information I copied from that same webpage in November of 2019 when the shelters were also open for a few days.

Regarding Ms. Deacon’s statement that shelter spots remained vacant last winter as a reason shelters were not needed, on February 21, 2020, I had written the following, in part, in an email to the Homeless Strategies Workgroup:

“I wrote you all on February 19, 2020, and the National Weather Service had reported the Bellingham low on February 18th had been 27 degrees. Since then, temperatures have been: February 19, 26 degrees; February 20, 25 degrees. That’s three nights in a row below the 28 degree threshold for opening severe weather shelters. The week prior to this one, the Lighthouse Mission had reported having to turn people away on some nights and being at notably higher capacity than last year at this time.” 

Here is a segment of the notes from the February 14, 2020 Homeless Strategies Workgroup summary which references Lighthouse Mission Ministries Associate Executive Director Bridget Reeves’ remarks about this: “Bridget Reeves reported on sheltering at the Mission, which includes higher numbers than last year, and discussed creative ways the Mission accommodates sheltering larger numbers of people in their existing space. Bridget Reeves indicated the Mission had to turn people away the first three nights of the week.”

In that case, the severe weather shelters were never opened, despite the no vacancy and low vacancy rate at the Drop-In Center immediately approaching that spell of nights below 28 degrees. I have attached a February 2020 calendar with lows obtained from the National Weather Service for their Bellingham Airport weather station. 

The current staff recommendations for action steps recognize that there are individuals who typically don’t utilize shelters (our only year-round emergency shelter is through Lighthouse Mission) for whom severe weather shelters should, according to the recommendations, be provided. There are individuals who typically don’t access the Lighthouse Mission’s shelter option, whether it was at capacity, as in February 2020, as well as when it has open spots.  Meanwhile, we know that such people have utilized other types of shelter, such as those who went on to be residents of non-emergency sheltering locations like Unity Village, and this year at Swift Haven.

Additionally, and in contrast to the severe weather shelters that were made available last winter, was the warming center, also identified as a severe weather shelter, during February of 2019, that was made available in a designated location, the Garden room in the Civic Building in Bellingham, for a reliable period of time (definitely more than two or three days at a time) where people could check in directly at that location. For the 2019 severe weather shelter offered by the City of Bellingham at Maritime Heritage Park for three nights, notice was only given on a night by night basis and comparatively few people (5 to 7 people a night) accessed it. 

That winter of 2019, during the time that the Garden Room and Maritime Heritage severe weather/warming centers were opened, the Lighthouse Mission asserted they didn’t reach capacity. The Weather Observations & Shelter Occupancy spreadsheet (attached to this email) which recorded nightly temperatures and attendance at the warming centers in February and March 2019, also recorded nightly numbers for the combined 210 person capacity of the Drop-In Center and Fountain Community Church which are in line with that assertion. Yet, the Whatcom County Council felt it urgent to open the warming center at the Garden Room and to leave it open for two weeks, until the end of February. 

Here was Council Member Buchanan’s motion at the 1 p.m. February 15, 2019 special County Council meeting:

“I would move that we respectfully request the Administration to open the Garden street, er, the Garden Center Annex room, or shelter, as we follow Bellingham’s decision on the permitting, as soon as possible! And when I say that, I don’t mean let’s put it off till Monday. Let’s open it today if we can. Let’s open it tomorrow morning if we can. Let’s get it open as soon as we can. That’s my motion.”  The warming center opened that night at 7:00 p.m. and the shelter served an average of 18 people a night for that two week period of February 15, 2020 to February 28, 2020.

A similarly, previously unplanned, yet well-utilized warming center was opened this year by the City of Bellingham’s Parks Department at Depot Market Square when nighttime lows dropped to even colder levels than experienced when the 2019 Garden room warming center was open. The Depot Market Square warming center operated not only during the nighttime hours, but during the days, and was open from February 9, 2021 through February 15, 2021. According to information posted on the COB website (linked to above), the warming center averaged approximately 27 people each day/night it was open. 

It seems apparent these warming shelters weren’t simply successful because of the reason Ms. Deacon offered, which was “people used these severe weather shelters, when they typically don’t use any other shelter, but when the weather became very severe, they were happy to take us up on this offer.” Although it was exceedingly cold when Depot Market Square was made available this winter, the Garden Room operated in 2019 during nightly low temperatures that were predominantly above the 28 degree threshold later established in the Guiding Assumptions created by the Housing Advisory Committee’s Severe Weather Response Subcommittee. The National Weather Service lows from February 15, 2019 to February 28, 2019 were, respectively: 31, 29, 27, 25, 31, 30, 30, 33, 34, 33, 30, 28, 33, 26. 

The warming centers, again, were consistently open during a pre-designated period of time in a non-fluctuating location where people could directly come, check-in, and receive a place to get warm, rest, and have a number of their most basic needs met. 

Before I conclude this email, I want to make some observations related to the overflow shelter for Lighthouse Mission’s emergency shelter. 

This year the overflow shelter was located at the former Drop-In Center and was operated by Christ the King Community Church. I want to note that in 2021 Base Camp was apparently not at capacity when the overflow shelter was utilized. This is the first year I have been aware of information being made easily accessible to the public on the nightly combined number of people recorded being at Lighthouse Mission’s emergency shelter and the overflow shelter.  

The Lighthouse Mission Ministries webpage for Base Camp indicated that the overflow shelter was first open on January 24, 2021. 139 people were staying, between the two shelters, on that night. At that time the capacity for Base Camp, alone, was listed as 190. The combined number of people staying at the two shelters did increase, with the maximum number appearing to be 165. There were 17 nights where combined numbers staying at the two shelters were in the 150s, 8 nights where they were in the 160s, 5 nights where they where they were in the 140s, and there were two nights for which I missed the recorded figures. 

I am pointing this out because of the rather rigid lines that have been maintained by the Health Department over the last couple years that center on Lighthouse Mission’s emergency shelter capacity. There has been a strong adherence to the Severe Weather Response Guiding Assumptions of not opening severe weather shelters when temperatures are forecast above 28 degrees and when there is existing capacity at Lighthouse Mission and overflow facilities. Yet, the overflow facility for the Lighthouse Mission, considered a winter shelter, is allowed to be opened and remain open regardless of whether Lighthouse Mission has vacant spots. 

Moreover, a recommendation has now been made to add two additional months to the operating time of the overflow shelter, seemingly with help from Whatcom County to do this, while we have little hope, based on the past years discussed, that any other severe weather shelters will be made effectively accessible to people when the effort of planning has been made for them. Sadly, the only well-utilized severe weather shelters over the last few cold weather seasons, are the ones for which no advance preparations were ever made.

I call on the Homeless Strategies Workgroup to empower each other, as members, and empower the members of your Whatcom County village/community to use any existing and future data and information in dynamic ways to develop and employ effective sheltering and housing solutions. 

This requires those of you with power and privilege to encourage each potential solution-provider, provide them with the best resources available, and help them remove barriers to being successful in providing those solutions. Community members are watching for all workgroup members and public officials to demonstrate that in their eyes every community member is valuable, no one is expendable, and no one is deserving of being marginalized. 

I call on HSW members to take immediate action to provide what is needed to ensure encampment sweeps are halted because all community members are provided appropriate, safe, and legal places to receive shelter and/or housing. 

I also call on HSW members to resist any instinct to rely solely on specific requests made by the County Council for action. The Homeless Strategies Workgroup already has a stated purpose. It has been printed on virtually every agenda for the workgroup since August 9, 2019. The HSW is made up of a wide variety of advocates, along with people who work directly in the field to shelter and house those people who need to have shelter and housing. 

All of you are uniquely informed in a field that many of the County Council members are not. I believe it is critical to the well-being of your community, for you to advocate for your community’s proposals and solutions that are in line with HSW’s purpose, even if the County Council is resistant to considering those for any reason. 

I am cheering you on to making unprecedented progress in ensuring every person in Whatcom County is getting the shelter, services, and ultimately, housing that effectively address their needs and contribute to the well-being of the entire region. 

Sincerely,

Dena Jensen

Birch Bay, WA



This email was sent to the following addresses:

From: dbobena@yahoo.com <dbobena@yahoo.com>

To: Cathy Halka <chalka@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Barry Buchanan <bbuchana@co.whatcom.wa.us>; mayorsoffice@cob.org <mayorsoffice@cob.org>; Hannah E. Stone <hestone@cob.org>; Michael W. Lilliquist <mlilliquist@cob.org>; Michael Shepard <michaels@portofbellingham.com>; Mike Hilley <mhilley@co.whatcom.wa.us>; michael_parker@whatcomhsc.org <michael_parker@whatcomhsc.org>; Hans Erchinger-Davis <hanse@thelighthousemission.org>; eoconnor@lydiaplace.org <eoconnor@lydiaplace.org>; jasonm@nwys.org <jasonm@nwys.org>; Anne Deacon <adeacon@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Ann Beck <abeck@co.whatcom.wa.us>; fsimon@cob.org <fsimon@cob.org>

Cc: Satpal Sidhu <ssidhu@co.whatcom.wa.us>; ccmail@cob.org <ccmail@cob.org>; council@co.whatcom.wa.us <council@co.whatcom.wa.us>