Base Camp, or sweeps: City used Lighthouse Mission sheltering capacity to limit their emergency options last season

May 14, 2021 Dena Jensen

In public records obtained from the City of Bellingham, emails revealed that leading up to the 2020/2021 winter season, City Planning and Development staff told emergency winter shelter providers, with whom they had partnered the previous cold weather season, that the City would not be operating or funding such operations in the coming season.

A September 1, 2020 email from Development Specialist at City of Bellingham, Kate Bartholomew, sent to Teri Bryant at the Opportunity Council, explained the City’s reasoning: “This is primarily due to the fact that the new Base Camp has added additional capacity in year-round emergency shelter, which we predict will be enough to meet the community’s needs.”

A similar statement was made in an email from Bartholomew, sent the same day, to Paula Matthysse and Emerson McCuin at Northwest Youth Services. The July 17, 2020 opening of the 24/7 shelter, known as Base Camp, in the former Public Market space on Cornwall Ave. in Bellingham, increased drop-in, overnight, emergency capacity, from 150 to 190 people a night.

Northwest Youth Services (NWYS) is a non-profit whose stated mission is that their organization “collaborates with at-risk, runaway and homeless youth to foster self-reliance.” With assistance from Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham, NWYS partnered with First Congregational Church in 2019 to run an emergency winter shelter for youth across the hall from The Ground Floor day center.

The Opportunity Council “About” webpage states that their organization “is a private, non-profit Community Action Agency serving homeless and low-income families and individuals.” They offer many community services related to housing, including the Whatcom Homeless Service Center, and operated a winter shelter for women in 2019/2020, with help from the City of Bellingham.

The email from Bartholomew informed these organizations that the City of Bellingham would not again be participating in or providing financial support to such shelters in 2020..

People sleeping outside in public spaces during winter 2020/2021

Regardless of the increased emergency shelter capacity at Base Camp, and despite the prediction of City Planning staff, it turned out that 2020/2021 proved to be a winter season when many people without shelter in Whatcom County were camping in highly visible locations like the lawns of Bellingham City Hall and the Bellingham Library, at Geri Field, and other City park locations.

These people who slept outside on many freezing nights were often advised to seek a place to sleep indoors at the one and only year-round, drop-in, emergency shelter option in Whatcom County. Base Camp is operated by Lighthouse Mission Ministries.

Lighthouse Mission Ministries shares their Vision statement on their website: “To be a consistent friend to those in homelessness that they become God-dependent healthy members of society, with such impact that our community points to Jesus Christ.”

When Bellingham City employees enforced legal notices to vacate camps on public property numerous times this winter during the COVID-19 pandemic, the advice to seek entrance at Base Camp was also given. Faced with eviction, campers in these and other locations around Bellingham had to, once again, find a new place for themselves and what possessions they could immediately gather and carry.

While officials like Bellingham’s Mayor Seth Fleetwood, and Whatcom County Human Services Manager Anne Deacon were recommending Base Camp as an option during public meetings, they also acknowledged that not everyone without shelter can, or will be able to, stay there.

Besides the Code of Conduct that people are required to adhere to at the privately operated Base Camp, there are many common reasons that large, low barrier, congregate shelters are not a fit for some people.

Click the graphic with a list of reasons homeless people don’t use shelters to view it in text form in a PDF document. It is also posted as a document link to the February 4, 2020 Homeless Strategies Workgroup Communications Subcommittee meeting.

Adding to reduced emergency shelter options, during the winter season of 2020/2021, and contrary to the impression the City of Bellingham was under, there were no service providers that the Whatcom County Health Department was able to locate for operating any severe weather shelters on a night by night basis.

Ultimately, without assistance from the City, Bellingham’s Christ the King Community Church did open and operate an overflow shelter for the Lighthouse Mission, in the Mission’s former Drop-In Center location, which could shelter men that Lighthouse Mission determined it would send there, whether or not Base Camp was full.

Emergency shelter options for winter 2019/2020

In July of 2019 the Whatcom County Council established the purpose of the Whatcom County Homeless Strategies Workgroup (HSW), “to identify additional temporary winter shelters and added capacity for year round shelters,” according to the Whatcom County website

During that winter of 2019/2020, numerous religious organizations had offered to provide severe weather shelters. According to Whatcom County Human Services Supervisor Ann Beck, who was a member of the HSW, specific requirements have to be met in order for the Whatcom County Health Department to initiate the opening of these types of shelters.

There were three nights in November 2019 and six nights in January 2020 that the Health Department had permitted severe weather shelters to be open. Noisy Waters Northwest recorded the National Weather Service nighttime low temperatures in Bellingham from that winter which were at, or below, freezing:

December 2019: 27º, 30º, 31º, 

January 2020: 32º, 23º, 18º, 15º, 15º, 19º, 15º, 31º, 

February 2020: 30º, 29º, 28º, 31º, 31º, 27º, 26º, 25º, 28º, 32º

March 2020: 29º, 26º, 32º, 28º, 29º, 31º, 27º, 27º, 30º, 32º, 31º, 32º

The National Coalition for the Homeless states in their February 7, 2014 article, “The Dangers of Cold Weather:”

“Many shelters or cities offer expanded winter services only during certain months or only when the temperature falls below a pre-determined and arbitrary cut-off temperature. Above those cut-offs (hypothermia can occur in weather as warm as 50 degrees Fahrenheit) many cities do not offer resources to help the homeless people escape from the cold.”

Click the graphic from the National Coalition for the Homeless to access the article, “The Dangers of Cold Weather”

During that same season the Opportunity Council operated its emergency winter shelter nightly, and for women only, from the very end of November 2019 through February of 2020. It was funded by the City of Bellingham, and sited at the City’s Civic Athletic Complex. The shelter was commonly referred to as the Civic Field Winter Shelter. The Bellingham Herald announced the plans for the shelter in August of 2019.

In the draft meeting summary for the November 1, 2019 HSW meeting, in a graphic provided by workgroup member, Hans Erchinger-Davis of the Lighthouse Mission, the Civic Field shelter was presented in this way :

Civic Field Emergency Shelter
By Opportunity Council
on behalf of the City of Bellingham
40 bed Women’s Shelter 
Open Late November – February 2020
Check-in at the Mission

Click the graphic of a pyramid shaped chart labeled “Whatcom County Shelters” to access the chart in the 11/1/19 Homeless Strategies Workgroup meeting summary

At the September 6, 2019 Whatcom County HSW meeting, from 00:17:34 to 00:18:12 on the audio recording,  Mike Parker, representative from the Opportunity Council on the HSW, described the tentative check-in process for Civic Field and the reasoning behind why they were doing this at Lighthouse Mission’s emergency shelter – located at that time on Holly Street in Bellingham – rather than offering women an opportunity to go straight to Civic Field to check in directly.

“Currently we’re talking about for the ease of folks experiencing homelessness to be at, on-site, at the Mission. So, we’re working out the details with the Mission, how Opportunity Council staff can be there. But we want a simple, single one-site in Bellingham rather than setting up a second site. And I think there might be some conditions in the permit too, about what we can do actually on-site at Civic Field. So, I think it would make more sense. So, again, we’re trying to emulate that model where really, people check in there, and then with vans, we’ll transport. So that’s the thought, to try to make it as easy as possible, not have people trying to be going all over town. And rather, we would provide the transportation and do the screening in one simple location.”

However, in a copy of the Women’s Winter Shelter Staff Handbook & Communications Plan, that was obtained through a public records request, a more complete picture of the check-in process is described, revealing that when women needing shelter showed up at the Lighthouse Mission Drop-in Center to check in to go to Civic Field, they might never be allowed to go there.

Under the header, “Screening & Check-in,” that section of the handbook stated, in part:

“The Women’s Winter Shelter will operate as an overflow shelter for homeless women. Guests will be identified on a daily basis using a screening process at the Lighthouse Mission Drop-In Center to determine whether they will be given the option to stay at the Women’s Winter Shelter or remain at The Lighthouse Mission Shelter for the night. Eligibility will be based on fit, and past behavior at the shelter. Criteria will consider behavioral issues outlined in the guest contract.”

The procedure described in the handbook seems generally consistent with that for the shelter offered by Fountain Community Church during past winters, which functioned as an overflow shelter for Lighthouse Mission Ministries. But other published materials, such as the announcement for the Civic Field shelter on the City of Bellingham website, did not disclose that women wanting to stay at Civic Field might be instructed that they had to remain at the Lighthouse Mission shelter instead.

According to public records, on November 27, 2019, the Health Department’s Ann Beck sent an email that was shared by City of Bellingham’s Communications Director Vanessa Blackburn with other City employees. In that email Beck shared information regarding two nights during which two of Whatcom County’s severe weather emergency shelters would be available for people without shelter who needed a place to sleep indoors when low temperatures in the thirties and a significant windchill factor were expected. Thanksgiving that year fell on November 28.

There were three nights in a row that the severe weather shelters would be available during the holiday week. One night had been previously announced on Tuesday, November 26, 2019 on the Whatcom County website. In Beck’s email to Blackburn she also disclosed that, “Severe weather shelters will go off line once the Women’s Civic Field Shelter opens Friday night,” which would have been November 29.

At 00:47:35 of the audio recording of the September 20, 2019 Homeless Strategies Workgroup meeting, Beck spoke regarding the triggers for opening severe weather shelters:

“I wanna, we’re not, we’re not opening the shelters, if there, if the other winter shelters are at capacity, if it has not hit that cold weather mark. So that’s one of the things I want to make sure that everyone understands. We’re not – so, if the 150 or so slots at the Mission are full; the Opportunity Council’s got their 35 slots full and it’s at capacity and it’s 30 degrees outside and those marks have not been hit, we’re not gonna be, we’re not going to be asking our partners to open up the severe weather shelters at that point.”

What choice is there?

In the 2019 update of Whatcom County Health Department’s strategic plan to end homelessness, there is a section describing the Coordinated Entry program. The description of the program identifies that Whatcom Homeless Services Center (operated through the Opportunity Council) is the Coordinated Entry lead agency, “and provides referrals to partner agencies for individuals or households that best match the type of housing and supportive services they provide.”

In general, people without shelter need to come through the doors of the Coordinated Entry program to access most available emergency shelter options in Whatcom County. In the strategic plan, there is an expressed desire to offer sheltering choices:

“Participant choice is provided to the greatest extent possible. Within the array of coordinated services provided by the WHSC [Whatcom Homeless Services Center], the federal, state, and locally supported Coordinated Entry (CE) system is a process that aspires to help all people experiencing a housing crisis in a defined geographic area. CE also makes strong efforts to ensure that all have a fair and equal access to assistance, with that assistance prioritized for those with the greatest needs.”

Interestingly, while the Lighthouse Mission Ministries emergency shelter is the only 24 hour, regular, year-round, drop-in shelter listed on the Whatcom County website, they are not listed in the 2019 version of the strategic plan’s Appendix B as a Whatcom Homeless Service Center coordinated entry system partner. There are other emergency shelter service providers listed who offer a limited amount of beds to specific types of community members who are unsheltered, such as those who are survivors of domestic violence, or families with children.

Click the graphic of a list of Whatcom Homeless Service Center coordinated entry system partners to view the full 2019 update of Whatcom County Health Department’s strategic plan to end homelessness which contains this appendix

Meanwhile, it is the Lighthouse Mission’s Base Camp, which received $1.5 million in funding from Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham in 2020. Base Camp is the facility that the City of Bellingham was predicting had enough capacity to meet the community’s needs without their increasing winter emergency shelter options. It is where City and County officials are urging people without shelter to go.

Lighthouse Mission Ministries is the non-profit organization which had control over entrance to the Civic Field Women’s Shelter in 2019/2020. Their Base Camp is an emergency shelter that many people cannot or will not use, often due to reasons not having anything to do with a desire to be violent, break rules, or use prohibited substances.

Base Camp is the facility, along with its winter overflow shelters, whose capacity the Whatcom County Health Department allows to control whether other winter emergency sheltering choices are offered to community members who may otherwise be sleeping outside, all season long.

As of the time of publishing, the City of Bellingham currently has at least two posted notices to vacate in places where people who haven’t found a legal place to sleep are staying.