May 15, 2021 by Dena Jensen, with significant contributions from Sandy Robson
[Author’s note: In regard to the headline, officials might have hoped to silence a few more voices, as well, but I will stick to the public records that Sandy Robson recently received from Whatcom County to let readers decide. For context, I want folks to know that I have been following Whatcom County’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup meetings since the summer of 2019 and that I am familiar with the person who was the target of County officials’ silencing efforts.
I have interacted through Facebook with Markis Stidham – Markis Dee is his profile name – over the past few years regarding civil rights and social justice issues. Additionally, Stidham met with Riveters Collective Justice System Committee, of which I am a member, on a couple of occasions. I remember seeing him twice in public, in years past, at Dignity Vigils in front of Bellingham City Hall, and shook his hand once, although I don’t think he knew who I was at the time. Stidham read a public comment of mine at a Homeless Strategies Workgroup meeting on August 23, 2019.]
On January 28, 2021, multiple law enforcement agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, along with City of Bellingham Public Works employees, swept the occupied protest and tent encampment outside Bellingham City Hall. Since that time intermittent encampment sweeps have continued, and:
- Bellingham City Council Members have begun strictly enforcing a 15 minute time limit on public comment at their City Council Meetings
- Whatcom County’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup (HSW) suspended the public comment period at their first meeting subsequent to the January 28 sweep, on February 5
- At that February 5, 2021 meeting, Whatcom County Health Department Human Services Manager Anne Deacon began regularly attending HSW meetings and facilitating discussion. The County Council’s Chair Barry Buchanan, who was also HSW Chair and continued to fill that role, had facilitated most discussion prior to that date
- The February 19, 2021 HSW agenda announced: “The duration of the public comment portion of this agenda will be no longer than 20 minutes.” This statement was included in all subsequent HSW agendas. Prior to February 5, the public comment period at HSW meetings had not been limited
- At the next meeting on March 5, Anne Deacon requested a four to six week period to put together material for recommendations that could be considered for forwarding to the County Council
- Six weeks later, on April 16, 2021, what would later turn out to be the last HSW meeting, took place
- Four days later, on April 20, 2021, an email chain that included communications from homeless services providers and Whatcom County officials suggesting action be taken related to Markis Stidham’s membership on the Homeless Strategies Workgroup was forwarded by County Council Member Rud Browne to the Whatcom County Council’s Legal Counsel, Karen Frakes
- On May 4, 2021 at 4:30 p.m., a resolution to conclude the work of the Homeless Strategies Workgroup was added by revision to the County Council’s 6:00 p.m. meeting agenda. The vote to approve the resolution was 5-1, with Council Member Todd Donovan opposed, and Council Member Tyler Byrd absent
Markis D. Stidham attended Whatcom County’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup (HSW) as a member of the public for their first 2019 meeting on July 26. By the next meeting, August 9, 2019, the meeting summary recorded him among the list of HSW members, with Stidham filling the formerly vacant Homeless Advocate position. Records show him attending every meeting from July 26, 2019 through what would turn out to be the final meeting of the HSW, on April 16, 2021.
The HSW had reconvened the summer of 2019, after not meeting for about a year, and with an amended purpose, “to identify additional temporary winter shelters and added capacity for year round shelters.” Plus, they would work to, “identify ways to address the needs of the county’s homeless population and prevent people from having no other option than to sleep outside.”
The audio and video recordings of the HSW public meetings and meeting summaries, available on the Whatcom County website, offer considerable resources for members of the public to evaluate whether negative allegations made about Stidham’s behavior at the meetings, which were made in April by the Whatcom County Health Department’s Human Services Manager Anne Deacon, are true.
Of course, then there is the other matter of if the actions taken by County officials in response to those allegations, whether they were true or untrue, were appropriate.
Anne Deacon’s 9:06 a.m, April 19, 2021 email to County Council Members
Four days after the April 16, 2021 HSW meeting, Deacon sent an April 19, 2021, 9:06 a.m., email to Whatcom County Council Members Rud Browne, and Barry Buchanan, which was copied to Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu, and Health Department Director Erika Lautenbach. Deacon said she was forwarding, with permission, emails from Teri Bryant and Greg Winter from the Opportunity Council.
Teri Bryant is director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center, through the Opportunity Council, which is a non-profit organization located in Bellingham. The Whatcom Homeless Service Center is listed as lead agency in Whatcom County for the Coordinated Entry program which is described as, “a process that aspires to help all people experiencing a housing crisis in a defined geographic area,” in the 2019 update of Whatcom County Health Department’s strategic plan to end homelessness.
On the Opportunity Council website “About Us” page the organization states that, “For over 50 years we have offered a broad scope of services that range from addressing immediate and crisis-oriented needs (food, emergency shelter, eviction-prevention) to longer-term programs that promote self-sufficiency in our community (early childhood education, home weatherization).” Greg Winter is their executive director.
In Deacon’s email, she began by referencing Bryant and Winter’s emails, of which she included copies. She noted that Bryant was supervisor of the Homeless Outreach Team which the Opportunity Council website says connects “persons experiencing homelessness with services and supporting community members in working through issues surrounding homelessness.”
With permission having been granted for Deacon to share the Opportunity Council emails, those communications became public records.
Below is a copy of that 9:06 a.m. April 19, 2021 email sent by Deacon. Winter’s email had been sent on April 18, 2021, and Bryant’s was sent on April 16, 2021, the same day as the last HSW meeting:
From: Anne Deacon
Sent: Monday, April 19, 2021 9:06 AM
To: Barry Buchanan <BBuchana@co.whatcom.wa.us <mailto:BBuchana@co.whatcom.wa.us> >; Rud Browne <RBrowne@co.whatcom.wa.us <mailto:RBrowne@co.whatcom.wa.us> >
Cc: Satpal Sidhu <SSidhu@co.whatcom.wa.us <mailto:SSidhu@co.whatcom.wa.us> >; Erika Lautenbach <ELautenb@co.whatcom.wa.us <mailto:ELautenb@co.whatcom.wa.us> >
Subject: HOT team and HSW concerns
I have been given permission to share the below email chain from Greg Winter with you. The initial email is from Teri Bryant, director of the Homeless Service Center and supervisor of the Homeless Outreach Team. She is also a member of HSW.
We continue to hear from various housing partners about the detrimental behaviors of Markis D. and his newly-formed group, SOS. He and his colleagues have actively discouraged use of Base Camp and HOT services in their conversations with people who are living unsheltered. They consistently promulgate misinformation that is untrue and damaging to our most important community partners who are working to help those who are homeless. Their actions undermine our homeless housing system and put vulnerable people at risk.
Markis’ membership position on the Homeless Strategies Workgroup as the designated County Council Advocate representative implies/assigns him a certain level of credibility. Yet his actions, and presumably his “mission”, is counterproductive to the goals of local governments. I ask that you consider whether his continuation in this role is in the best interests of HSW identified goals.
Additionally, I have heard that a number of HSW members have contemplated quitting the committee, in part because of the contentious and vitriolic debates. Moreover, I am concerned that we are asking highly-valued community partners to listen to abusive and false comments about their organizations and their good work, without an ability on their part to defend themselves or set the record straight. This happens in an open public meeting where the people launching these false attacks have been given some credibility by the county.
Please feel free to give me a call if you would like to discuss further. I do understand the challenges in addressing this difficult situation.
Anne Deacon, LICSW
Human Services Manager
Whatcom County Health Department
509 Girard Street, Bellingham, WA 98225
Direct: 360 778-6054 | Office: 360 778-6002
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My incoming and outgoing email communication is subject to disclosure.
From: Greg Winter <email@example.com <mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org> >
Sent: Sunday, April 18, 2021 11:40 AM
To: Anne Deacon <ADeacon@co.whatcom.wa.us <mailto:ADeacon@co.whatcom.wa.us> >
Subject: Fw: HOT
Hi Anne. I know you share some of this feeling, but I wanted to share this email I got from Teri Bryant recently. Is there anythign that cn be done about this?
From: Teri Bryant <email@example.com <mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org> >
Sent: Friday, April 16, 2021 4:47 PM
To: Greg Winter <email@example.com <mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org> >
You don’t need to respond to this – I think it’s part FYI and part venting. The Homeless Strategies Workgroup reconvened today and Markis Dee’s associates were heavily involved in public comment attacking HOT. Marisa and Theresa were both in attendance and this unrelenting assault has just become unbelievably grueling; they do this in just about every public comment opportunity, they write letters to the workgroup and to the councils, and of course Markis’ cannot stop himself from uploading videos to social media to yammer on ad nauseum with half-truths and lies knit tightly around the tiniest golden thread of truth.
We are short-handed this week because Bob’s daughter is getting married, so Theresa and Craig had just worked a 10 ½ hour day yesterday and were returning to 1111 at the end of it just to be accosted by Markis and Co. They were there handing out meals. Markis asked Theresa how she was doing (major side eye on my part) and she said, “Tired and busy.” Then his folks blasted public comment this afternoon about how unhelpful they were and added plenty of garbage about they never see HOT in the field. And I just sit there on camera and take it, meeting after meeting.
This has been absolutely unrelenting for over a year now. HOT has no reason to collaborate with them and I believe that it would be unethical to do so since their volunteers persistently violate confidentiality of the people they serve on social media and they do not seem to have any understanding of professional best practices. For these reasons HOT is very reluctant to interact or share information with this group – meaning, all folks now associated with “Serenity Outreach Services.”
The County continues to give credibility to Markis’ divisive rhetoric by maintaining his “unanimously appointed role as advocate on the Homeless Strategies Workgroup.” Today’s 1 ½ hour meeting spanned 2 ½ hours and in large part because he is constantly running his mouth, to the exclusion of all other voices and is consistently disrespectful to Hans Erchinger Davis, Anne Deacon, and Barry Buchanan. This group is starting to feel like a mandatory audience to his abuse and I just don’t know what to do about it.
I guess I should also make you aware that they went after Maple Alley Inn today too, for not being open, in case that comment comes up in the future. It’s hard work being this hated for trying to help people!
Anyway thanks for listening and have a good weekend. I’m gonna!
Teri Bryant, she/her/hers
Director, Whatcom Homeless Service Center
Phone 360-255-2091 x132
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Summing up Bryant’s late afternoon email that she wrote following the 1:30 p.m. April 16, HSW meeting, she sought to keep Winter informed on frustrations she was experiencing due to her sense that the Homeless Outreach Team was being attacked by people offering public comment at the meeting.
She indicated she felt that Stidham posted videos promoting half-truths on social media and provided her reasoning for not wanting to talk to anyone from Stidham’s new homeless services non-profit organization, Serenity Outreach Services.
She went on to assert the County offered credibility to Stidham’s “divisive rhetoric,” and alleged he was abusive in the meetings. She alluded to other activities outside of the meetings that were upsetting to her, as well.
Subsequent to receiving Bryant’s email, Winter forwarded it to Deacon asking if there was anything that could be done about it.
April 16, 2021 HSW Public Comment
To present a fuller picture of public comment at the April 16, HSW meeting, there was a total of eight community members who spoke, beginning, approximately, at the hour and forty-one minute point in the meeting audio. None of the speakers’ delivery showed any signs of agitation.
Three of the speakers mentioned the HOT team. But it should be noted that those remarks were not central to their comments.
The first speaker who, first, thanked everyone for their time, expressed her concerns about recurring encampment sweeps and that the Base Camp emergency shelter continued to be promoted as a place that people could go, when many people are not able to go there. She asked when the last time was that the HOT team visited the encampments. She said she didn’t see them when she visited the camps and spoke with people camping there.
After a number of other comments made by community members related to homeless issues, there was one from 2019 Bellingham City Council candidate Von Emeth Ochoa, who praised the Opportunity Council and the case managers there who supported him through five and a half years when he was struggling in “the homelessness quicksand” after receiving a brain injury as the result of a car hitting him on his scooter.
Following his comment, another community member expressed disappointment that after a six week hiatus, the HSW, rather than bringing forward fresh ideas, seemed to be digging in its heels. She said she had been motivated to go out into the streets and bring food to unsheltered folks. She emphasized it wasn’t hard to do so. She said she didn’t see any HOT teams out there with her, and went on to say people from the City tried to boot her from a park, saying she needed a permit to donate her food. She talked about the damaging nature of sweeps, saying that they had to stop. She closed her comment by saying ““Let’s get down to the bottom of this. I believe in you! – for all it’s worth. Okay, I thank you for your time and I yield the rest of mine.”
The last speaker that mentioned the HOT team that day, prior to that reference, spoke about being a two-time refugee who had had to settle in two countries under the gun of expulsion and therefore, she understands the psychological reaction that can be triggered in people who are being swept from their camps over and over. She pointed out to the HSW:
“You are making everyone’s lives harder by letting it continue and not recommending it be stopped. It’s affecting neighbors. It’s affecting the homeless community. It’s affecting volunteers. And it’s affecting relationships between everybody, including providers, volunteers, and homeless people and the police. And, I don’t think you want that to be happening.”
She went on to illustrate that point of the HSW not recommending that the sweeps be halted affecting relationships between providers by saying she had been out with people feeding community members and the HOT team walked by them without speaking to them or the homeless people she and others were talking to.
The last community member to speak that day, was the one who referred to the Maple Alley Inn, which Bryant mentioned at the end of her email.
After speaking about the digital inequity unsheltered people were facing who haven’t had access to the library during the pandemic, the speaker noted in her comment that she had been the first coordinator, over two decades ago, of the Maple Alley Inn which was an outdoor soup kitchen at that time, where everyone was welcome. She said she could not find where or when it was open any longer. She felt the absence of such a program left a huge gap and encouraged the Opportunity County, or funding for another group, to step up and do that. She closed by saying she appreciates the many citizens who are stepping up to help citizens and treat them like family.
This concludes Part One of this series. Part Two will explore Anne Deacon’s remarks in her April 19, 2021, 9:06 a.m. email to County Council Members Barry Buchanan and Rud Browne, along with a response to that email from County Executive Satpal Sidhu and related material.
[Editor’s Note: Corrections were made for accuracy in one header in this article identifying the date of Anne Deacon’s email being referenced, which was incorrectly noted as April 16, 2021, when the date of the email is April 19, 2021. Also, an error referring to the Maple Valley Inn was corrected to the proper name, which is the Maple Alley Inn.]