Introduction – Whatcom Barriers to Equity, a review for 2021 candidates / Noisy Waters Northwest

July 9, 2021 Dena Jensen


In May of this year, Whatcom County 2021 candidate filing yielded seven candidates running for a total of four Bellingham City Council seats. There are fourteen candidates vying to fill four County Council seats, along with five Port of Bellingham candidates to potentially fill two seats. Whether running unopposed, or facing challengers, each one of them has potential to generate public conversation and advance solutions for critical community issues. 

Racial equity, and the barriers to it that current policing practices create, have been a strong focus of community action in Whatcom County in 2020 and 2021. On top of that, community members who disproportionately experience the impacts of being criminalized, were sleeping outdoors all winter in some of our most visible public spaces. It would seem impossible for any of those running for local government positions at this time to not be alert to the link between addressing racial inequity and addressing crises being experienced by those who are unsheltered or homeless in Bellingham and Whatcom County.

Public Records reveal adversarial approach by local government

Government efforts to increase justice in our County have been proceeding. In 2020 racism was recognized as a public health crisis by Whatcom County. This year the County and City of Bellingham joined other partners in a project to develop a Racial Equity Commission. The Bellingham City Council is proceeding to create an unarmed crisis response team of nurses and community health workers to respond to behavioral health-related 911 calls.

COB’s Immigration Advisory Board is identifying ways that local police agencies are not complying with the Keep Washington Working Act. Whatcom County Health Department has worked with private partners to repurpose Whatcom County’s 1500 N. State Street property into the Way Station where people experiencing homelessness can receive services that can assist their transition to housing and access to health and social services.

Even so, these efforts would not be moving forward without continued engagement from community members. And, unfortunately, government agencies are still involved in actions that present roadblocks to equity and well-being reaching all members of our community. 

Materials that were responsive to a number of recent public records requests obtained from the City of Bellingham, and one request from Whatcom County, provide insights into notable communications strategies of existing City staff, the mayor’s office, and some City Council Members regarding many of the winter’s events related to homelessness. On some of these matters, communications were being coordinated between the City and County executive branches.

Based on information contained in those materials, an important question arises regarding future actions of folks newly stepping up to run, or those continuing on to serve their community in public office: will they take action to eliminate government approaches that view or portray individuals and community organizations serving people in crisis as adversaries?

The sweep of Camp 210 and before

On February 4, 2021 the Bellingham Herald reported that, “More than a dozen local community organizations have come together to condemn the way the city of Bellingham handled the removal of a downtown homeless tent encampment late last week.” The statement that was released by those organizations addressed the use of a militarized multi-agency law enforcement presence to aid the removal of all unsheltered community members who had been camping at Bellingham City Hall. The statement further called for an end to homeless encampment sweeps.

Click the graphic of the “Stop the Sweeps” statement issued by Whatcom County community organizations on February 4, 2021 to access the document

The encampment at City Hall, known as Camp 210, served unsheltered community members from November 10, 2020 until January 28, 2021. During the weeks leading up to the sweep, Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood, City of Bellingham staff members and legal counsel were negotiating with volunteers at the camp who were calling for sheltering options that would provide swift, improved protection and well-being for people who were not able to find appropriate alternatives to sleeping outside during those winter months.

At least two of those meetings were recorded and posted to social media, one – which seems to have been the initial meeting – on November 17, 2020 was posted on Facebook, and one, on December 22, 2020 was posted on Instagram. The negotiations stalled in early January without an agreement to provide additional sheltering options being reached between the City and volunteers. 

Click the graphic of the City of Bellingham announcement, “January 19, 2021: City communicates to campers and volunteers the need for the fire and safety protection area around City Hall” to access the COB webpage where that announcement can be found.

A week before the January 28 sweep, Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood appeared on a January 21, 2021 KGMI Konnects podcast with radio host Joe Teehan. Near the beginning of the show the Mayor shed some light on the reasons for the City’s January 19, 2021 announcement on their website that stated the City was communicating the need for a fire and safety protection area around City Hall.

“So, as it relates to most recently at City Hall, we are commencing an incremental approach to ending this encampment.  We’re wanting to do it in sort of a soft touch, humane way. Contrary to what’s being put out there, there’s not a ‘sweep’ planned for Friday. It’s been characterized by that. There’s been some amount of misinformation. At one point someone said that we’re going to come in and bulldoze. It’s like, no. Goodness – we’re going to throw everyone’s property away – no we’re not going to do that.”

City bulldozers and various types of excavators did not arrive until the next week, on January 28 when plenty of people’s belongings were scooped into heavy equipment buckets and placed in trash bags. Some items were able to be reclaimed by their owners, others were not.

City of Bellingham creates communications plans around ending the encampment

Just prior to the end of the City discussions with Camp 210 volunteers, the City had created a “Contingency Planning DRAFT Outline” document, dated 1-5-21. One page projected a scenario in which, “Bellingham Occupied Protest (‘BOP’ a.k.a. ‘the Collective or the Collaborative’) is able to identify an organization entity that is able to enter into a both license and service agreements with the City to provide a very-low to no-barrier emergency encampment until Spring ‘21 (end date uncertain) at the Port of Bellingham’s property located at Cornwall and Laurel. Encampment would have 25 tiny houses or pallet shelters and common facilities serving up to 28 individuals.”

The second page of the document, projected an alternative scenario in which, “the Bellingham Occupied Protest (‘BOP’ a.k.a. ‘the Collective or the Collaborative’) is not able to identify an organizational entity that is able to enter into a both license and service agreements with the City to provide a very-low to no-barrier emergency encampment.”

Predictions were made in the document about what would happen when the City communicated to BOP that the City Hall/Library lawn encampment would be coming to an end, and that the City would publicize outreach efforts to connect campers with services that they would seek to arrange. 

Each of the two scenarios described a point at which Bellingham Police Department would tag and remove remaining tents from the encampment at City Hall. The conclusion to both of the proposed scenarios was the same: “Ultimately, the last holdouts are trespassed, and the site temporarily fenced to allow restoration of the lawn areas and to prevent reentry.”

City inaccurately portrays Camp 210 volunteers’ actions

At the January 25, Bellingham City Council meeting, Mayor Fleetwood objected to some public comments made at the meeting that night, saying that they were unfair. Many comments were made by community members who were criticizing the City’s threat of sweeping Camp 210 that was planned for January 29. 

Following up on the Mayor’s remarks at the meeting, the City of Bellingham made a Facebook post on January 26, 2021 stating, in part:

“We met with collective representatives more than 10 times, comprising at least 15 hours’ worth of engagement in addition to many additional hours of staff time exploring ways to meet the interest of the collective. During our first meeting, the collective stated that 50 additional shelter spots were needed. With the City’s establishment of Swift Haven and the proposal for the Port site, that demand was met. Unfortunately, the demands increased over time without consideration of what is already available.”

The assertion that, “demands increased over time” deserves greater context. While there was a call by volunteers in that first November 17 meeting for the purchase of 50 pallet shelters, it was evident that volunteers were eager to provide shelter for as many people in need of it as possible. The mayor and legal counsel were encouraged to envision and, if necessary, pursue potential sheltering solutions that had not been employed before. 

There was discussion at that same meeting raising the issue that there is a substantially higher number of people needing shelter in Whatcom County than was apparent on City Hall lawn, higher still than the number of 294 persons who reported being unsheltered according to the 2019 annual point in time census of homeless residents. The yearly point in time count, which is presented by a partnership of government agencies, homeless services providers, and community members, reminds readers to :

“…please keep in mind that Point in Time Counts generally underestimate the number of those who are homeless because:
* A point-in-time is just a “snapshot” and may not capture all those who are cycling in
and out of homelessness over the course of a year.
* It is difficult to find where all of the unsheltered people reside. It is impossible to know all the
places that might provide unconventional shelter (i.e. tents, abandoned cars) for one night.
* Participation in the PIT count is voluntary and a small number of households decline to
complete the survey. Our volunteers noted people declining to participate at several
locations though this is largely consistent with previous years.”

Volunteers at the December 22 meeting estimated there were over 100 people camped at City Hall and the Library. COB planning staff had noted in one of their draft documents that the Homeless Outreach Team of a Whatcom County homeless services provider, Opportunity Council, had visited over 130 camps in the month of January.

The claim in the City post that there was no “consideration of what is already available” was inaccurate. At the December 22 meeting with camp volunteers, Mayor Fleetwood had speculated about what people without shelter would do when Camp 210 was “ended.” He brought to the attention of meeting participants the options he felt were available, expressing that some people at Camp 210 wanted to go to Base Camp, and that others could return to other providers where they may have formerly been receiving services. Volunteers gave consideration and offered responses at that meeting to those and other remarks made by the Mayor.

A glimpse of things to come

The characterization of events in the January 26 COB Facebook post offered a hint of what was ahead. In the days and weeks to come, documents and communications of numerous government employees and officials would circulate, depicting Camp 210 volunteers and their actions in a negative light. Those actions were, in turn, linked to a specific group. At the same time, there was an obvious disregard of the many essential services offered by volunteers to otherwise underserved and unsheltered community members for the period of over two months they remained on City Hall grounds during adverse weather conditions.

This approach within local government to negatively brand a group of community members seeking to confront issues that promote inequity and racial disparity in this community does not seem to bode well as community efforts continue to eliminate systemic racism and oppression in Whatcom County.

This review will continue in Chapters 1 through 4. Coming next: Chapter One, The County Executive