Chapter One: The County Executive – Whatcom Barriers to Equity, a review for 2021 candidates / Noisy Waters Northwest

July 10, 2021 Dena Jensen

From Introduction – Whatcom Barriers to Equity, a review for 2021 candidates :

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?

Chapter One: The County Executive

July 14, 2021 Dena Jensen

After the unsheltered community members who had been camping at Bellingham City Hall were swept from the area known as Camp 210 on January 28, 2021, City of Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood and Bellingham Police Chief Flo Simon held a press conference that same day. They presented their points of view regarding their actions related to the militarized sweep of around 100 unsheltered individuals and their belongings. In his statement, Mayor Fleetwood asserted, “Our civic center was becoming the target of agitators far more intent on mayhem than working toward any social good.”

The Mayor did not make it clear to the public who he was identifying as agitators, and no evidence was presented that successfully backed up the Mayor’s claim.

One week earlier, on January 23, Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu had made a similar sounding claim in a statement he posted to Facebook and which, according to public records, was intended to be sent to Denver Pratt at The Bellingham Herald. The Executive’s statement, however, more specifically attacked the intent of those who were involved in organizing protests at City Hall:

“It is clear that those who are organizing the protests at City Hall are not there for the overall betterment of the unsheltered.”

Various media outlets reported on the January 22 events occurring at City Hall, and indicated that some individuals among the protesters on that day had taken down an American flag and damaged it; sprayed paint on the building; had gotten inside the closed City Hall building, staying until they were asked to leave by police; and, in various ways, had accosted people (and their equipment) who had declined to stop taking photos or video recording camp residents and protesters.

A collective of Camp 210 volunteers identifying as Bellingham Occupied Protest, also known as BOP Mutual Aid, posted their account of the January 22 events on their Facebook page, stating in part:

Media outlets, local all the way to international, have been utilizing wording that paints Camp 210 in a false and negative light, intentionally aiming to distract from the reason Camp 210 exists: To demand housing for ALL. Claims of “outside agitators” and denouncement of graffiti only serve to erase the very real and very valid anger and frustration that many community members feel. No amount of ‘playing by the rules’ of this current system will result in housing for all, because the current system is exactly what enables 1500+ people in Whatcom county to live on the streets and in the forests in the first place. We call upon you to denounce this violent system and stand with us in demanding that all people deserve safe and secure shelter.

Executive targets advocates

Regardless of these characterizations of January 22 events at City Hall, in his Facebook post the following day, Executive Sidhu did not focus solely on the specific actions at the City Hall protest which he found unacceptable, but assigned deceptive intent to organizers of City Hall protests in general.

On January 27, 2021, Sidhu sent an email to Mayor Fleetwood, Whatcom County and Bellingham City Council Members, Whatcom County Executive Office Community Outreach Facilitator Jed Holmes, and copied to Whatcom County Deputy Executive Tyler Schroeder. In the email the Executive forwarded a copy of a comment he had posted to a January 26, 2021 Northwest Citizen article, “City Hall Clutches its Pearls” that was written by John Servais.

In his article, Servais supported efforts to provide informed perspectives that were made by numerous volunteers from Camp 210 in their public comments at the January 25, 2021 Bellingham City Council meeting, stating, in part:

“Last night’s speakers knew the situation on-the-ground with the homeless campers; they knew of the unannounced and brutal police sweeps; they were aware of the secrecy and lack of transparency by the City on this issue; and they were well versed in the lack of response from the council, mayor, and department managers in spite of years of polite pleading that we actually take homelessness seriously.”

In the context of the protest at Camp 210, the issue of years of polite pleading that homelessness be taken seriously revolves around addressing large gaps in sheltering services that exist during this period when ample, accessible, permanent, affordable housing is not available in Bellingham and Whatcom County. The very public discussion has been going on for years about how one existing 150-200 person capacity, congregate, 24/7, drop-in emergency shelter provider, run by a religious organization is not an appropriate fit for all of the hundreds of diverse individuals who are unsheltered in Whatcom County.

In 2019 through 2020 meetings of Whatcom County’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup, the topic was brought up repeatedly that until ample accessible housing was provided, diverse and accessible severe weather sheltering provisions needed to be developed for each upcoming cold weather season.

Yet, each winter had left hundreds of unsheltered community members sleeping outdoors. And this last winter the City of Bellingham had actually written homeless service providers to inform them the City felt enough sheltering capacity was available, so the City would not be providing funds to help those service providers to run winter shelters.

Despite this history, in his comment on Servais’ article, which he sent to Bellingham and Whatcom County officials, Sidhu asserted that citizens were demanding instant solutions.

In one part of his comment Sidhu also alleged:

“As far as the situation outside the City hall, it has been a more of ‘protest’ than an attempt to find a ‘solution’. Many of the advocates (collective) are thinking of this as ‘us vs them’ rather than working together to find reasonable solution. These solutions may require small but effective steps at a time. The Mayor and I have been working collaboratively with the ‘advocates group’, who want all or nothing. Even the ALL they want has no clarity.”

Click the graphic of Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu’s January 27, 2021 comment on the Northwest Citizen article, “City Hall Clutches its Pearls” to access it on the Northwest Citizen website

Provisions of care and community are disregarded

Sidhu gave no acknowledgement in his comment that the collective of volunteers had been working at Camp 210 daily, supporting camp residents and helping coordinate vital necessities and triage services around the clock for over two months. He offered no recognition that they had created their own emergency solution while they worked with government officials, at the same time, seeking to improve the level of service being provided.

These stop-gap volunteer efforts were made without being provided a legal space to operate or appreciable help from government agencies, outside of COVID-19 testing from the County Health Department. The threat of Camp 210 services being swept from city properties, along with the unsheltered community members accessing them, loomed throughout the encampments’ existence.

Moreover, City communications plans noted that Camp 210 was focused on individuals who were “the most hard to serve.” COB Planning and Development Director Rick Sepler, who recently retired, indicated in a December 8, 2020 email to Bellingham Parks and Recreation Director Nicole Oliver that by the assessment of Camp 210 volunteers, up to fifty of the people at the camp were chronically homeless.

At an April 28, 2021 Bellingham City Club meeting, “Chronic Homelessness: A Nationwide Challenge,” the moderator, Christine Perkins, explained that people referred to as chronically homeless have the additional challenges of disability or behavioral health issues. 

The implications of volunteers helping create community and well-being for many people who are challenged with these issues for over two severe weather months are significant. Remarks made in a November 25, 2020 email, sent by Hans Erchinger-Davis to the County Executive, help offer perspective on the impacts of doing such work and allude to the amount of effort and commitment it takes. Erchinger-Davis is the Executive Director for Lighthouse Mission Ministries which operates Base Camp, the one year-round, 24 hour, emergency shelter in Whatcom County. In one section of his email he said:

“I would suggest the tiny home / pallet shetler [sic] solution be supported for people that are more Transitional in nature (seniors, families, workers, etc.) to free up space at Base Camp for the more low-barrier folks that need the deeper engagement. Not that I’m trying to get back the more challenging folks back into Base Camp. By all means go after the no-barrier crowd. It certainly makes the Mission’s job a lot easier.”

Public records of Bellingham Police Department case reports for incidents occurring at Base Camp from February 3, 2021 to February 20, 2021 reveal that for 6 out of the 19 reports, trespasses were issued for a different individual involved in each of those 6 incidents, ranging for periods from 30 days, up to lifetime. Additionally, one case report showed that an individual left Base Camp voluntarily. Two other reports involved people who were asked to leave Base Camp for the night. In another case report a trespass was requested for a person but was not issued. And for one case report a person had already been trespassed prior to the incident they were involved in.

That amounted to at least 10 people out of the 19 reports who couldn’t stay at Base Camp the night of their associated case report or for periods that were potentially much longer. Incidentally, these episodes occurred during a period, according to records of the National Weather Service, that encompassed a string of seven nights in a row when temperatures dropped below 30 degrees.

Accusations in refrain

In his Northwest Citizen comment, and from his own us vs. them perspective, the County Executive characterized those who he called “advocates (collective)” as inflexible, and maintained they did things which he offered no evidence they ever did: “They have hurt the very cause and very people, who the are trying to advocate for, by inviting outside extremists to bring violence and vandalism to our community.”

This accusation of Sidhu’s was not just made in his January 27 comment on Northwest Citizen. He was repeating a version of it there from January 22, 2021 emails he had sent to community members. In one of those emails he had said, “Now you know the tactics being used by the advocates: inviting outsider for violence, vandalism and mayhem.”

Sidhu composes a memorandum

Executive Sidhu would continue to display hostile responses related to the Collective. Five days after sharing his January 27 Northwest Citizen comment with Mayor Fleetwood and Bellingham and Whatcom County Council Members, a draft of another commentary piece of Executive Sidhu’s was being sent to COB personnel for review and editing.

According to public records obtained from the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County, on February 1, 2021 Jed Holmes, community outreach facilitator for the Whatcom County Executive’s office was exchanging emails with Janice Keller who is the communications director for the City of Bellingham. The topic was Sidhu’s draft memorandum which, at that point, was intended to be sent to Whatcom County Council members.

Close to 6:00 p.m. Holmes had sent Keller a draft of the memorandum, saying:

Janice,

This is on Satpal’s desk now.

If you see anything sketchy, let me know.

It’s probably going to look a little different after Satpal, Tyler and Arden get through with it, so this is basically just a first peak to give you a sense of the flavor.

Please do not share further until I send you a more finalized version.

Thanks,

Jed

In the second paragraph of the attached draft memo, Sidhu struck a conciliatory note, stating:

“I’d like to suggest that we all take a step back, consider the broader picture, look for opportunities for positive change and reflect on possible lessons we can apply. I think we all share a desire to improve our future actions and approaches as it relates to how we address homelessness and our housing situation.”

But that was quickly followed by him suggesting, “First, let’s be sure we all have a realistic picture of Camp 210,” after which he gave a narrow and, in some places, inaccurate description covering some attributes of the camp.

He stated that the encampment “provided an environment free of rules and responsibilities.” But this conflicted with the account of Aida Cardona, who was regularly volunteering at camp and participating in the City’s negotiations for improved sheltering solutions. On a KZAX 210 Camp Special Report Update 11-23-2020, she stated that camp residents would meet daily and reported:

“We had a community meeting again this afternoon at noon and we had a really great turnout. I was very vocal and passionate about the need for all campers to step up as leadership and to show us what it is that we all need to do together to be able to keep this sustainable.

“And through that we were able to have a very productive conversation about the rules and guidelines and considerations that all campers need to have in order to keep everyone safe.”

From reviewing various Bellingham Police Department body worn camera videos recorded for incidents from November 2020 through January 2021, when police received service calls to the area – despite disputes, behavioral health, and other issues that did arise at the encampment – tents and materials at camp appeared to be predominately orderly and set up to be serviceable.

Other examples of people taking responsibility at the camp were clearly apparent, as well. From the limited view of some of the videos it could be observed that campfire areas were secured in dedicated spaces, and in other footage people were at work in clothing tents and other common areas. There were instances of people losing items with a number of people going off to search for them. In one case, a person informed another on how their remarks were inappropriate and that their efforts to praise others should not be expressed in that manner. In another case, involving a person who needed dry clothing, an individual went to their tent to get dry items of their own to replace missing and wet items.

Addressing COVID-19 issues at Camp 210

Sidhu further noted in his draft memo that, “Failure to abide by social distancing guidelines led to a COVID outbreak at the camp, which prompted Base Camp to temporarily place restrictions on new guests.”

A few COVID cases were reported at the encampment, however a November 25, 2020 King5 video report, which also seemed to challenge practices at the encampment, did present footage shot at Base Camp which showed individuals there not wearing masks and with questionable social distancing practices.



It was after individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 were identified at Camp 210 that Base Camp began to increase practices to reduce the potential of COVID-19 being transmitted in their indoor facility. Unity Care NW, a local, non-profit health care provider, donated 3,200 rapid antigen tests to Lighthouse Mission Ministries. Camp 210 did not receive such a donation.

At a November 20, 2020 Homeless Strategies Workgroup meeting, A Blithe, another volunteer from Camp 210 who attended negotiations for improved sheltering options with City officials, gave the following public comment which can be heard at 1:30:40 on the audio recording of the meeting:

“I appreciate you all welcoming public comment. I am hearing all of you acknowledge the very urgent need to address the housing crisis in the immediacy, while building long-term solutions. I do want to respond to the concerns that have been raised regarding the public health concerns and the COVID spread potentially happening at the 210 Camp just by pointing out and sharing my own experience, having been at the camp. The volunteers and the campers are like – are distributing PPE and encouraging folks to be maintaining safety precautions as much as possible. While we are hearing that that is not taking place at other shelters that are obviously well-funded. 

“We’ve reached out to the health department multiple times, requesting that they come out to the site and advise us on somehow how we can do better, how we can get more hand washing stations, how we can social distance, all of those types of things, and they have not come through for us. 

“I, personally, have been reaching out to the health department every single day, asking if they could set up a mobile testing site at the camp. Initially, they seemed open to that dialogue, or at least facilitating transportation from camps to a testing site where, folks, especially, who might not be able to travel, themselves, far distances to actually get a handle on where we are at with this public health crisis because there is widespread community spread.

“And particularly, when your social services are so inadequate that the community is having to come out to care for each other, there is going to be widespread through those volunteers. And so the COVID pandemic is going to reach every corner of Bellingham. And so I think we really do need to get resources to the campers right away.

“All of you have more institutional expertise and resources. I urge you to acknowledge that there is a group that is being under-resourced right now and they are there, and people aren’t showing up for them. So if you have staff that you can send – if you have mental health counselors, social workers, public health experts, anyone that can actually go out and have a presence and build those relationships, that is what is urgently needed right now. Thank you.”

In Sidhu’s indictment of the “unregulated environment” at Camp 210, he also lumped in the behavior of individuals staying at the County’s isolation and quarantine facility on Byron Avenue, stating, “When campers exposed to COVID-19 were provided access to the County’s isolation and quarantine facility on Byron Avenue, there were repeated violations of the public health rules established for that facility.”

This seems similar to people with interests in downtown Bellingham businesses unfairly assigning responsibility to Base Camp for the behaviors and actions of people who are chronically homeless when they are not at Base Camp. Hans Erchinger-Davis had shared an email exchange he had – in which he disputed this perspective with two business property owners – with COB Planning and Development Director Rick Sepler back in November of 2020.

Sidhu remarks on safety issues

The County Executive went on to remark in his draft memo that numerous incidents at the encampment were reported to Bellingham Police and what types of incidents some of them were. He then went on to declare:

“Unfortunately, there has been an unsubstantiated and unscrupulous smear campaign against Base Camp and Lighthouse Mission Ministries. Protesters at the camp have repeatedly and loudly claimed that Base Camp is not a safe place. That is simply not true. This strategy of bashing Base Camp and the Mission to advance the protesters’ objectives is reprehensible.”

This is another instance of Sidhu attributing intent to the protesters. And in this case he is doing it when he had stated earlier in the draft memo that before the homeless and housing situation could be improved, “we need to share a common understanding of the facts.”

Some facts that are not referred to in Sidhu’s draft memo are that incidents occur at Base Camp that threaten the safety of some people that stay at Base Camp, Base Camp staff members, and/or volunteers. Reasonably, these are types of incidents which also can make some other people who stay at Base Camp feel unsafe.

A public records request for police reports related to any locations in the 1500 block of Cornwall Avenue – which is the area in which Base Camp is located – from February 3, 2021 through June 3, 2021 was made by this writer to the Bellingham Police Department. An email was received from BPD Records Supervisor Brandi Nyhus that explained:

“There are approximately 74 case reports matching your search criteria. We can provide you 20 case reports a month until the request is fulfilled. This will take us approximately 4 months. Your first installment of records would be provided on or before Wednesday, July 7th.”

The first set of 20 case reports have been received, and among those were 19 case reports (referred to earlier in this chapter) of incidents that occurred at Base Camp from February 3 to February 20.

As mentioned previously, people who are chronically homeless often are people who experience challenges of the many issues and conditions that affect people’s behavioral and mental health and sense of stability and safety. Outside of hospitals, low to no-barrier housing, shelters, and encampments are virtually the only places where individuals experiencing these challenges can receive constructive support, care, and have some of their critical needs met.

Among the incidents that were described in BPD case reports was one in which it was reported that a person got punched in the head, and one where a person was described as assaultive, was said to have made an inappropriate physical advance and attempts to steal items. There was a shoving incident described in one report, and another in which a laptop computer was said to have been thrown across a room. One incident involved a person said to have been punching and kicking holes in a wall. In another it was reported that a person threatened to kill someone who was present at the time.

A dehumanized portrayal of camp

Moving on through the County Executive’s draft memo, he got to a point where he boiled down the existence of the encampment at City Hall in this manner:

“However, what had begun as a violation of municipal code grew into hot spot for crime and then developed into a violent protest, led by agitators who defaced and broke into City Hall, assaulted and drove off journalists, and even harassed the chairman of HomesNOW!”

Beating up more on the Collective

In the February 1 email chain between Holmes and Keller, after Holmes had sent Sidhu’s draft memorandum at 5:49 p.m., Keller wrote back to him at 7:07 p.m saying she had some thoughts, asking what version of the memo she should share with the Mayor, and asking what timeline he was on.

Holmes wrote back at 7:59 p.m.:

I just spoke with Satpal. 

He wants me to try to beat up on the Collective a little more.

What’s your commentary?

Jed

The Executive’s community outreach facilitator’s assessment that Sidhu wanted him to “beat up on the Collective a little more” did result in contributions from COB’s communications director, Keller. She sent back an email at 8:50 p.m that included an attachment of Sidhu’s draft memorandum that included her edits.

Click the graphic displaying an portion of Whatcom County Executive’s draft memorandum edited by COB Communications Director Janice Keller to access the PDF file, “Memo on Camp 210_JK” (In the PDF version, red text is not active, but indicates contributions by Keller.)

Following Sidhu’s bleak characterization of Camp 210, a sentence in his draft memo read, “No one wanted a heavy law enforcement presence to be necessary to end the encampment.” Keller’s edits added on this material:

“But the lawlessness and public safety threat made this unavoidable, especially after it was learned that those with extremist views who use violence to amplify their voices were expected to join the fray. . [sic] And who put out the call up and down I-5 for extra protestors? Some members of the collective, who claimed to care about our homeless neighbors but whose reckless actions put them at further risk.” 

Executive Sidhu’s draft memorandum went on from there to ask about next steps and how to heal the division, even though the majority of what he had written had seemed to be strongly invested in his side of that division.

Perhaps Keller’s commentary was not enough

Early the next morning, at 5:41 a.m., Sidhu sent a very different Camp 210 draft memo to Mayor Fleetwood and Janice Keller than the draft which had been shared and edited the day before. It bore the same February 2, 2021 date, but this was intended to be sent, not only to the County Council Members, but also would have been copied to the Bellingham City Council, Mayor Fleetwood, and all of the Small City mayors.

This edition of the draft memo had a similarly adversarial flavor, and the two introductory paragraphs seem to be the same as the one shared between Holmes and Keller the day before. However, the majority was in a format that appeared to be responding to material contained in an email from Brel Froebe, which Sidhu referenced but did not include in this draft memo’s content. Froebe was a member of the Collective who was negotiating with the City.

The executive provided a greater variety of arguments in this version, many of which appeared to center around things that had been exchanged in the most recent negotiations for sheltering options. Those meetings do not seem to have been recorded, so verifying the accuracy of some of Sidhu’s allegations may not be possible.

One portion of the draft memo Sidhu sent the morning of February 2, however, related to the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force involvement with the negotiations for sheltering options, and on that, there is some illuminating information which is available. Here is what the Executive stated in his “Memo on Camp 210 sidhu“:

“’Collective’ members and other advocates never had the clarity of what they are trying to achieve. They brought up the Whatcom Human Right Task Force, a well-respected organization for last several decades in Whatcom County, as their sponsors, without having well thought out plan, research, and clear understanding with WHRTF Board. This wasted 4 weeks of discussions, when the WHRTF Board declined to support the inept proposal by ‘collective’.”

Executive Sidhu attended negotiation meetings where members of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force Board were present. The video recording of the December 22, 2020 meeting, was posted on Instagram. Near the beginning of the meeting, Geneva Blake, Whatcom Human Rights Task Force (WHRTF) Board treasurer, described what her understanding was of WHRTF involvement:

Well, I guess I just first wanna preface things with acknowledging our role in this would be as fiscal sponsor. I really do believe the organizational structure is – resides with the Collective, BMAC [Bellingham Mutual Aid Collective]. They have a really well-defined operational plan and that serves as the organizational structure. The sticking point on all sides does appear to be liability concerns. As an organization, of course, we do hold liability for our directors and officers and our events, and we have been given a pretty clear communication that it would not extend to an endeavor of this scale.

While concern was expressed about the issue of liability, there seemed to be no equivocation by Blake about her understanding and confidence in the operational plan of the Collective. About a week later Blake sent a Dec 30, 2020, 12:47 p.m. email on behalf of the WHRTF to Mayor Fleetwood and Executive Sidhu, copied to WHRTF members:

Dear Mayor and County Executive,

Please see attached a resolution passed by the board of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Forces regarding the current status of negotiations with the Bellingham Mutual Aid Collective (BMAC) to establish a low-barrier emergency homeless shelter.

This is a rapidly evolving situation.  As conditions change, the Board is prepared to revisit our position.

Sincerely,

Geneva Blake

on behalf of the Board of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force

The text of the WHRTF resolution makes a fitting close for this chapter because it seems to accurately reflect elements necessary to help heal division and take next-steps which are things about which Executive Sidhu expressed concern near the close of the earlier versions of his draft memorandum:

Resolution of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force Regarding Our Role in Resolving the Homeless Crisis in Bellingham and Whatcom County

Resolution: Given the way things stand now on December 29, 2020, the WHRTF will withhold moving forward with the city and county to serve as an organizational structure to contract with, as we support the work of the 210 Collective Emergency Shelter.

Resolution passed:  In support: 5; Against 2; Abstain: 2

Reasoning: First, the aspirations of Bellingham Mutual Aid Collective (BMAC) are not reflected in what is being made available by the city and county at this time. Second, we do not yet have assurance that our corporate insurance policy would cover liabilities that may arise as a third-party operator of a low-barrier emergency shelter. We are awaiting a determination from our insurer, which likely, will not come until after the New Year. Third, the Task Force does not have the capacity to, in good faith, oversee the staffing and other operations of homeless facilities.  We are an educational and advocacy organization, and we can provide sponsorship for independent community initiatives that align with our mission and vision.  We are not a direct service provider. 

The ability to have a home secure from danger by humans or other forces of nature is a fundamental human right.  The Task Force will continue to advocate for a compassionate and substantive resolution to the immediate emergency situation and a sustainable plan for achieving the long term goal of housing for all.  A broad-based, comprehensive response will require the city and county taking responsibility and engaging the general public in support of the efforts.  We respect the vision of the BMAC and are deeply grateful for their commitment.  We look forward to supporting the continued efforts of the BMAC, our elected officials, and the community as a whole as we determine equitable and workable solutions to the systemic crisis of unhoused community members here in Bellingham and Whatcom County.

Responsive to two public records requests that sought to determine if and when County Executive Sidhu may have sent out his memo on Camp 210, no copies were provided of an official, finalized version that had ever been sent to County Council Members or any additional officials. It appears that, at some point, there was a change of plans. Meanwhile, the City of Bellingham staff was busy making communications plans of their own.

Coming next: Chapter Two: City Staff and the Mayor

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