Chapter Two: City Staff and the Mayor – Whatcom Barriers to Equity, a review for 2021 candidates / Noisy Waters Northwest

July 29, 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 – Whatcom Barriers to Equity, a review for 2021 candidates

Chapter Two: City Staff and the Mayor

By the time the December 7, 2020 Bellingham City Council meeting arrived last year, the protest calling for more homeless services known as 210 Camp or Camp 210, had been occupying the lawn at Bellingham City Hall for almost a month.

In his Mayor’s report at the meeting, Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood noted some recent health and safety concerns at the encampment and spoke of an “exit strategy” regarding the camp where over 100 unsheltered community members had been sleeping outside.

According to public records obtained from the City of Bellingham, Bellingham Parks and Recreation Director Nicole Oliver sent a December 7, 2021 email at 8:36 p.m. The subject was related to what Oliver referred to as “tragic testimony” at that night’s meeting.

Oliver had sent her email to City of Bellingham Deputy Administrator Brian Heinrich, the City’s Planning and Community Development Director Rick Sepler (who, since then, has recently retired), and COB Public Works Director Eric Johnston.

Some of the public comment at the meeting expanded the context of health issues and “angst” of community members which the Mayor had referenced in his report.

Markis D. Stidham was one of the community members providing public comment that night. Stidham served as Homeless Advocate on Whatcom County’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup from 2018 until the workgroup was disbanded in May of 2021. He addressed the Council Members, saying that the volunteers at Camp 210, “should be considered nothing but heroes and they’re trying to make it safe. They’re trying to help you.  They need your help. They’ve been asking for services. I’ve been asking for services for these people throughout this. It’s been a month now they’ve been on the lawn.”

Stidham is also the director of civic engagement for the non-profit homeless service provider, Serenity Outreach Services which formed in February of 2021. Additionally in his comment he called for 150 modular shelters to be provided, either by the City or Whatcom County, to protect residents at the camp from severe weather. He went on to say:

“The health department is breathing down the back of these campers and trying to get them to bring into order something that’s just not – you can’t do that. We’re doing triage out there. It’s like unto a field hospital in war. Okay? So, first we have to recognize that a tent is not viable shelter. Secondly, we have to recognize that many people still don’t have tents and are sleeping on your lawn with tarps and things. There’s no way we can treat that as any viable facility. This is triage. And we’re trying to help. Please help us. I’ve been begging for our providers in Bellingham to come and help.”

The plea for assistance with providing services at the camp echoed the message of a public comment by Whatcom DSA member and camp volunteer, a blyth, which they made nearly two weeks earlier at the November 20, 2020 meeting of Whatcom County Council’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup. Blyth additionally provided a comment at the City Council meeting that night, continuing to ask officials for help, explaining, “What we are trying to do is keep people from dying. You know, I’m taking a medic class to learn how to deal with frostbite.” 

Melissa Wisener, who also serves on the board of Serenity Outreach Services as their executive director, was overcome with emotion during her December 7 public comment. Wisener recounted how she works downtown near the camp and, that day, had encountered a number of the camp residents who were in distress and in need of mental health services. She said, “I need to get help for these people. They need help. They want services. And all three of the people that talked to me today can’t because they don’t have phones and they don’t have anywhere to be isolated where they can talk to a counselor over the phone.”

December 7 – Compassion meets blame

The email that Parks Director Oliver sent the night of December 7 transitioned quickly from her assessment of the raw public testimony to a list of action-oriented ideas. The proposed actions she submitted to fellow City officials for their review were community-focused with various suggestions made that could help foster a collaborative process and provide City resources to facilitate success. Oliver wrote:

Subject: Ideas

Tragic testimony tonight. Here’s a few ideas:

1. Immediate deal with Homes Now! to occupy lot at Geri Fields with tents on wooden pallets. Only a few barriers: COVID test and your name.

2. Invite cooperative to help arrange meetings between campers and their case workers – they can help facilitate these meetings using our Wifi at City Hall and Civic. Perhaps we can offer some smart phones to help? Try to place as many campers as possible asap. COVID tests should get more placed.

3. Reach out to Melissa, Markis, Elizabeth and Heather to help understand and give feedback on the plan – I would like to offer to make this connection. Markis and I go back about 28 years, I know Heather from community gardening efforts, and I have watched both Elizabeth and Melissa on live feed. Maybe a new face might
help?

4. Ask the community at large to adopt a camper in their yard/garage while we work on long-term camp. We need more help for these folks. Who can help?

5. Activate the services – where are they? Well, these organizers have criticized all of them. We might need to invite them and ask for help.

6. Move forward with RFP and get another provider to set up shelters as we earlier described and move people into that shelter.


Big concerns:
• Winter back up plan – if we get a snow before the shelters are built – where can we move people? Sportsplex? If we use Civic we could use the overhang at the front of the main stadium entry.

Nicole C. Oliver
Parks & Recreation Director
City of Bellingham
210 Lottie Street
Bellingham, WA 98225

Early the next morning, on December 8, then-Planning Director Sepler responded to Oliver’s email, addressing her and the rest of the email’s recipients. He started by complementing Oliver’s compassionate nature and acknowledging the moving testimony at the City Council meeting.

Sepler then went on to present perspectives which could challenge that compassionate response and deter Oliver’s desire to take action.

Hi Nicole (et.al.) –

A lot to unpack here. 

Firstly,  you are a very compassionate individual and it comes through in your response to the very moving testimony. 

However, there is more here –

Folks don’t have tents because they were staying at Base Camp.  They left the shelter for free food and no rules.  It is a party atmosphere.

Folks can’t go back to the shelter because they blew off COVID safety.

The women who came in without shoes is the one I ran outside to stop from walking in traffic – she had no shoes because in her drugged state, she kicked them off.

According to our service providers, most of the folks outside have case managers and are/were in programs.  Can’t say for sure, but the folks in the field think most of them walked from their programs. By the Collaborative’s own assessment 20-50 are chronic homeless challenged by drugs and alcohol who will need wrap-around services for potentially the rest of their lives.

Asking case workers to drop their current clients and caseload (which is already at 100%) and to come to the encampment is being perceived as a slap in the face. They believe that it is rewarding folks who don’t play by the rules and will adversely effect their work with current rule-following clients.

Responding to the protest and funding their asks puts our entire Levy program at risk.  Why apply for funding if you can just stage a protest and get what you want?

I think we should find time to meet to discuss your thoughts below.

Rick

Oliver’s email proposals had sought to have City officials engage with volunteers from Camp 210, community members who had individually been providing homeless outreach services to unsheltered people for a number of years, and existing non-profit homeless service providers in a manner that offered the promise of building bridges toward more comprehensive solutions.

Sepler’s responses made some assumptions and excuses about challenges at Camp 210 that can be disputed through material found in a media video and Bellingham Police Department case reports. He laid blame on people at Camp 210 who were struggling with instability, physical, mental, and behavioral health issues for the tragedy to which Oliver had alluded.

A couple of the planning director’s remarks seem to contradict each other. He stated that, “According to our service providers, most of the folks outside have case managers and are/were in programs.” But in the next paragraph he asserted that case workers are being asked (by sources he didn’t identify) to drop clients and come to the encampment. Were case workers’ clients at the camp or not? If clients were at Camp 210, how would case workers be dropping clients to help them at the camp?

Sepler’s remarks regarding case workers, if any of his assessment of their position was accurate, would demonstrate one of the barriers to equity that our community members who are unsheltered face: If people who are unsheltered are participating in a protest, then they become viewed as people not worthy of case management services because they are not playing by some unspecified set of rules.

The question Sepler asked, “Why apply for funding if you can just stage a protest and get what you want?” seems to rely on the assumption that City budget priorities should remain fixed and not evolve in response to understanding community needs and actions that will ultimately save tax-payers money.

November 16 – COB gets planning

It would turn out that the opposition to camp organizers and the encampment at City Hall that was evident in Sepler’s email would be reflected in the results of months of City of Bellingham communications planning. These efforts were made regarding winter 2020/2021 tent encampments and emergency shelter needs. Select employees of the City from the Planning and Development department, Parks and Recreation Department, communications personnel, the City Attorney’s Office, and the City’s deputy administrator were among most of the notable contributors to these communications efforts.

The records obtained from the City of Bellingham being used in this review are not inclusive of all COB communications documents regarding issues impacting winter emergency sheltering this last winter. However, there were enough documents and emails obtained to indicate a sense of the direction and some specific goals of communications planning surrounding this topic.

Back in mid-November of 2020, when negotiations between Camp 210 volunteers and Mayor Fleetwood were just beginning to get underway, a concise plan of key actions had been created for the November 16, 2020 and November 17, 2020 discussions. At the very bottom of that document in the last row of columns, it was designated that an action of “Communications prep” would be taken, with COB Communications Director Janice Keller as the lead, and with Rick Sepler from Planning as her support. It was noted they would “begin to establish City talking points.”

December 18 – Nice try with shelter space numbers

In the days and weeks ahead, some documents focused on efforts like anticipated responses and rebuttals and contingency planning scenarios to be used for proposed emergency sheltering and housing negotiations.

But by December 18, 2021, eleven days after Nicole Oliver’s email about the tragic testimony at the December 7 Bellingham City Council Meeting, a “Draft Communication Start” document had emerged.

The predictive draft document relayed that, “the City of Bellingham has moved to bring to a close the protest encampment in front of City Hall and on the Library lawn.” It projected that negotiations for one proposed sheltering option had broken down with “organizers of the protest” who were not able to, “agree on applying a standard municipal code condition which prohibits the use of alcohol and illegal drugs by residents of a tiny house encampment.”

The draft also cited City actions that would result in 28 certain, and around 40 less-certain additional spaces for winter sheltering than there had been in November when the encampment began.

28 spaces were to be available at a new HomesNOW! tiny home community at Geri Field. While not a drop-in shelter where anyone could acquire shelter on any given night, the arrangement would allow people to sign up to be screened for an opportunity to live in a modular home in a moderate barrier community until permanent housing was secured for them.

This was an option which HomesNOW! Chairman Doug Gustafson had been making City and County officials aware that his organization was ready to provide all last summer, well ahead of the hostile weather season. The City did not begin making arrangements with HomesNOW! for the new village until December. Tiny homes at Swift Haven ultimately became available for some people to occupy after the first week in January 2021.

In another separate option, approximately 40 additional sheltering spaces were to be made available only on occasions when winter shelter organizers made the decision to activate extra space and extra volunteers to aid people needing shelter. Individuals would be screened at Lighthouse Mission‘s 24 hour emergency drop-in shelter, Base Camp, and would either be taken to their former Drop-In Center location to stay, or would be instructed to remain for sheltering at Base Camp.

The draft communications document had also described a longer-term tiny home community set to shelter 30-40 people, but that was not projected to be available until spring of 2021. Still, this draft communications document asserted:

“Implementing these initiatives will add 230 to 240 more shelter spaces which will be more than adequate to accommodate the approximately 100 unsheltered individuals who have participated in the protest.”

January 6 – COB had a story to tell

Needless to say, Camp 210 was not “brought to a close” in December, and City negotiations related to additional sheltering solutions with camp volunteers went on into January of 2021.

One City document titled “Scenario 2 Notes Attorney Client 1-6-21” contained a section with the header “Telling the Story” in which some of the City sheltering efforts included in the “Draft Communications Start” document were again noted. Part of the story being told here was that the challenge of addressing needs of Bellingham’s unsheltered residents was more than just local, “it’s a nation-wide issue.” Another bullet point highlighted that locally, it is Whatcom County which is the lead government agency in the effort to address homelessness.

By January 19, 2021, the City was getting in full swing with a more expansive telling of the story with their “Draft FAQs_1.19.21” document. The January 19 draft coincided with an entry from that date on the COB webpage about encampments which announced City workers were communicating the need for a fire and safety protection area at City Hall.

The FAQs draft consisted of three pages of questions being answered about winter sheltering and the encampment at City Hall. In this draft version of the story, there was one brief paragraph addressing whether Camp 210 was safe. The City’s answer was no, due to “numerous incidents and safety issues,” of which they listed a few examples.

However, the document did not address any question about safety issues regarding incidents that had occurred at or around Base Camp. Such questions have been being asked by those with business interests in Bellingham for quite some time, and definitely as recently as this past cold weather season.

Perhaps the hardest pill to swallow in the City’s story at that point was the answer to the question “Why weren’t you more prepared for this coming winter?” The opening sentence of the answer was, “We were prepared.”

In terms of preparedness, leading up to the winter season in 2020 no one had taken up HomesNOW! on their repeated offers that summer to get one to two more tiny home communities up and running before winter. Additionally, City staff had written to some homeless services providers to inform them that the City would not be helping to fund and operate an overflow winter shelter as they had the year before, nor would they be helping to fund a winter shelter for youth as they had the year before.

The “Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness 2020 Annual Report” identified over two hundred people in the County who reported being unsheltered on January 23, 2020. In the report, and according to those doing homeless outreach, it is commonly agreed that there are far more people than this sleeping outside locally. The City noted in March of this year that the Opportunity Council reported visiting over 130 homeless encampments in January 2021.

January 22 – A “brilliant” plan to limit community input is (temporarily) derailed

Meanwhile, a few days after City staff was commenting on the Draft FAQs, on January 22, 2021, then-Planning Director Sepler sent an email to the City’s Economic Development Manager Tara Sundin related to that day’s meeting of Whatcom County’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup.

January 22, 2021 was the date that residents of Camp 210 had been asked to move into a restricted footprint on City Hall grounds as part of what Mayor Fleetwood characterized as an “incremental approach to ending the encampment.”

There was a protest that day in response to the City’s action. The restricted area to which people were being directed, could have either condensed camp residents into a small area during the pandemic or could have prodded them to move on when virtually no shelter options, other than checking in at Base Camp, were available.

Click the image from a post by BOP Mutual Aid of the space designated as a 25 ft. perimeter around Bellingham City Hall to access the post on BOP Mutual Aid’s Facebook page

The Mayor had sent an email to all the COB department heads at 10:27 a.m., January 22, stating in part:

“The Public Works crew arrived to assist in the planned City Hall clean-up at 9:30 a.m. Due to protesters blocking the road they were unable to access the area. Most campers have not complied with our request to create a 25-foot fire and safety area. Public Works crews have left the area for today. As you know, we have indicated the encampment will come to an end this month.”

Sepler forwarded the email to Sundin a few minutes later, to which she responded at 12:34 p.m. Sundin indicated she hoped the Mayor would deliver information similar to that in his email at 1:30, which was the scheduled time that afternoon for the Homeless Strategies Workgroup meeting. The Mayor was a member of the workgroup.

In the email Sepler sent back to Sundin at 12:45 p.m., he asked, “Would you cancel today’s meeting? Wouldn’t it solely function to give the protestors air time?”

Sundin emailed him at 12:48 p.m.:

“Not if Barry limits time for public comment.  Gives Satpal, Mayor and others time to set the record straight.  Nothing helps the City now but communication and following through.  Can’t worry about the protesters and what they say…there will never be a point where we win them over and they stop yelling.  Until they are gone for a few weeks…maybe.”

Two minutes later, Sepler responded, “Brilliant! Key would be for Barry to limit time.  Mayor can reach out to him. I will follow-up.”

Whatcom County Council Member and Chairman Barry Buchanan also had served as Chair for the now-disbanded Homeless Strategies Workgroup (HSW). The meeting on January 22 did not end up being cancelled. But close to an hour into the meeting, according to the audio recording, Buchanan announced, “I have a three o’clock hard adjourn time today.” He explained he had an appointment he had to get to.

Another half hour later, Buchanan let the workgroup know that he would skip subcommittee updates and go straight into public comment, “I’ve bought myself an extra 15 minutes. I can go until 3:15 and then I have to leave.”

But 15 minutes came and went and the public comment period went on for another 50+ minutes that day (and only one commenter yelled). Buchanan stayed the entire time and said nothing more about an appointment.

It was a different case, though, at the next HSW meeting on February 5, 2021 which occurred after the January 28 sweep at Camp 210. The agenda for the meeting stated: “Public comments will not be heard during this meeting. Written comments may be submitted to council@co.whatcom.wa.us (Please address comments to ‘Homeless Strategies Workgroup’).

In all subsequent HSW meeting agendas there was a statement that, “The duration of the public comment portion of this agenda will be no longer than 20 minutes.” During the previous two years, there had never been a time limit on the public comment period prior to February 19, 2021.

All this was happening with the Homeless Strategies Workgroup leading up to March 8, 2021, when a 15-minute public comment period began strictly being enforced at Bellingham City Council meetings.

March 1 – “Pretend” outreach

After officers from Bellingham Police Department, Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, Customs and Border Patrol, and Washington State Patrol all turned out for the sweep of Camp 210 on January 28, 2021, many camp residents moved to a vacant parking lot at Geri Field. The location was not far from the site of the freshly-opened HomesNOW! tiny home community, Swift Haven, in the Puget neighborhood of Bellingham.

During the time the Geri Field encampment remained in place, City staff continued to edit and expand on their encampment and winter sheltering FAQs. On March 1, 2021 a meeting was held with homeless services providers where outreach was the focus, as the City moved closer in their approach to “end” this camp location.

Click the image of a February 22, 2021 entry on the City of Bellingham webpage “Addressing tent encampments and emergency winter shelter needs” to access this information

One City document, “Outreach_and_communications” provides questions posed during the meeting, along with some of the input from the meeting attendees who represented different non-profits, programs, and government agencies: Bridget Reeves, Lighthouse Mission Ministries; Teri Bryant, Opportunity Council; Malora Christensen, GRACE program; Janice Keller, City of Bellingham; David Crass, Bellingham Police Department; Nicole Oliver, COB Parks and Recreation; Tara Sundin, COB Planning and Development.

Significant to a later event hosted by the City, was the response by homeless services providers as to whether they would offer outreach to camp residents from a place near the encampment. The meeting document noted:

“Tara asked if provided with a place nearby (i.e. Civic) would they have outreach.  All agreed that they could (did not seem like a preferred solution).  They understood this was mostly about optics.

“Discussion turned to the need to do community communication that could educate volunteers and broader community.  Janice agreed a Communication Strategy is needed.

“Communication and more importantly, education, would do more to help community and campers than a ‘pretend’ outreach event.”  

Teri Bryant, from the Opportunity Council, was noted in the document as indicating that outreach would not change anything and that she believed camp residents would relocate.

Under a section in the document noting comments from Bridget Reeves from Lighthouse Mission, it said:

“LMM isn’t the catch all for every single person. Noted – that some people do fall through the cracks. Not that they should not have a place/shelter to go to but a large congregate low-barrier shelter does not serve all (focus on unsafe behavior other guests and staff).”

Despite the nature of these assessments made on March 1, by the next week, the City of Bellingham Facebook page made a post on May 12, 2021 disclosing, “We hosted outreach events three mornings this week, providing connections to housing and shelter options and substance use, mental health and other health care services.”

Click the image of a March 12, 2021 City of Bellingham Facebook post about their homeless services outreach events to access it on their Facebook page

March 3 – Telling the story of who and what to blame

By March 3, 2021 a small section of the DRAFT FAQs from back in January had made it into the COB file, “DRAFT Outreach Phone Call Outline 3 March 21.” In addition, and overall, the latest material was another set of FAQs more specifically focused on the City’s story about the Geri Field encampment. The draft document stated a purpose to “reach out to key community members to informally share facts about the illegal encampment at Geri Field and the City’s intent to address its growing public health and safety concerns.”

The outline ventured beyond deflecting responsibility from the City for addressing emergency sheltering needs onto the nation-wide homeless crisis, or Whatcom County’s lead position in addressing homelessness. In this unedited version of the outline from March 3, under the problematic question, “Who is organizing the unsheltered at Geri Field?” the answer was presented as:

“Many of the organizers are self-acknowledged member [sic] of the Whatcom Democratic Socialists of America. Their demands (taken from their Facebook page) are to:
o Drop all of the charges against protestors arrested at the removal of the illegal camp at City Hall and the Library.
o Provide permanent, no-barrier housing for all
o Permanent ban on encampment sweeps.”

However, the City’s presentation of its facts changed in subsequent versions of the outline. One edited version of the draft outline, nearly two pages longer than the original, and bearing the same date, contained a different answer to the same question, “Who is organizing the unsheltered at Geri Field?” :

“Organizers affiliated with the BOP (Bellingham Occupied Protest) Mutual Aid group. These groups are responsible for promoting protests (or “black bloc” “strikes”) that have resulted in vandalism to public buildings and Mayor Fleetwood’s home.
Their demands (taken from their social media pages) currently are to:
o Drop all charges, including felony assault charges, against protestors arrested at the removal of the illegal camp at City Hall and the Library.
o Provide permanent, no-barrier housing for all
o Permanent ban on encampment sweeps
o “Defund” or “abolish” the police”

When some of this material made it past the editing process and onto COB’s encampments webpage under the tab, “March 8, 2021: FAQs about encampment in Geri Field lower parking lot,” the question that had dehumanized people who are unsheltered had been switched out for the question, “Who is organizing the camp at Geri Field?” Additionally, the answer to the question had been changed to be somewhat less inflammatory in comparison to the ones in the draft outlines. But it still reflected the City’s oppositional stance toward camp volunteers who identify with the occupied protest:

Who is organizing the camp at Geri Field?

“The camp is said to be self-run by residents with the assistance of volunteers and donated supplies.

“Some volunteers are affiliated with the BOP (Bellingham Occupied Protest) Mutual Aid group, which promotes protests (or ‘black bloc’ ‘strikes’) that have resulted in vandalism to public buildings and private homes, acts of intimidation that appear to use the issue of homelessness to further broader social causes.”

The version of the draft outline referred to above, which was edited by Communications Director Keller and Deputy Administrator Heinrich, included a section headed up with the question, “What has been the biggest challenge to serving the homeless population this winter?” The answer was, “According to area homeless services providers, the top challenges to serving the homeless population this winter have been encampments at City Hall and Geri Field.”

All these portions of the City’s story, of course, rely heavily on persistently ignoring five months of services, between the City Hall and Geri Field encampments, that were provided by camp volunteers. These were individuals, both affiliated and unaffiliated with organizations, who showed up day and night, to serve people without shelter who were living outdoors. The community members being served were people who included those which the City acknowledged had complex and significant challenges, some of whom Base Camp would not serve. Camp volunteers served and supported these community members throughout all the periods of severe weather, and despite many unanswered calls for assistance from government agencies and service providers.

Also by March 3, preparations were being made for the City’s story, as it was further developed, to be used as a script for “key influencer phone calls.” Two March 3, 2021 versions of a contact list were among the City records obtained, one of which, “3-3-21 draft contact list_JK,” provided more names and additional details about the type of contacts being made than the other.

Among people on the contact lists were individuals who were: business owners or advocates; employed by homeless services non-profits; members of philanthropic organizations; members of neighborhood associations; volunteers providing homeless outreach; school district leadership; government agency leadership; elected representatives.

If there were corresponding organizations or positions associated with a contact, that was identified in one column. Another column designated the method by which a person would be contacted: email, phone call, personal contact, etc.

There were names or initials placed in one column of the spreadsheet under the header “staff,” which identified an individual like Mayor Seth, Brian Heinrich, Rick Sepler, Janice Keller, Tara Sundin, or Nicole Oliver, who could be the one to contact a named person.

Below are two screenshots that display the contents of the spreadsheet contact list. Phone numbers have been redacted.

There is no confirmation in public records received that any of this individual outreach was carried out. However, on March 7, 2021 at 8:05 a.m., Janice Keller sent an email to Brian Heinrich that included an attachment for what she described as a “telephone outreach/FAQs document,” which she said she had revamped over that weekend. The file name for this document was “DRAFT 4_ CLEAN 3-6-21.”

This version of Geri Field-focused draft FAQs was around 4 pages, and the section listing BOP demands, including “‘Defund’ or ‘abolish’ the police,” was the only section in red font. And while Keller said it was intended for, among other things, a “script for a few of us to make calls, beginning right away,” what is significant is that this draft document was widely circulated throughout COB staff to individuals ranging from those in the planning department to those in the City administration, Bellingham School District, and BPD.

Senior planner for the City, Gregory Aucutt sent an email on March 9, 2021 with the attached DRAFT 4_ CLEAN 3-6-21 document to members of COB’s Planning and Development Department, saying:

“Good morning,

“Rick asked that I share the attached with you. It is a summary of the status of the Geri Fields homeless encampment. Provides excellent info FYI and in case you are asked by friends, family, community members about the camp. I know I get asked about it a lot. Help get this info out when you can.

“Let me know if you have questions.”

March 3 redux – Compassion met the story

The Geri Field encampment resided on Bellingham Parks and Recreation property. About two weeks before the City of Bellingham swept the encampment there, Parks Director Nicole Oliver sent an email with an attachment titled, “Communications_Strategy_GF.” The information in that attachment had come a long way from Oliver’s email to Sepler back in early December.

By March 3, in contrast to her December 7 email, there were no suggested swift sheltering actions. There was a brief week-long warming shelter mentioned in the communications document. The warming shelter had been opened at Depot Market Square in February 2021, and had been sponsored by Oliver’s department. The document also noted that, “Health Dept. recommends no government run emergency winter shelters in future.”

Most of the points echoed the other COB communications covered in this review: pointing to nation-wide flaws in systems that support those experiencing homelessness; spreading the City’s story to influencers; highlighting the millions of dollars already spent by the City to fight homelessness; stressing an absence of need for other sheltering options beyond those being offered; noting agencies were placing blame on Camp 210 for challenges to providing homeless services while not reflecting that any services had been provided by camp volunteers.

The document also restated some inaccurate information that Rick Sepler had offered in response to Oliver’s December 7 email, asserting there were no rules or boundaries at Camp 210.

The Communications Strategies GF document did not suggest, as Oliver had in December, facilitating collaboration and solutions between government agencies, staff of homeless service non-profits, individuals performing homeless outreach, and the remaining camp volunteers, some of whom were unsheltered. The energy and spirit of this email had been lost:

From: Oliver, Nicole C.
Sent: Monday, December 7, 2020 8:36 PM
To: Heinrich, Brian M. ; Sepler, Rick M. ; Johnston, Eric C.
Subject: Ideas

Tragic testimony tonight. Here’s a few ideas:

1. Immediate deal with Homes Now! to occupy lot at Geri Fields with tents on wooden pallets. Only a few barriers: COVID test and your name.

2. Invite cooperative to help arrange meetings between campers and their case workers – they can help facilitate these meetings using our Wifi at City Hall and Civic. Perhaps we can offer some smart phones to help? Try to place as many campers as possible asap. COVID tests should get more placed.

3. Reach out to Melissa, Markis, Elizabeth and Heather to help understand and give feedback on the plan – I would like to offer to make this connection. Markis and I go back about 28 years, I know Heather from community gardening efforts, and I have watched both Elizabeth and Melissa on live feed. Maybe a new face might
help?

4. Ask the community at large to adopt a camper in their yard/garage while we work on long-term camp. We need more help for these folks. Who can help?

5. Activate the services – where are they? Well, these organizers have criticized all of them. We might need to invite them and ask for help.

6. Move forward with RFP and get another provider to set up shelters as we earlier described and move people into that shelter.


Big concerns:
• Winter back up plan – if we get a snow before the shelters are built – where can we move people? Sportsplex? If we use Civic we could use the overhang at the front of the main stadium entry.

Nicole C. Oliver
Parks & Recreation Director
City of Bellingham
210 Lottie Street
Bellingham, WA 98225

Coming next: Chapter 3: The Police Department

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