Meeting sheltering needs in Whatcom County / Letter to local officials

November 11, 2021 Dena Jensen

During the November 9, 2021 Whatcom County Council Committee of the Whole meeting, Whatcom County Health Department Director Erika Lautenbach made the following statements to committee members regarding sheltering members of our community who are homeless:

As you all know, as well, this – homelessness is an issue, and sheltering is an issue that we cannot meet the demand. We will never meet the demands and the needs until we have a national strategy and we’re able to devote more resources at that first part of the continuum, which are the drivers of homelessness. Homelessness is, of course, a failure at a lot of levels in our systems. 

A lot of our systems are failing people, leading them to homelessness and we need to address those, even as we’re focused on making sure we have short term sheltering options for individuals. 

So I know that you – I know that you’re aware of this. We are doing what we can locally. We will not meet the demand. We will never meet the demand.”

And we are working very hard to at least try to have more resources this winter and into the coming years than we have in the past. But of course by way of saying there’s a lot of ways to approach this. And we are just zeroing in on a very small portion of that in the presentation.

Today I sent the following email to Director Lautenbach, Whatcom County Council, County Executive Sidhu, Bellingham City Council, and Mayor Fleetwood:

Subject: Meeting sheltering needs in Whatcom County

Dear Director Lautenbach, Whatcom County Council, Executive Sidhu, Bellingham City Council, and Mayor Fleetwood:

Today I was able to listen to the presentation given to Whatcom County Council Members during the November 9, 2021 Committee of the Whole meeting on interim sheltering options over the winter season.

I want to note what I feel to be a very dangerous message that was delivered multiple times during that presentation. That message was that we will never meet the demand to provide short-term shelter for people. 

That is a different message from one that says: we need help from our federal government, our state government, private organizations, and the wealth of potential that lies in our individual community members to meet our goals to both shelter and speedily house people, providing them the services they need to help ensure their well-being and keep them permanently housed. 

If heeded, the only fruit of the message that we will never meet the demand for shelter, will be to fend off the call for all of us to meet that demand. It is a statement that is only true if your community believes it. And if they fulfill this prophecy for all of you, there are hundreds living on our streets and in our woods right now who are going to pay the price for that. And there are hundreds more, waiting in the wings for us to do all the things to provide our long-term solutions – that will not be available to them until years from now – who will join their ranks in the coming days, weeks, and months.

To meet sheltering needs we have to do things differently. We have to recognize there are around 200,000 people in Whatcom County, among whom we can foster the energy and resources needed for some of them to bring forth aid from our federal and state governments, letting those agencies and their officials know they are just as accountable for solutions as our local and regional government officials are.

Our local leaders can rejoice and uplift other community members who are holding them accountable for their part, at the same time they bring ideas and propose solutions. Our leaders can reach out to their public, engage with them, and iron out disagreements even when people are critical and frustrated, knowing that they suffer their own trauma and experience mistreatment, so that barriers are removed and forward movement begins to occur.

But we cannot condemn our community to hopelessness as to the fate of certain friends and neighbors in crisis that they have sought to care for, when our government has refused to. We cannot afford any message that says we cannot provide equity and well-being, person by person, action by action. 

We have a racial equity commission that is coalescing.  If our leaders have the wise foresight to approve it, the message that we will never be able to meet the needs of our Black, Indigenous and other communities of color who are currently in crisis will never be a message that those commission members should be made to hear. 

I call on all of you to reach out and fight, side by side with your community members, to bring well-being to those in crisis, as if every need being met is well with our grasp.


Dena Jensen

Birch Bay, WA

The email above was sent to the following addresses:
Erika Lautenbach <>; <>; Barry Buchanan <>; Todd Donovan <>; Carol Frazey <>; Rud Browne <>; Tyler Byrd <>; Ben Elenbaas <>; Kathy Kershner <>; <>; Hannah E. Stone <>; Hollie A. Huthman <>; Michael W. Lilliquist <>; Daniel C. Hammill <>; Lisa A. Anderson <>; Gene R. Knutson <>; Pinky T. Vargas <>; Seth M. Fleetwood <>