So far, Whatcom County winter season sheltering options are Scrooged / Noisy Waters Northwest

Click the image to access the most recent information on Lighthouse Mission Ministries’ emergency sheltering availability

December 8, 2021 Dena Jensen

At the December 2, 2021 Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness (WCCEH) meeting that took place over Zoom, Whatcom County Human Services Supervisor Ann Beck prefaced her update on Whatcom County winter sheltering efforts by saying it had been a bad day at work for her. She explained that would be the reason, should she tear up at any point during her presentation. Beck also shared that she was due to attend another meeting related to the heavy flooding that has displaced unprecedented numbers of people in the County.

This has not been the first time during the last couple years that the County’s Human Services Supervisor has appeared at public meetings to be working under over-stressed circumstances.

It’s nearing two years that Whatcom County’s Health Department has been addressing COVID-19 without sufficient, previously assembled resources. Stack on top of that our local emergencies of homelessness, mental health resource shortages, and severe weather catastrophes, and it’s understandable that employees might be experiencing extreme pressure, along with insufficient support and well-being in their workplace.

However, if government agency and non-profit employees are dealing with bad days, the community members in the most vulnerable circumstances, disproportionately suffering the harshest impacts and direct threats of COVID-19, homelessness, mental and behavioral health challenges, and housing and food insecurity, are being faced with worse days upon worst days, winter season after winter season.

Over the past few weeks, government staff members, offering presentations on winter sheltering options for 2021/2022, have been making the rounds in front of officials like Whatcom County Council Members, Bellingham City Council Members, Bellingham Planning Commission Members, and those attending the WCCEH meeting.

At the WCCEH meeting Ms. Beck’s message for the day seemed to be in line with the bad day she was having. Whatcom County had no winter or severe weather shelters to offer. She asserted that some kind of community reactions from the prior year – but she was not specific which ones – had kept people – and she did not say which people and how many – from wanting to volunteer.

Beck said there was a County search for sheltering partners but that there was no interest. She also repeated the dark prophecy that Health Department Director Erika Lautenbach had put forward to the Whatcom County Council Committee of the Whole on November 9, 2021, that Whatcom County would never be able to meet the demand for sheltering.

Similar to the other presentations on winter sheltering that various officials were receiving – except for Ms. Beck’s part of the presentation – most of the focus from presenters at the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness meeting was on what services had been made available, and very little on the gaps in services that are leaving hundreds of people living in vehicles and encampments through bitter winter weather, year after year, in Whatcom County.

One difference and benefit to the WCCEH meetings is that there is often opportunity offered for members of the public attending the meeting, to ask questions of presenters and potentially receive answers. A significant drawback to the meetings is that they are only held every two months. The next meeting is scheduled for the first Thursday in February 2022. And so far, recordings of the meeting have not been published for community members to access.

Countywide strategy sets crisis on the back burner

That same date that the WCCEH met in the afternoon, the City of Bellingham’s Planning Commission met, also receiving a presentation on winter sheltering, along with information on other housing and options to serve people who are experiencing homelessness. Staff members Samya Lutz and Tara Sundin from the City’s Planning and Development Department gave the presentation. There was one public comment offered at the meeting. Incidentally, there were no instructions on how to attend the Zoom meeting provided on the Planning Commission agenda.

During the early part of the December 2 presentation, a slide was shared on the screen that listed “Countywide Homeless Strategies Goals.” The last item on the list stated, “Invest in long-term permanent solutions over temporary crisis solutions when resources are inadequate to do both.”

Tara Sundin, the City’s Economic Development Manager, did not bring herself to utter that position that would mean dropping the development of additional needed solutions for people currently crisis in order to favor long-term solutions that will not be available for years. Instead, Sundin reasoned to the Planning Commissioners that the City and County don’t want to “take our eye off long-term permanent solutions.”

Additionally, related to the idea that inadequate resources might be a trigger for government agencies to make a strategic choice to allow people currently in crisis to suffer a lack of their agency services to address them, Sundin did not indicate that there was any pursuit being made to increase those resources. And when asked by Planning Commissioner Ali Taysi if there was any potential legislative activity toward furthering homeless services, Sundin answered, “I don’t see any on the legislative changes in the world Samya and I are working on, which is mostly the subsidized housing and homeless code. But you never know.”

How low can the boom go?

The same week that these two presentations were going on, community members noted that vehicles in certain Bellingham public lots and streets, ranging from numerous types of recreational vehicles to automobiles, were being stickered with warnings to move the vehicles within 72 hours, under penalty of being towed and stored at the owners’ expense.

The text of the stickers further threatened that if owners are not able to pay for this expense, they will incur an additional violation for “littering – abandoned vehicle” for which the sticker cites RCW 46.55.085. That RCW is titled “Law enforcement impound—Unauthorized vehicle in right-of-way.” The violation for littering-abandoned vehicle is actually noted in part d) of that RCW.

Click the image to access a November 30, 2021 Facebook Post displaying photos of vehicles in Bellingham stickered to be towed and impounded if not moved in 72 hours

During the pandemic, vehicles in Bellingham have been more consistently left in place than they had been prior to that. On top of warnings to move during street sweeping, and regulations that exclude vehicles in certain areas, this is some of the first of this particular kind of code enforcement effort that has been witnessed during the existing COVID-19 health emergency.

An October 15, 2021 Seattle Times article noted that at that time, Seattle was going to initiate towing vehicles again, after their hiatus from doing that during the earlier part of the pandemic. The article also recollected the August 2021 Washington State Supreme Court ruling upholding lower-court rulings that a truck is to be legally viewed as a person’s home if that is what they are using it for.

Click the image to access The Seattle Times article ‘Seattle to begin towing vehicles again, but it’s unclear what that means for people who live in cars’

Also related to potential displacement of people living in their vehicles, this week, on December 6, 2021, the Bellingham City Council Planning Committee approved a Draft Ordinance Amending Certain Sections of the BMC to Improve the City’s Code Enforcement Procedures. Included in those code amendments were those that addressed BMC) 20.10.030, which states that no recreational vehicle shall be used as a residence.

In their discussion, City Council Members and City staff never seemed to mention this part of the code amendment. They focused instead on the lessening of initial penalties for violations, and how that could help with enforcement of code related to rental properties. However, with it now easier to issue infractions, community members living in vehicles could encounter being more frequently warned against, and penalized for, living in their vehicles.

Sweeping away inconvenient truths

Meanwhile, at the Bellingham City Council meeting back on November 22, 2021, around 10 minutes before the end of the hour-long meeting, the Council’s president, Hannah Stone, provided a 5 minute commentary related to homeless encampment sweeps. She included those sweeps in with the work of the Opportunity Council’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), as part of “good work that’s being done” by staff, employees of the City, and those they consider their community partners.

Council Member Stone said she had recently ridden along with Bellingham Police Department Officers Dearborn and Knutsen, as well as Claudia Vizcarra, a BPD employee whose LinkedIn profile reflects she is currently a Code Enforcement Officer. Over the last year, Vizcarra has been most commonly referred to as the Encampment Cleanup Coordinator, a position which is included in the City’s biennial budget.

Stone emphasized, early in her remarks, the relationships that both the HOT team and BPD cleanup personnel form with community members who are unsheltered. She continued that she was wanting to highlight that during the pandemic, there has been “concern about, you know, moving people along if they don’t have any place to go, or if there’s not adequate shelter.”

She then went on to say:

And a lot of times the calls from community members to stop – usually the rhetoric was, you know, ‘stop the sweeps,’ or to halt cleanups. And I just want to take an opportunity to highlight what my fellow Council Members may already know, but, you know, visiting a lot of the encampments around the City where these cleanup efforts are taking place are environments that are not fit for anybody to exist.

And so I feel like it needs to be, you know, repeated – the fact, you know, that the work that’s being done is really to keep everybody safe and to ensure that – because really it’s a disservice, in my mind, if we turn a blind eye and say ‘well, we’re not going to go in, and we’re not going to cleanup and not try and engage people with services and, you know, that’s their choice’ – a lot of these locations, right? – are dangerous because of feces and needles, and again, just really not fit for habitation, never mind existence.”

The Council President chose to highlight camps with feces and needles. But there are months of BPD body cam footage in existence that show people being forced to move on from encampments where such unhealthy conditions were not apparent.

Stone’s remarks about turning a blind eye, and not helping encampments be clean, and not engaging people with services don’t seem to be based on any of the very public calls to action related to encampment sweeps made by community members during the 2020/2021 winter season. People can find many of those calls to action in this blog post, “Bellingham City Council public comment transcription project – January 11, 2021 through March 8, 2021.” 

Community members were actually insisting on the opposite of the type of actions that Stone had listed. There was an occupied protest on City Hall lawn to help ensure that it would be as challenging as possible for people to fail to see people in their midst living outdoors during the winter. Community members who volunteered serving people at encampments had spoken at public meetings – including those of the City Council – calling for sanitary provisions to be provided, as recommended for encampments by the CDC. And many pleaded for expert help – which never substantially arrived last winter – from the health department, and medical and social service agencies.

At the same time, community members were definitely calling on the City to stop the sweeps. As the ACLU explains, “A homeless sweep or ‘clean-up’ is the forced disbanding of homeless encampments on public property and the removal of both homeless individuals and their property from that area.” 

The City Council president may have rightly commended COB’s encampment clean-up team members for building relationships with people who are chronically homeless in an attempt to connect them with services. What she neglected to acknowledge, however, is that the cleanup team does not just clean up encampments, it evicts people from them, whether or not there are any services available that will meet their needs elsewhere.

Over the years, there have not been, nor are there currently, ample services to meet the needs of hundreds of people who are unsheltered and in crisis, living in vehicles and encampments around the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County. The congregate emergency shelters controlled by Lighthouse Mission Ministries, which government officials have been urging people – regardless of their needs – to fill up, is now about filled. Six beds were available on the night of December 6, 2021.

Correction: This article was corrected to reflect that there was one public comment offered at the City of Bellingham’s December 2, 2021 Planning Commission meeting, rather than no comments being offered.