Bellingham plans for emergency winter shelters: a spring to spring timeline / Noisy Waters Northwest

January 16, 2022 Dena Jensen

March 3, 2021

In a communications document from early last year, with the header “Winter Into Spring Communications Strategy,” shared in an email by Bellingham Parks and Recreation Director Nicole Oliver, there was an outline point that stated, “Health Dept. recommends no government-run emergency winter shelters in future.”

Screenshot of outline from Communications_Strategy_GF document with the header “Winter Into Spring Communications Strategy” shared in an email by Bellingham Parks and Recreation Director Nicole Oliver in March 2021

May 24, 2021

At a Bellingham City Council Community and Economic Development meeting a few months after Director Oliver’s email, Council Member Lisa Anderson explained the reasons she desired that planning be started for warming shelters for the coming winter so that wasn’t being done on the fly. COB Planning & Community Development Economic Development Manager Tara Sundin clarified that if that was something that was desired, City Council Members would have to move that recommendation forward, as it was not on the list of sheltering recommendations approved by Whatcom County’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup right before the workgroup was unexpectedly disbanded. 

November 4, 2021

Months later, in an email that was sent to a community member who had asked a question about warming shelters, among other things, COB Planning & Community Development Specialist Kate Bartholomew had responded:

“Because we’ve worked very hard to add additional overflow capacity on a nightly basis all winter long, as long as a few shelters for special populations, we don’t foresee the need for an additional severe weather shelter option.”

January 10, 2022

The City did open a daytime warming center at the Bellingham Public Library from December 27, 2021 through January 2, 2022 during a bitterly cold period with some record-setting low temperatures. At a Bellingham City Council Committee of the Whole meeting, Mayor Seth Fleetwood said the following during an update that was given to Council Members on the City’s storm response, and which included information regarding the daytime warming center:

“One thing that we very much want to ensure, is that we continue to do better and better in all of these efforts. We learned a lot from standing up the warming site at Depot Market Square last year. We learned how it was very helpful, but we also learned what a stressful experience that was and the need to be more mindful about preparing for these things in advance.

“This year we pulled it off. It worked. We anticipate that there could very well be more need this winter. When spring comes around, we’ll all reflect on next year, and lessons learned, and how to do things better-than. 

“But I also want to just share with you, there’s been a lot of important work done just in the last week by staff at the City and the County. Our own Tara Sundin has been working on issues relating to preparations if we have to stand up another warming site this winter.”

The Mayor spoke about the City learning from the February 2021 Depot Market Square warming center about the need to be more mindful about preparing for emergency winter shelter in advance. Yet, as late as November this year, according to staff, the City did not have an intention of providing any severe weather shelter options this season.

Meanwhile, at the same meeting, Council Member Lilliquist asked a question related to future planning for severe weather shelters beyond this season. The Mayor was not able to indicate that there was a current resolve to do that either.


City Council Member Michael Lilliquist:
“I’ve been talking a lot about a 2017 resolution by the Whatcom County Council, wherein they made it clear they realized that severe weather was a public health crisis, and so the County’s public health department should take the lead on that. 

“And I thought we had something like a good division of responsibilities – that year-round shelters, and even winter shelters were shared, kind of depending on the project, between the City and the County, but that severe weather shelters – those intentional, rapid, temporary responses to severe weather – was a County responsibility. 

“I guess I’m hearing a change now. And hopefully, it’s a clear change. Are we now saying that there’s a new division of responsibilities – that we, the City, will here, going forward, plan for, and have plans for day warming centers – that we’ll take that on, but that the overnight severe weather shelters, that will be the clear responsibility of the County government?”

Mayor Seth Fleetwood:

“I think it’s probably fair to say that the answer to that is no. There hasn’t been any sort of formal long-term decisions about that. But we have made a number of practical decisions here and now that have helped us get through, and are helping us get through this winter. And we’ve collaborated well and quickly with our partners at the County on this and made some decisions that look like what they look like. 

“What I anticipate – and perhaps this partnership and the way that we build out responsibilities will inform what we do in the future, and we’ll formalize that in some respect, later? What I anticipate is, when we get through this winter, when we’re in spring when we can more reflectively consider the future, we’ll have those conversations, we’ll more – to formally make decisions about that. We’ll see if that looks like a change.

“For right now, I think, it’s just what we’re doing to deal with the given situation. How do you react to that Tara? Is that fair?” 

Economic Development Manager Tara Sundin:

“I agree. I feel like we are – we’re all just jumping in to make sure that we get this winter covered and we need to re-evaluate in the spring.”