February 13, 2022 Dena Jensen
Three years have passed since the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County governments held a joint discussion that broached the subject of advance planning for severe weather shelters without action being taken to do so. But on Tuesday, February 8, 2022, Whatcom County Council finally authorized an interlocal agreement between the two government bodies to provide winter shelters during severe weather emergencies.
In the proposed contract that was authorized by the County Council, community members involved in advocating for such sheltering since that 2019 joint meeting are finally being considered as a resource to provide that sheltering.
Two days later, on Thursday, February 10, 2022, the Whatcom County Housing Advisory Committee (HAC) held its first meeting of the new year. Ann Beck was one of the County officials in attendance. She has held the position of Whatcom County Human Services Supervisor and let committee members know that day that she has moved into the role of Human Services Manager, the position formerly held by Anne Deacon.
Beck told committee members that it is the Health Department’s intention to partner with the County’s Department of Emergency Management and other organizations to address the year-round impacts of other climate-change related weather incidents across Whatcom County:
“We all see climate change is affecting us with smoke and heat, so just kind of try to figure out how we serve vulnerable people not just those that are living unsheltered, but our seniors, folks who might be susceptible to those other things.”
The more promising pieces of information about advance planning for sheltering people in crisis arrive at a time when other events serve to offer increased threats to them. During the February 10 Housing Advisory Committee meeting, a leader in City of Bellingham’s Planning and Community Development Department confirmed that the City’s one congregate 24/7 drop-in emergency shelter is full.
Additionally, the steady drum beat of concern and complaints from downtown Bellingham business owners and patrons about impacts from people struggling with behavioral health challenges in that area has continued to build in the ears of government officials.
While the cost to communities of criminalizing community members in crisis is being acknowledged at a national level, on January 19, 2022, an agreement was executed by the City of Bellingham to temporarily help provide private security officers, as reported by Cascadia Daily, to offer “eyes on the street” and report “crime in progress.”
Paired with this, the Bellingham Police Department has been recently reporting to City officials that they are understaffed. However, instead of increasing the number of behavioral health consultants working with existing officers, BPD has suspended their behavioral health unit.
City stickering and sweeping of RVs downtown is also at a high pitch right now as noted by community outreach workers trying to address needs of those who may have their only place of residence threatened or towed. It’s worth noting that the number of BPD officers is proving abundant enough for doing this work.
What government officials are communicating
Near the end of his update on the County health department budget at the February 8 HAC meeting, Whatcom County Health Department Housing Specialist Chris D’Onofrio posed the following question:
“But one question that I’d like to bring to the committee here, it’s just been something that’s always kind of created tension for us and that is – there’s two parts. There is the impetus on short-term solutions for immediate needs versus investments in long-term strategies. And then on the other side there is kind of this dynamic looking at increasing quantity of services and units as opposed to investing in quality of service provision for those units and projects.
“So this isn’t something that I’ve done a lot, but I’d like to just kind of open up for input to hear your beliefs, and values, and opinions, and suggestions on how we look at those challenges, coming from the position where we know that there’s a lot of need, prioritization is difficult, but these are some of the decisions that we wrangle with.”
HAC member, and City of Bellingham Economic Development Manager Tara Sundin provided her input in response to D’Onofrio’s inquiry:
“I mean, I could talk for probably like an hour on this one, maybe longer? But I do want to say, you know, I was having a conversation with Bridget Reeves [Chief Operating Officer with Lighthouse Mission Ministries] about something very similar yesterday. Bridget is – works for the Mission, for those of you that don’t know her. And we were talking about how full Base Camp is right now. It is full. And usually this time of year, you see the numbers come back down, especially when it’s been a little mild.
“And so she made a comment about – she views the sheltering as kind of the lobby of a housing system, if you will. It’s – they’re indoors but they’re not in, you know, their own units, and that we kind of need to kind of reconcile how much lobby space we have and if the system’s adequate to get people out of the lobby and into housing.
“So, hey Chris, I don’t have the exact answer for you, but I think that it is good to bring into this committee. We need to have these conversations because we’ve been very focused the last few years on the crisis side. We’ve been – and not just the crisis side, we have been building and working on our long-term solutions too. But we’ve seen an emphasis.
“And I came into this winter – for those of you that don’t know, the City works on these issues quite a bit. And I came into this winter and I recall saying, you know, we’ve been kind of outdoing ourselves, going into every winter, for probably the last five years. This is in Bellingham as far as services, so it’s more shelter space, you know we have another non-profit or a faith-based operator, and then we have another tiny home village.
“And I said, you know, I don’t think we can keep outdoing ourself. I don’t see it next year. I don’t see me being able to walk in and say we have added this many more beds.
“So I don’t have an answer. I just think it’s a really important dialogue that we all need to have. I need to have it with our administration and council, as well, ‘cause it’s – I’m concerned.”
Sundin’s response, in turn, begs another question. If officials find they can’t justify creating more metaphorical lobby space in situations where there aren’t ample services and systems to get the people in them housed, how much more difficult will they be making it for those to survive who are left in the literal doorways, courtyards, sidewalks, streets, and wooded areas?
What Reading isn’t communicating
Back on September 13, 2021, Bellingham City Council authorized Mayor Seth Fleetwood to enter into an interlocal agreement with Whatcom County for a homeless communications strategy. The contract between Whatcom County and the private agency, Reading Communications was executed on August 31, 2021. Five months later, it isn’t yet clear what the agreed-upon price tag of up to $38,100.00 will yield in benefit from Reading Communications’ work related to the topic of homelessness in Whatcom County.
Brand Mentions Wiki, a “Public Relations & Digital Marketing Encyclopedia” explains that a communications agency “takes a holistic approach to brand strategy and marketing communications so that it can effectively promote your company across all channels.”
Attached to the Whatcom County contract with Reading Communications – which is available through a search on the County’s Contracts webpage – was an exhibit that contained the scope of work for agency’s services. The first paragraph of that exhibit offered background that stated:
“This contract provides funding for Reading Communications to work in partnership with City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, and local community organizations to gather information, develop a communications strategy and create a resource toolkit to be used, as needed, to message the challenges and solutions to ending homelessness in Whatcom County. This will also allow for timely and purposeful communications during severe weather events to ensure emergency shelter resources are effectively utilized.”
City and County employees have been working together with Reading Communications on a communications team. So far, what appears to be the single piece of communications material attributable to that work that is currently available on the internet, has not been publicized yet. The home page for “Pathways Home,” a brand that was eventually agreed upon by the communications team, is currently published at https://whatcompathwayshome.org.
Those months since the contract was signed have progressed through the late summer, then into fall and winter, when severe weather events caused flooding in November, along with late December snow and bitter cold that posed immediate threats to the lives of people living unsheltered outdoors.
After a failed attempt to provide an accessible emergency sheltering option by way of a couple heated WTA buses on the night of December 26, 2021, Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham both opened warming shelters in separate public buildings on December 27.
The County’s shelter offered overnight accommodations. People who had signed in there to stay the night were required to depart that space at the Civic Building Garden Room, kitty-corner from Bellingham City Hall, by 9:00 a.m. Those needing daytime warming accommodations could bring their belongings across the street to access indoor space at the Bellingham Public Library’s Lecture Room.
The two shelters had remained in operation for about a week. On January 2, 2022, right as the weather switched from conditions of freezing temperatures and snow to those of wind and rain, the shelters were closed.
In tandem with the operation and closure of the warming shelter and near-capacity level numbers at Light House Mission Ministries’ Base Camp drop in shelter, COVID-19 exposures and outbreaks were occurring among community members who were seeking shelter in such congregate settings.
By January 11, 2022, The Bellingham Herald had reported that a second COVID-19 Isolation and Quarantine facility was being opened:
“The move became necessary after an increase in cases filled the Byron Avenue isolation and quarantine facility to 100% with 55 people, the [Whatcom County] health department told The Bellingham Herald last week.”
Noisy Waters Northwest obtained records from the City of Bellingham consisting of emails and documents related to City staff interactions with Reading Communications Principal Owner Jeff Reading.
In a December 28, 2021 email sent by City of Bellingham Communications Director Janice Keller, she told Whatcom County Communications Specialist Melissa Morin and Jeff Reading that she wouldn’t be available for a meeting with the communications team, at least until the following week. She went on to tell them, “See City/County Facebook posts for what Jed [Holmes, Whatcom County Community Outreach Facilitator] and I have been involved with over the last several days.”
Starting around December 22, a series of posts had been made on both Whatcom County and City of Bellingham Facebook pages about winter sheltering options, leading up to and including posts about the opening of the City and County warming shelters that had been planned on the fly, organized, operated, and then shut down.
The information involved in Keller’s December 28 email reveals that these Facebook communications out to the community about current sheltering options were not part of the work of Reading Communications and the communications team, but that of Janice Keller and Jed Holmes.
Communications Team meeting notes from September 29, 2021 and subsequent emails between Jeff Reading and a few Whatcom County and City of Bellingham staff members in October, reflect that those participating were motivated, at that time, to act swiftly to deliver the material they were working on. They planned to put together branding and information to launch a website and “ongoing media messaging, ads, editorials, radio interviews, Op Eds, etc.” An anticipated launch date sometime in early November was suggested.
Additionally, notes from a September 30, 2021 meeting, reported discussion of objectives, goals, and tactics the communications team proposed pursuing. These notes reflect there was interest toward moving various actions in specific directions.
Goal #4 stated: “adjust language to make this a communications goal, not an overall goal; move on and be aspirational about what we will do, not dwell on what happened last year. Communicate that we will not tolerate encampments, AND what we are doing to avoid that.”
Tactic #3 from the notes of the September 30 meeting proposed having speeches from Mayor Fleetwood and Executive Sidhu during a joint Council session or press conference, while seeking to protect such officials from day-to-day problems. The proposed tactic also involved creating ways for community members to volunteer in a way that “moves the needle in the right direction.”
An email sent in the early evening of October 1, 2021 by Keller to Reading and Holmes, offered feedback regarding the meeting notes to “articulate goals that convey or communicate facts,” and to “meticulously fact-check.” At the same time, there was ample evidence in early communications team documents of counter-responses to community input on local government’s handling of the crises faced by people living outdoors last winter. Many of those counter-responses were apparently opinion-based, not fact-based.
Examples of such editorial comments were plentiful in the document “9-29-21 — Bellingham-Whatcom PA engagement plan (SLKLannotations)_KB”:
“Convey that what transpired last winter regarding our community’s response to meeting the needs unsheltered individuals was damaging, dangerous, and divisive for the community and cannot be repeated”
“Convey that directing outrage, mistrust, and vitriol at City/County staff while questioning their motives and humanity only adds conflict, stress, exhaustion and depletes morale – a self-defeating strategy that anyone who cares about unsheltered individuals would do best to reject”
“Convey how we are all responding the best we can with the resources we have to address a problem we did not create – which is why our responsibility must be rooted in a shared sense of compassion rather than blaming or shaming”
“Convey that, while individuals have the right not to stay in a shelter, they do not have the right to stay on public lands – nor does the City have an obligation to relinquish park lands for encampments”
“Convey that seeing individuals living in tents does not mean they do not have options”
Defensive remarks lingered on in documents throughout October and into November, but gradually emails began to show a growing shift in focus over to providing data related to existing City and County housing and sheltering programs. There also was a listing of causes or “pathways” to homelessness that highlighted it as a national crisis.
The position demonstrated in some of the communications team assertions were that those pathways originate from places other than local ones. And one statement asserted, “We don’t face a problem of our own inattention or ineffectiveness. We face a problem of scale.”
As the weeks of communications team work moved on and the degree of editorializing dwindled, apparently so did the urgency to bring the communications material quickly to the public. November, December, January, and now February have moved forward without public word about Pathways Home.
What question remains unanswered
One thing that Janice Keller had identified to the communications team in October as a question that must be answered was the one of “Where should they go?”
Versions of this question were asked repeatedly by community members caring for unhoused people at Camp 210, the occupied encampment on and adjacent to the Bellingham City Hall lawn, before and during the time it was swept last winter. The question was asked of City Council Members in early 2021 public comment sessions, and of City of Bellingham Public Works employees who swept the encampment at Geri Field, where some people relocated who were displaced during the January 28, 2021 sweep of Camp 210.
Five days after that sweep, COB Public Works Director Eric Johnston had made this statement at a March 22, 2021 Bellingham City Council Committee of the Whole meeting:
“When we were asked by, not campers, but by members of the community: ‘where are we supposed to go?’ – our response to them was: You are not allowed to stay in the park. It is illegal to camp in the park. And the first place to start is the Base Camp facility.”
Similar to Johnston’s remarks above, one attempt the communications team did make at answering the question in a November 30, 2021 document, did not succeed in identifying destinations where the numbers of people which outstrip available shelter space can go:
“Where are people in tents supposed to go?
• It is not local government’s job to tell people where they are supposed to sleep.
• The City and County can provide safe options to unsheltered individuals, and this year we have made over XXX beds available to unsheltered individuals as a safe alternative to sleeping in tents.
• However, we cannot compel individuals to use them. Some might choose to sleep in tents rather than in shelters as a matter of preference. That is their right.
• At the same time, while individuals have the right to live in tents, individuals do not have the right to live in tents where doing so poses risks to public health.”
Local point in time homeless count reports include, among other things, a record of people who are unsheltered in Whatcom County on a given day. Every year since their 2019 joint meeting about providing emergency winter shelter, County and City officials have had this resource to tell them that even if the sheltering that was being provided actually met the needs of those in crisis, there has not been enough space or appropriate services being provided each year to bring all of them in from the doorways, courtyards, sidewalks, streets, and woods.
Currently there’s recognition that there is no space left in the Base Camp “lobby.” Individuals in crisis who are staying downtown, in encampments, and in vehicle homes are under steady active threat, while some are being swept further away from survival and stability. Concurrently, officials here struggle to justify providing shelter.
One of the things the local communications team work has done is highlight the national crisis and causes of homelessness. Independent of that, on January 6, 2022, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness posted information about community feedback they had recently complied. Part of the content explained:
“We’re keenly aware of how much the world, and our work, has changed in the last decade, especially in the last two years. We know that the solutions to these problems won’t come from Washington, D.C. They’ll come from the organizations doing the work in communities and from the people who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness.”
Here in Whatcom County, community members have been begging for years to partner with government agencies to deliver answers to the question of “where will they go?” And they have brought them, piece by piece, some in partnership with government agencies, and some in spite of barriers posed by those agencies. They have done so through undertakings such as community-led winter outreach efforts and personal advocacy; mutual aid; projects led by indigenous people and poor people; non-profit services; faith-based programs; tiny home villages; occupied encampments; and emergency warming shelters.
Editor’s note: Whatcom County Housing Advisory Committee meetings are open to the public and agendas and minutes are published on the Whatcom County website, but recordings of the virtual meetings are not currently made available there. Therefore, it’s necessary for community members to create a recording themselves if they want to be able to accurately share what attendees of the meeting have said, which is what this writer did in order to make the transcriptions of government employee remarks at the meeting that were discussed in this article.