Weeks, and weeks, and weeks of parking and sheltering predicaments / Letter to Bellingham and Whatcom County officials

Screenshot of Bellingham Police Department Lt. Claudia Murphy’s 12-30-21 body cam still frame showing a road and parked vehicles covered with snow, blue sky overhead, sun low toward the horizon, and the silhouettes of a person in a hat with their dog

April 10, 2022 Dena Jensen

Sent: Sunday, April 10, 2022, 06:06:37 PM PDT

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

Over the last week or two, I have been reviewing body worn camera recordings of Bellingham Police Department’s Public Information Officer, Lt. Claudia Murphy related to City of Bellingham’s increase in parking enforcement during the current pandemic. 

There is one recording…[ID info has been omitted] which is around 6 minutes long, created on December 30, 2021, that shows Lt. Murphy specifically approaching one individual regarding their vehicle, which, during the recording, the Lieutenant indicates has been marked as abandoned. Lt. Murphy and the individual appear not to have met previously.

This recording takes place on a date which is during the period at the end of 2021 when snowy weather conditions and temperatures have met a threshold so low that they spurred Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham to scramble at the last moment to put together warming shelters which they had not planned for in advance. For 12/30/21, according to National Weather Service website, the NOAA Online weather data table shows a low of 19 degrees and high of 28 degrees for that date. 

Over the course of interacting with this person, one of the things Lt. Murphy told them was, “Your orange sticker is not just a warning, and it’s not that we’re going to ignore it. We’re going to come back and tow. It’s just that the weather is not letting us because the tow companies are busy towing people out of the ditches. Otherwise we would have to tow today, right?”

During the video, while she was presenting numerous warnings to the person about how the City will be towing their vehicle, Lt. Murphy did additionally inform them of where the Opportunity Council is (because the person stated they did not have a phone) and how it was important to find out what services they have that might help them. The Lieutenant mentioned the Base Camp emergency shelter and the government-operated warming shelters, all of which were congregate shelters whose occupants were experiencing exposures to COVID-19 at that timing. Unaware of this situation, the person said they could not be around large numbers of people. Lt. Murphy indicated she viewed this as the person’s choice. 

Meanwhile, back near the beginning of the exchange between the person and Lt. Murphy during the body cam recording, the Lieutenant had begun by asking a number of questions about the operational status of the vehicle. After answering a few of the questions, the person asked, “Ma’am, what’s all these questions?”

Lt. Murphy replied:

“Well, the – your vehicle was tagged as abandoned because you’ve been parked here for weeks, and weeks, and weeks, and weeks, and weeks, and weeks, and weeks and haven’t moved it, right? So what we’re here to tell you, is that even though your rigs have been allowed to be parked here during the COVID crisis, we are starting to tow vehicles, and we’re going to move vehicles. 

“So, you’re parked in an 8-hour-only parking, and you’ve been parked here for weeks and weeks and weeks. And so we’re going to start getting you all to move.”

To me, there are numerous problematic elements displayed in this recording, among which are: the initiation of City of Bellingham parking enforcement during a period when COVID-19 cases were expected to surge as a result of the holidays; approaching a person and telling them their vehicle would have been towed right then – during the worst cold weather snap of the winter – if towing companies were not otherwise occupied helping people get out of crisis situations; referring the individual to shelters that were experiencing COVID-19 exposures at the time; and the perspective expressed by Lieutenant Murphy that people not being able to be around large groups of people is a choice.  

However, I also want to bring up something else related to Lt. Murphy’s emphasis of the “weeks, and weeks, and weeks, and weeks, and weeks, and weeks, and weeks” that the person’s vehicle had been parked, along with the warnings she was giving. 

Community members and some local officials have been bringing it to the attention of Whatcom County and City of Bellingham officials since, at least, the winter of 2018-2019 that there is an urgent need for shelter options that can provide life-saving services to people during the winter season and other periods when weather conditions provide critical dangers to those who are not able stay at a residence indoors.  

Relevant to this continued call to action for our local governments, City of Bellingham’s Development Specialist Katy Sullivan shared some information during the April 7, 2022 Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness meeting. Sullivan indicated that when this winter’s extremely cold temperatures were due to arrive at the end of December 2021, there was “virtually no operational planning that was put in place” for the warming center that the Mayor made the decision to stand up during that period. 

And although Sullivan indicated that COB’s executive branch handed over the task of subsequently planning ahead for severe weather sheltering, apparently the planning that occurred only encompassed planning for another shelter being operated before the end of the 2021/2022 winter season, a shelter which the City ultimately decided was not needed. That decision was made, despite the fact that the National Weather Service website provides NOAA tables showing nighttime temperatures ranged from 26 degrees down to 20 for six consecutive nights from February 21, 2022 through February 26, while for the first three dates of that period, daytime highs were recorded as 38, 32, and 35 degrees respectively. 

According to actions from a few years past that Whatcom County Housing Specialist Chris D’Onofrio went over during the April 7 WCCEH meeting, government decisions about when to open any kinds of severe weather shelters were, and continue to be, based on an intentional anticipation of sheltering options not needing to be operational more than approximately 8 days and/or nights a season.
When questioned by Bellingham City Council Member Michael Lilliquist at the meeting, Sullivan shared that her department “didn’t do a robust analysis of other jurisdictions and what they were doing” related to severe weather sheltering. Further, Sullivan responded to Council Member Lilliquist’s question as to what the best approach would be moving forward, that, “There’s certainly, probably a set of best practices.” These responses seem to convey that there is quite a bit more planning left to be done to activate and operate future, ample, successful, seasonal shelters that meet community members’ needs and also provide adequate protections against COVID-19 infection.
We are heading into mid-April now. Back in June 2021, high temperatures were 87 degrees on both June 1 and June 2, and dates where temperatures rose above 100 degrees arrived by the end of the month. Additionally, of course, we never know when fires and other negative environmental and weather-related impacts might strike without notice. 

The Center for Disease Control has not backed off of their recommendation for leaving encampments in place during the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. Concurrent with that, it remains clear that Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham have not yet increased and enhanced sheltering, or mental, behavioral, and physical health services to a level where the number of people that need them can receive those services when instructed by Code Enforcement officers, or others, to seek them out. 

I remind you that at an April 28, 2021 Bellingham City Club presentation, “Chronic Homelessness, A Nationwide Challenge,” presenters emphasized that we should seek to address the expressed wants and needs of the “customer” – meaning the people who are actually chronically homeless. It was explained that, even for those who have been chronically homeless for a very long time – if they are given what they want, they will take it.

As each year passes, it continues to be clear that government employees perceive it to be overwhelming and at times, seemingly impossible, even with all of the financial and community resources they have, to safely and effectively plan for and provide services that meet the needs of people who are without shelter. I think it can help us to compare then how much more suffering and upheaval is being placed on those who are living in crisis while they are also living in their vehicles or encampments, in order to meet City of Bellingham parking code expectations, or follow other City or County legal stipulations.

I call on you to accelerate and enhance efforts to directly deliver support and services to those struggling to find places to live and park in our communities. You have thousands of community members here to help you. It may not mean that they will take on all the liability for doing so, but they will contribute vital resources if you empower them. 

Do not forget the substantial and humbling number of volunteer hours that were put in – 24 hours a day, everyday – during the winter of 2020/2021 to support people without shelter in receiving and creating warmth, food sources, health services, and community bonding. With the force of your empowerment they could have done much more. The good news is, you can move forward to provide such empowerment right away. 

Dena Jensen
Birch Bay, WA

This email was sent to the following email addresses:

To: ccmail@cob.org <ccmail@cob.org>; Hannah E. Stone <hestone@cob.org>; Kristina Michele <kmichele8543@gmail.com>; Michael W. Lilliquist <mlilliquist@cob.org>; Hollie A. Huthman <hahuthman@cob.org>; Lisa A. Anderson <laanderson@cob.org>; ehwilliams@cob.org <ehwilliams@cob.org>; Daniel C. Hammill <dchammill@cob.org>; mayorsoffice@cob.org <mayorsoffice@cob.org>; council@co.whatcom.wa.us <council@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Todd Donovan <tdonovan@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Kaylee Galloway <kgallowa@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Barry Buchanan <bbuchana@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Carol Frazey <cfrazey@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Tyler Byrd <tbyrd@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Kathy Kershner <kkershne@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Ben Elenbaas <belenbaa@co.whatcom.wa.us>

Cc: Flo Simon <fsimon@cob.org>; Ann Beck <abeck@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Janice L. Keller <jkeller@cob.org>; Jed Holmes <jholmes@co.whatcom.wa.us>; krsullivan@cob.org <krsullivan@cob.org>; tsundin@cob.org <tsundin@cob.org>; Health <health@co.whatcom.wa.us>