Policies within Whatcom County that contribute to homelessness / Letter to County Executive Satpal Sidhu and Mayor Seth Fleetwood

Screen shot of an info-graphic of pathways into homelessness that is displayed on the Whatcom County and City of Bellingham website, Whatcom Pathways Home. Click the image to access it on the website.

May 9, 2022 Dena Jensen

At a recent Bellingham City Club event, Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu asserted that our local county and city policies do not cause homelessness. Last night I wrote to highlight some of the local policies that came to my mind that seem to be obvious contributors to homelessness and to continue to prompt the Executive and Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood, who also appeared at the event, to take action to address those policies.

Dear County Executive Sidhu and Mayor Fleetwood:

I recently was able to watch Bellingham City Club’s event, “April 27, 2022: The Midpoint with Satpal Sidhu and Seth Fleetwood.”

I wanted to point out a few things regarding some of your comments about homelessness in Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham.

In addition to those comments of each of yours being reflective of homeless communications strategized messaging that the City and County invested in, some of those remarks were very distressing. I have pointed out in the past that it is valid and important to encourage our community to become engaged in advocating for more statewide and federal support for homeless services. However, I believe it is counter-productive to ending homelessness to seek to dissuade people from calling for our local governments to take actions that we have been requesting. These have not been requests for a cure for homelessness in 40 days, or with the wave of a magic wand. Many of the calls for your action have been being made for at least 4 years now and with the hope of your empowering your community to help you in taking those actions. 

Executive Sidhu, you said at the City Club event:

“You know this problem, these are not localized problems, we are seeking local issues. Another thing is, this is –  the homelessness problem has not caused by city’s and county’s policies. I think this is a fallacy. You know, it may not sit with – sit right with some people, but this is not because of: homelessness is there because of city and county policies, and we can just have a magic wand and make it disappear. This is something – is a nationwide problem.”

While City and County government agencies have taken certain actions and made investments that reduce homelessness presently, serve those who are unsheltered, and some that may result in a reduction of homelessness years from now, there are certain actions our local governments have refused to take for a prolonged period of time, and those tend to be the actions that many people continue pressing for. 

In my mind there certainly are local government policies and practices that contribute to homelessness, not to mention those that continue to inflict injustice, uncertainty, and trauma on people who are unsheltered.

The Whatcom County and City of Bellingham website, Whatcom Pathways Home, displays a graphic with contributors to homelessness that local government staff members have identified: poverty, skyrocketing housing costs, underfunded childcare and elder care, inadequate substance use treatment, incarceration and criminal history, domestic violence, not enough assistance for returning veterans, underfunded mental health services, growing economic inequality, and unaffordable medical bills.

I would imagine other community members besides myself can point to local policies that help forge these pathways to homelessness and possibly others. 

For example, how can it be said that our local governments do not have existing policies that contribute to the disproportionate number of BIPOC in Whatcom County who are homeless? It was only last year that Whatcom County and City of Bellingham voted to help fund the Racial Equity Commission. The commission is still in its formative stage and has yet to review and present any findings on local policies that may contribute to this disparity regarding homelessness. 

Additionally, the City of Bellingham’s Immigration Advisory Board formed in October of 2019 and is finally on the cusp of bringing forward proposed resources for immigrants to the Mayor and City Council, as well as aiding the City in becoming fully compliant with the letter and spirit of the Keep Washington Working Act, which so far, the City is not. It seems reasonable to maintain that racism and the persecution of community members contribute to poverty, growing economic inequality, incarceration, and likely other pathways to homelessness.

Related to housing costs, we know that community members came together last election season to present initiatives to provide better renter protection policies (such as ample notification of rate changes, and rental relocation assistance) without which, people can fall into homelessness. The City opposed this initiative last year and has yet to offer up their own policies to provide those protections. 

It is also evident that there are code enforcement practices that can be contributors to homelessness, such as ones that prioritize enforcing things like parking codes instead of building codes. Failure to successfully enforce building codes related to renters, for example, can lead to people living in residences that are unhealthy and unsafe to a degree that it makes more sense for renters to leave their home to live in a vehicle and use the rent money toward a financial crisis or essential needs in the person’s life. Meanwhile, local governments prioritizing instead the rigorous enforcement of parking code during severe weather season and a health emergency has led to the seizing of vehicles that people are using for shelter when other ample appropriate shelter has not yet been provided.

Also during the City Club event, Executive Sidhu, you stated:  

“But you know that we talk about this – that we had severe, severe weather shelter, and sorry, there were only 40 people who showed up. And people were telling me, Satpal, you need space for 200 people.”

I have been inside the Garden Room where the December 2021 night time warming shelter was set up. There is no way I would agree that it could have safely accommodated anywhere close to 200 people overnight, let alone do that and allow for COVID-19 protective spacing and practices. On top of that, the warming shelter was set up there at the very last minute, and therefore there was barely enough time to get ample volunteers who could serve at the location which was offering an unpredictable period of availability, let alone organize an effective communications effort capable of bringing the true number of people who needed that service into the warming shelter. While a number of people have been served by the warming shelters, the absence of planning and ineffectiveness of execution is a local practice that has also inflicted injustice, uncertainty, and trauma on people who are unsheltered. 

All the severe weather shelters to date, have either been planned on the fly, or have had such restrictive guidelines for opening and duration that community members were severely challenged to access and utilize them. Potentially, the coming months may offer the very first planning in advance for warming or cooling shelters, which still, will only be significantly effective if people are actually able to know about them through effective outreach, and to access them reliably for a sufficient period of time that is established in advance.

Of course, we still have a shortage of transitional housing for those without shelter, which is another thing our community has been calling for and offering to provide. Years ago when Mayor Linville was approaching communities about sheltering people, I believe it was with the intent of placing a 200 bed shelter, like our present-day Base Camp is. On the other hand, when organizations like HomesNOW, Road2Home, LIHI, and Northwest Youth Services have met with communities in the interest of placing lower-capacity transitional housing, they have been able to resolve community reservations well enough to join those communities and provide transitional housing.

Another absence of critical local policy is one that would do far more to to provide water, restroom access, and assistance with trash management for people experiencing homelessness. Again, this is something community members doing their own outreach efforts, and their supporters, have been requesting of local officials for years. 

I understand that creating better policy, and effective execution of that policy, requires the participation of many community members. And this is another area where local government practices often discourage participation, rather than encourage it. 

A member of our community who I admire and who is currently living in their vehicle has recently alerted me to the fact that there is a city in Florida that began a focused campaign which led to the accomplishment of their becoming our country’s first trauma-informed community. I do think that we are making making some strides in becoming more trauma-informed in our area, through the work of such groups as our local tribal nations, government groups like the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force, private non-profit organizations like Restorative Community Coalition and the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center, and the many invaluable local activist organizations that center their efforts on making a world of empathy and justice possible. Just think what we could accomplish, however, if every government action was grounded in coming from a trauma-informed perspective!

Additionally, especially since you are in positions of considerable power and privilege, I would ask all of our local representatives to become more empathetic and supportive of the community members who come to you. We are all subject to experiencing trauma, and yet we can also find resiliency, healing, and contribute critical services to our community when our representatives and neighbors share resources, help to fix errors in our proposed solutions, and offer enthusiasm for our efforts and suggestions. With your support and understanding, we can also begin to resolve trauma that has been inflicted upon us and become better at offering the same to all of you. 


Dena Jensen

Birch Bay, WA

This email was sent to the following addresses:

To: Satpal Sidhu <ssidhu@co.whatcom.wa.us>; mayorsoffice@cob.org <mayorsoffice@cob.org>

Cc: council@co.whatcom.wa.us <council@co.whatcom.wa.us>; ccmail@cob.org <ccmail@cob.org>; Health <health@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Janice L. Keller <jkeller@cob.org>; Jed Holmes <jholmes@co.whatcom.wa.us>