Calls for action regarding 2022 plans for Whatcom County severe weather shelters / Letter to the Whatcom County Council

Click the image of a screenshot of a chart that is included in the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness 2022 Annual Report to access the chart in the report on the Whatcom County website

October 14, 2022 Dena Jensen

I sent the following email to the Whatcom County Council this afternoon related to the presentation on severe weather sheltering that was given on September 27, 2022 by the Whatcom County Health Department Human Services Manager to members of the County Council’s Committee of the Whole at their meeting that day. Here is a link to a transcription of that presentation along with some highlights from it:

The email I sent addressed some actions I believe that Council Members should take to improve their plans for sheltering options during the swiftly coming cold weather season. There are email addresses at the bottom of the post for others to use to contact officials with comments and suggestions.

Here is my email:

Sent: Friday, October 14, 2022, 12:29:21 PM PDT

Subject: Calls for action regarding this year’s plans for Whatcom County severe weather shelters

Dear Whatcom County Council:

I recently listened to the presentation you received on this year’s severe weather shelter plans from the Health Department’s Human Services Manager. 

I felt that one thing worth noting during the presentation was that Ms. Beck indicated that there are only “two and three quarters” staff members in the Health Department dedicated to a focus on housing. With homelessness being the major crisis, spotlight on injustice, and community focus it is in our county, how can we possibly rest easy having that few people with expertise working on resolving so many of the negative impacts that homelessness has on our friends and neighbors in our region? 

It was shocking to hear during another presentation at one of your meetings a few weeks prior to the one on September 27,  that there were only three people staffing the much smaller environment of 22 North’s permanent supporting [sic – the word should have been supportive] housing. I know that at least one Council Member questioned how this striking level of understaffing could have come to pass. So, I call on you all now to ask the same question within your government agencies and to pursue action – as the Opportunity Council has for 22 North – to hire and provide critically necessary resources for getting people housed and sheltered in Whatcom County.

During another part of the Human Services Manager’s presentation, she said

“While homelessness in general has been increasing over the past several years, we have also seen – we’ve seen unsheltered homelessness decrease. So in 2020 – and I’m sorry, 2012, when they did a point in time count and that’s when homelessness was at its kind of lowest in this community, 78% of the people that were counted were unsheltered at that time – I’m sorry, 60% of the people who were counted were unsheltered at that time. And most recently when we did our point in time count, 78% of people who were counted were sheltered. So it shows that we have been making some strides in increasing our shelter capacity for people in the community, even as homelessness increases.” 

First, I think Ms. Beck had misspoke and meant to say that in 2012 60% were sheltered, rather than unsheltered, because that’s what a chart in the 2022 point-in-time count report represents for that year of 2012. So, it’s a comparison of 60% sheltered homeless individuals in 2012 to 78% sheltered homeless individuals in 2022. 

Also, I wanted to remind you that since Ms. Beck was referring to information gathered in the annual 2022 point-in-time count, the details regarding a decrease in unsheltered homelessness can be misleading because many factors contribute to the potential that it is not accurate, as the report advises (on page 5), “

  • “National research indicates that Point in Time Counts underestimate the number of those who are experiencing homelessness because:
    • Participation is voluntary, and some choose not to be counted. This is especially true of immigrants, even those with legal status, who fear reprisal as a result of participation.
    • A point in time is just a “snapshot” and does not capture all those who cycle in and out of homelessness over the year. Furthermore, “snapshots” will miss seasonal fluctuations that occur in our communities.
    • It is difficult to find where all unsheltered people reside, and impossible to know all the places that might provide unconventional shelter (i.e. tents, sheds, abandoned cars). In 2022, because of COVID-19, traditional gathering places like libraries and food banks were unavailable as surveying locations.”

As anecdotal examples in contrast to the information in the report, at the most recent meeting of the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homeless Meeting on October 6, 2022, those tasked with addressing needs of children in homeless households for a number of different Whatcom County School Districts agreed they have seen a significant rise over the last year in homeless households, even though that does not necessarily mean all of these households are unsheltered. And from a December 3, 2021 body-cam recording of Bellingham Police Department Lieutenant Claudia Murphy’s, she indicated that she had not seen this level of people living in RVs and other vehicles in 28 years. 

Meanwhile, I wanted to provide a chart that is included on page 9 of the 2022 point in time count, related to Ms. Beck’s remarks comparing the year 2012 and 2022. I am not sure why she chose to compare those two particular years, but I think you have more figures and years in this chart that can help provide a bigger context to reflect on regarding where we are at in terms of addressing the needs of our community members who are unsheltered, along with those who are homeless. 

I am grateful there has been success in finding and contracting with a severe weather shelter provider at least a couple months before freezing temperatures can set in. And I am glad that the requirement for the Lighthouse Mission and its overflow shelter to be at capacity has been removed as a requirement to activate the severe weather shelter. I had read a few police case reports from February of 2021 that indicated that Base Camp management had requested some individuals – who, even though they sought shelter at Base Camp which was not at capacity, staff did not want staying at Base Camp – to be taken/directed to the warming shelter at Depot Market Square that year because they were worried they would not survive well outside in the weather at that time. 

However, I am also discouraged that the severe weather shelter being offered is being activated by a temperature threshold that will only allow it to be open about a week’s worth of days for the whole cold weather season. Ms. Beck had mentioned the alternative of a winter-long shelter not being feasible, but I think it is vital that you all seek to expand beyond a model that is open for just a few very abruptly available number of days. 

I know that one Council Member spoke of this year’s severe weather options being better than in 2019, but remember that in 2019, shelter was available for nearly a month and people had the benefit of being able to rely on it being accessible for that period. I can see there can be a benefit from an experienced organization running the shelter this year compared to then, but our community members deserve a lot better than the very tiny improvements we can see at this point. Please push for more and draw community members into the solutions. We need as many people as possible involved.

Lastly, I recently heard Doug Gustafson from HomesNOW! offering to open another tiny home village. Please provide him the resources and get that going as soon as possible. The HomesNOW! model is one of the lowest cost transitional housing/sheltering options available to our community and the existing tiny home communities are keeping many people from having to live in the streets. Even if HomesNOW! does not engage in coordinated entry, I believe it is well worth using funding to support their service that does not demand that commitment. Especially with winter close at hand, we need to get more people indoors and stable so that they can escape more dire dangers and start healing with the help of community support and existing services. 


Dena Jensen

Birch Bay, WA

This email was sent to the following addresses:

To: <>; Todd Donovan <>; Kaylee Galloway <>; Barry Buchanan <>; Carol Frazey <>; Kathy Kershner <>; Tyler Byrd <>; Ben Elenbaas <>

Cc: Satpal Sidhu <>; <>; <>; Health <>