Wednesday, December 20, 2017
CAMP KELLI: After 18 days and with cold, wet weather descending, the homeless campout in front of Bellingham City Hall has ended. Activist campers were asked to leave the site when the permit for their protest expired. Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville gave them additional time, which they used to clean their camp-site with the help of volunteers.
Pitched right outside her office window, the camp could not have failed to capture the attention of the mayor.
People had camped outside City Hall since Dec. 1 to bring attention to homelessness. The protesters, many of them homeless, wanted the city to stop its cleanup of homeless camps and to allow people to legally camp in a designated safe spot on public land for 90 days this winter.
In those 18 days of protest, campers also found shelter, security, community and stability. They found presence. What they did not find was permanence.
“The people who have finally felt safe and have built a community will be kicked off of City Hall property and will need to go somewhere illegal as there were no options for a safe place to camp identified by the city,” said organizers for HomesNOW!, which aims to build tiny homes for the homeless in Whatcom County. More than 700 individuals remain chronically unsheltered in Whatcom County, according to a recent census.
“For the past two weeks, we have had campers at City Hall who are asking for a place for homeless to camp in Bellingham,” Linville said in a statement.
The city could not extend the permit, which would require a special ordinance; however, Linville said her administration was willing to work with the private community—in particular churches and nonprofit organizations—by providing sanitation, portable toilets and support services if private sponsors were willing to lease sites for small camps through the winter months.
No private groups or churches accepted the offer.
The inability of the city to find generous, willing community partners in the solutions for homelessness is, of course, one constant among many in the complex equation of the city’s housing crisis.
“This is an issue I feel passionately about,” the mayor said in her statement. “Our city spends $4.9 million every year to support housing and homelessness issues in our community, but it is not enough. Today I reiterated that we are listening to concerns and are willing to work to find solutions.”
Beds are currently available at the local emergency winter shelters, so there are places for people to go when temperatures drop. But again, shelters lack permanence.
“Even for those who have been previously barred from services, the Lighthouse Mission Ministries has committed to working with anyone to find a path for them to find shelter,” Linville said.
“We are also seeking partners to create an emergency tent camping area this winter,” she said. “The state authorizes religious organizations to host temporary encampments and limits a local government’s ability to regulate these encampments. This legislation also grants broad authority to provide shelter or housing to homeless persons on property that these organizations own or control. I have reached out to our community’s religious organizations to see if we can find a partner to host a temporary emergency encampment.”
But despite the approval by law, finding private partners has proven difficult. And a red-hot real estate market has exacerbated the problem—both in the form of rising rents and the aggressive conversion of greenfields around the city, once ad hoc campsites, to new housing.
“I believe there is a need to address some misinformation about what the City of Bellingham is doing with camp cleanups,” Linville said. “I want to make it clear that the City does not do ‘sweeps,’ where the police kick campers out without notice.
“We perform camp cleanups that are complaint-driven and with notice, and we prioritize those that pose a risk to public health or the environment,” Linville said, noting that she has asked staff to review those procedures.
“We work closely with our social service providers, such as the Homeless Outreach Team, to make sure anyone who is in a camp has access to services. We have scheduled a few camp cleanups that are priorities,” she said, “but I have asked staff that we halt additional clean—ups for the next few weeks while we explore emergency camping options.”
The crisis in homelessness has been particularly acute along the Interstate-5 corridor, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The report noted a six-year decline in the number of homeless people in the United States reversed in 2017, largely because of rising homeless populations on the West Coast.
In the Pacific Northwest, the report shows the homeless crisis is affecting cities and towns disproportionately. The report indicated a 47 percent increase statewide from 2007. The report, released in November, estimates some 13,800 households that are chronically unsheltered in Washington. Seattle, in particular, has witnessed a 247 percent increase in homlessness from 2007.
The reasons are myriad, but well understood: Wall Street recovered. Main Street did not recover, and people of modest means displaced in the collapse of the economy a decade ago remain so.
The tax shift approved by Congress this week does nothing to address this crisis—and indeed, the cavalier transfer of wealth to those already doing very well in this economy seems likely to worsen matters for lower incomes.
“We have heard a lot from the community about the current camp at City Hall, both in support and against,” Linville said. “The city works on these issues every day, and I am committed to continuing this dialogue and to be transparent in this process. We have met with Whatcom County to address these issues as a partner, and I look forward to continuing to work with all of our community partners to find solutions and to make sure that everyone in our community has the opportunity for shelter.”