The Gristle

Fire and Ice

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

FIRE AND ICE: The fire and loss of the historic Hohl Feed and Seed building in downtown Bellingham took on an even more tragic aspect as investigators confirmed the fire appeared to have been deliberately set by a unsheltered couple trying to stay warm in the coldest February in 70 years.

The Feb. 18 fire gutted the second floor of the beloved two-story pet store and also destroyed a large portion of a one-story support building and grain silo. Fire officials determined the fire was set in a brick chimney off the back alley between the two buildings. The same scattered grain that had made the silo an exotic sanctuary for wild birds acted as tinder to spread the flames.

This fire happened coterminous with ice, with housing advocates and activists pleading with city and county officials to step up and expand emergency shelter response to severe weather conditions. The city and county did activate additional emergency shelters at locations in the city center—sluggishly, belatedly in light of the rising number of chronically unsheltered individuals in our community.

The man charged with the reckless burning of the Hohl building and his partner are an example of those who truly fall through the tatters of our social safety net—they are a couple, in a system of providers that sort shelter services to men, and shelter services to women.

“I don’t know how many times in the last year and nine months I have said, ‘People will not go to the Drop-In Center. They would rather freeze to death,” Jim Peterson, executive director of HomesNOW!, thundered in remarks to Bellingham City Council at the height of the storm event. “We need other options.”

Some have been robbed there. Others have been bullied or threatened. For those suffering from mental illness or extreme deprivation, even the word want—as an expression of free will or consent—fails to capture the pressures that drive them.

In all fairness, the city has stepped up the capacity of programs and responses over the past four winters, contracting with more service providers for emergency shelter. But the magnitude of the problem—the numbers of people who need those immediate services, and the complexity of their needs—has grown in tandem with that response.

Commenting on that escalation, Lynn Sterbenz, the city’s emergency manager, explained in a report to City Council last week that “we have seen two separate issues coincide. We have a homeless situation,” she noted, “and that is an everyday situation in our community, and we have cold/winter/weather impacts to our homeless population that exists—every day. We also had a severe winter event, a severe storm, that impacted our community for a few days. For three or four days, those two issues overlapped.”

The weather crisis exposed both the overlap and the schism, as Mayor Kelli Linville sketched to Council, between a natural disaster emergency, and an ongoing need for shelter for people that are homeless. And it exposed, too, exactly the overlap and schism described by Peterson at the height of the crisis.

A fractured policy collapses at its weakest fault lines under pressure.

“One of the core issues in terms of additional shelter space isn’t one purely about capacity. It’s about choice,” Rick Sepler, the city’s planning director, admitted in comments to Council last week. “There were those who appeared before this body and said, ‘Yes, you had capacity; yes, you had beds. But we have people who don’t want to go there, and those people don’t have a place to go. And that is the undiscussed issue that is before you.”

Homelessness and housing insecurity continue to top the list of residents’ concerns in the recent update of community opinion as surveyed by Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research and released by the city this month, with a mounting intensity of concern. And the method of data capture—which over-represents older, more affluent homeowners—suggests the intensity of concern among less affluent, less anchored renters may be even greater still.

The Whatcom Human Rights Task Force stepped up the call to action this week in an open letter to local officials throughout Whatcom County declaring that homelessness is a human rights issue. The Task Force called on officials and affiliated agencies to address a humanitarian crisis locally with meaningful and consistent action and planning.

“With unprecedented snow and cold weather conditions, enormous pressure has been put on those without shelter who are at risk of serious illness or death in at or below freezing temperatures,” task force members wrote. “Recent statistics put the number of unhoused in Whatcom County at somewhere between 850-3,000, including more than 500 children.

“There is an urgent need for greater capacity to serve homeless people in the county, particularly individuals and families who do not fit into the narrow categories that now define who is allowed to have access to safe spaces and resources,” Task Force members wrote. “This includes providing shelter for male-female couples as well as individuals who are gender non-binary, accompanied by pets and service animals, and those who are unable or unwilling to take shelter with religious institutions due to traumatic experiences they have had in that context, including but not limited to sexual abuse.”

The Task Force asked that officials join a systemic and collaborative effort along with the many groups working locally who are investing energy, resources, and efforts into finding solutions that serve all equitably.

March Silver Reef
Past Columns
Halfway Houses

March 20, 2019

New Directions

March 13, 2019

The Big Short

February 27, 2019

Marina Lacuna

February 20, 2019

New Bites at the Apple

February 13, 2019

Coal Folds

February 6, 2019

Refocusing the Narrative

January 29, 2019

Old Town, Old Story

January 23, 2019

Ranker Unanchored

January 16, 2019

‘Alternative Methods’

January 9, 2019

Top Stories, 2018

January 2, 2019

Et Tu, #MeToo

December 26, 2018

Turn That Corner

December 19, 2018

Paradigms in Collision

November 28, 2018

Leftover Turkey

November 21, 2018

The Divisions Between Us

November 14, 2018

The Map is the Territory

November 7, 2018

Climate Kids

October 31, 2018

Events
Today
Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest

8:00am|Whatcom County

La Conner Daffodil Festival

10:00am|La Conner and the Skagit Valley

Regional High School Art Show

8:00am|Northwest Educational Service District

Birding Adventures

9:00am|Skagit Valley

Imagine Convergence on Orcas Island

12:00pm|Rosario Resort

Essence of Bellingham Photo Competition

12:00pm

English Country Dancing

1:30pm|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

Dig Deep

3:00pm|Deming Library

Happy Hour Thursdays

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Pub Run

6:00pm|Stone's Throw Brewery

Ancient Beauty

6:30pm|Deming Library

Native American Flute Workshop

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Balkan Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Cross-Country Bicycling Travelogue

7:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Peter Pan, A Musical Adventure

7:00pm|Meridian High School

Wild Mercy

7:00pm|Village Books

Dyo Festival Plays

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Bellingham Puppetry and Mask Festival

7:30pm|Alternative Library

Asleep at the Wheel

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Asleep at the Wheel

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Trove Web
Tomorrow
Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest

8:00am|Whatcom County

La Conner Daffodil Festival

10:00am|La Conner and the Skagit Valley

Regional High School Art Show

8:00am|Northwest Educational Service District

Birding Adventures

9:00am|Skagit Valley

Essence of Bellingham Photo Competition

12:00pm

Imagine Convergence on Orcas Island

12:00pm|Rosario Resort

Peter Pan, A Musical Adventure

7:00pm|Meridian High School

Dyo Festival Plays

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Bellingham Puppetry and Mask Festival

7:30pm|Alternative Library

Wild Things

9:30am|Whatcom Falls Park

SICBA Home & Garden Show

11:00am|Skagit County Fairgrounds

World Water Day Beach Cleanup

12:00pm|Squalicum Beach

Peace Vigil

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Fourth Friday Art Walk

5:00pm|Historic Fairhaven

Barry Lopez and Horizon

7:00pm|Village Books

Don Felder, formerly of the Eagles

7:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Sierra Hull

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

The Pageturners

7:30pm|ACT Annex

Tarnation, Ryan Stiles

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

The Hunts Trove Web
Saturday
Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest

8:00am|Whatcom County

La Conner Daffodil Festival

10:00am|La Conner and the Skagit Valley

Birding Adventures

9:00am|Skagit Valley

Imagine Convergence on Orcas Island

12:00pm|Rosario Resort

Essence of Bellingham Photo Competition

12:00pm

Peter Pan, A Musical Adventure

7:00pm|Meridian High School

Dyo Festival Plays

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Bellingham Puppetry and Mask Festival

7:30pm|Alternative Library

SICBA Home & Garden Show

11:00am|Skagit County Fairgrounds

Tarnation, Ryan Stiles

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

The Pageturners

7:30pm|ACT Annex

Honeywagon Runs

8:00am|Riverside Park

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #154

WNPS Field Trip

9:00am|Breazeale Interpretive Center

Native Plant Sale

9:00am|Whatcom Community College

NSEA Work Party

9:00am|Squalicum Creek

Make It and Take it

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

Nordic Roots Seminar

9:00am|United Methodist Church

Spring Studio Seconds Sale

10:00am|Blue Water Pottery

Sumas Writers Group

10:00am|Sumas Library

Youth Ag Day

10:00am|Skagit Farmers Supply

Quilt Museum Annex Open House

10:00am|Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum

Skagit Beer Week

11:00am|Skagit Valley

Dahlias Made Easy

11:00am|Christianson's Nursery

Free My Heart

12:00pm|Village Books

Tax Help Available

12:30pm|First Congregational Church

Forest Bathing

1:00pm|Rockport State Park

A Family Immigration Story

1:00pm

Fidalgo and Mount Baker Youth Symphonies

1:00pm|McIntyre Hall

PechuKucha Night

5:00pm|Museum of Northwest Art

Cheese Classes

5:00pm|Chuckanut Center

Giovanni & the Camino of St. Francis

7:00pm|Village Books

Manouche NW Concert Series

7:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Contra Dance with the Alphabeats

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Gabriel and Rebecca Manalac

7:30pm|Jansen Art Center

Skagit Symphony's Masterpiece Concert

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

see our complete calendar »

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