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.