News

Cold Comfort

Shelters near capacity as polar storm continues

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A continued polar storm front has scrambled resources to provide severe weather housing for the unsheltered.

Mayor Kelli Linville signed a proclamation on Monday that an emergency exists throughout the City of Bellingham and authorized the city to provide emergency assistance to the victims of this current winter storm and take other actions to protect life and property.

The mayor’s order gives the city the ability to enter into emergency contracts with other service providers and allows the city to open additional temporary emergency shelters as current shelters approach capacity.

Numerous people braved the cold weather Monday evening to tell city leaders in emotional testimony their efforts were not enough.

The greater Puget Sound area has been blanketed by successive waves of snowstorms and the National Weather Service reports that Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has received 20.2 inches of snow so far in February, the snowiest month in more than 50 years.

The storm that hit Sunday dumped as many as four inches of snow in some areas. An additional six inches of snow fell on Monday and Tuesday as a lingering jet stream drives cold arctic air into the region, part of a larger cycle that has driven snow as far away as Hawaii. In Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit counties, forecasters predicting another one to three inches of snow.

As nighttime temperatures plummet, local emergency services response is stretched beyond limits.

“The Lighthouse Mission Ministries, Catholic Community Church, Winter Haven, and Public Library are all providing different levels of service at different times,” Linville reported to Bellingham City Council this week. “We have a variety of options for residents who are unsheltered.”

In Bellingham, the Lighthouse Mission Ministries (LMM) Drop-In Center on Holly Street remains open 24 hours a day and has expanded capacity for the duration of the winter storm.

“We have had numerous people coming to us for extra services over the past week,” Bridget Reeves, program director at LMM, told Council. “We have had unprecedented interest from the community, inquring about numbers and capacity at all hours.

“We’ve been stretched thin trying to provide needed services in our community,” she admitted.

On Friday, the Mission served 176 guests out of 210 available beds at both the Lighthouse Mission and Fountain Community Church. Fountain Community Church provided an additional 30 beds as need for shelter increased.

The Opportunity Council and Lydia Place also continue to provide hotel vouchers, primarily for families in need. In addition, the city provided an additional $10,000 this winter specifically for emergency assistance motel vouchers.

Winter Haven, a temporary tent encampment established behind City Hall earlier this year, provides services for up to 40 people. The encampment includes bathrooms, showers, drinking water, an outdoor kitchen, garbage and recycling containers, and human and social services. The encampment is managed by HomesNOW!, an organization that has exhaustively provided shelter and transportation to shelter for Whatcom County’s homeless population.

Whatcom Transportation Authority has also stepped up, providing free bus service to shelters and offering extended hours and warming stations in their transit facilities.

But the city needs to do more, Winter Haven and HomesNOW! volunteers and activists told Bellingham City Council in a chilly evening session.

“Service is not quite reaching the levels needed,” Lynette Allen, a volunteer with Homes NOW, reported. “It is severe, and we weren’t ready. And we’re still not ready. There are still people out there who just may not make it.”

“The city has not done anything except refer people to the Mission, which cannot serve all the needs of all the people without homes in our county,” Jim Peterson, executive director of HomesNow!, said. “It just can’t, yet Mayor Linville has done nothing to open warming centers or City Hall so people can at least bring in their sleeping bags and gear and not freeze.

“We need other options,” he said.

“You have failed hugely,” Bellingham resident Brenda Bentley commented to City Council. “We shouldn’t be here, having this discussion now, in the middle of a crisis.

“We know winter comes every year. Is this the infrastructure we have set up? This is problematic, and not good enough.”

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