Birchwood residents confront Bellingham homelessness head-on

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 21, 2014 

Cedarwood Trail

Ben White walks his dog, Meika, down Cedarwood trail, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2014 in Bellingham. "I have never felt unsafe, but with a dog it's hard to feel unsafe," White said. "Every once in awhile I'll see some people that look a little off on the trail, but for the most part it's local people.

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BELLINGHAM - After April Barker bought her Birchwood home five years ago, she wanted to explore the city's Greenways trails connecting her neighborhood with Squalicum Beach. She and a friend took their young children along in strollers.

On the way back, they ran into a dead end on the trail, along Squalicum Way about 30 feet short of the Northwest Avenue Bridge.

"It literally dead-ended us into 10 guys under the bridge, hanging out," said Barker, recalling the moment in an interview on Wednesday, Feb. 19.

It was late, and the children were crying. The only reasonable option was to carry the strollers, one at a time, up the uneven bank.

"Nobody hurt us," Barker said. "Luckily, no one asked us if we needed help."

The issue for Birchwood residents is not whether any real danger is posed by the people who spend their days on the streets, sharing 12-packs of beer or going behind buildings to do something more illicit. What matters, said Barker, president of the Birchwood Neighborhood Association, is that residents have ceded their neighborhood to homeless and transient people.

Her neighbors tend to avoid the corner where Northwest, Birchwood and Cedarwood avenues meet, Barker said. Some women said they won't go alone on the Cedarwood Trail to the beach.

By pulling back from parts of their own neighborhood, Birchwood residents have "enabled" the homelessness problem, Barker said.

"The businesses don't even chase after people when alcohol is stolen. ... We've just had this culture where we've allowed this," she said.

Eventually the problems became too large to ignore. Sleeping bodies blocked the sidewalk. Trash was everywhere, and excrement fouled the entrance to Cedarwood Trail.

"There would be sleeping bags. They'd leave their booze in the bushes so they could come back for it," Barker said. "In the morning when I would go to clean up, there'd be a puddle of urine on the sidewalk."

In response, the neighborhood association late last year formed a committee, Take Back Birchwood, to put an end to the uninviting atmosphere homeless and transient people had created in the neighborhood.

Neighbors have begun talking to officials from the city and homelessness service agencies to find a solution. They all met Feb. 10 at Morrie's Drive-In, where they could see out the window the comings and goings of transient people under the Northwest Avenue bridge.

Much of the talk at the meeting was about a proposed extension of the trail that now dead-ends just west of the bridge. The trail spur, which has been planned since the 1990s, would lead under the bridge and up the slope to the parking lot at Morrie's.

It may seem counterintuitive, Barker said, but designating a trail through the homeless camp would discourage use of the camp by making it less hidden.

The trail is in the early planning stages and probably won't be built this year, said Leslie Bryson, design and development manager for the city Parks and Recreation Department. The city first must secure the right to use the railbed that stands between the end of the trail and the bridge, Bryson said.

After the meeting, the Whatcom Homeless Service Center and the church-based outreach group Hope House started to focus on Birchwood, said Greg Winter, director of the Homeless Service Center. Hope House volunteers will try to separate the truly homeless from transient people who have roofs over their heads at night but choose to spend the day drinking in Birchwood.

"Our intention is to get back together with leadership at the neighborhood association ... when we have more to tell them about what we found," Winter said.

The city needs to be on the same page too, said Theresa Meurs, coordinator of street outreach for Hope House. An apparent push recently to get homeless people out of downtown Bellingham made the problem worse in surrounding neighborhoods such as Birchwood, she said.

"We're better off if we have a planned outreach and work together," Meurs said. "The city really needs, and I know the mayor would like to see, some kind of combined effort."

In an email to The Bellingham Herald, Mayor Kelli Linville said her Community Solutions Workgroup for downtown was convened with coordination among these groups in mind.

"We need more coordinated efforts between the city, social services and outreach providers to make sure we are meeting the needs of the community and not duplicating efforts," Linville wrote.

Barker said there is no ready solution to the problem of homelessness and vagrancy in Birchwood or elsewhere in Bellingham. But Birchwood neighbors can do their part, she said.

"I can't stand the 'NIMBY,' where we just push them out into somebody else's backyard," Barker said. "There's no easy answer, but there could be if we educated our neighbors on the issue of taking back Birchwood. This is your neighborhood. These are your trails. If you're afraid to walk on the trails, then you need to address that."

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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