Birchwood homeless camps cleared

Posted by Ralph Schwartz on February 25, 2014 

City, homelessness groups, neighborhood seek common goal

Homelessness and vagrancy in Birchwood is not unique to that neighborhood.

Nor is it unique that the Birchwood Neighborhood Association formed a committee to address the problem called Take Back Birchwood -- at least not in and of itself.

What is unique, according to association President April Barker, is the relationship that's developing between the association, the city of Bellingham and homelessness service agencies.

An article I wrote published Saturday, Feb. 22, in The Bellingham Herald touched on this three-way partnership.

As the story details, the partnership includes a proposed trail to be built by Bellingham Parks and Recreation. Also, city Public Works is planning sidewalk improvements to make the streets that now serve as hang-outs for vagrants more pedestrian friendly. 

I heard back from Barker after the story ran.

"This all came about because TBBW (Take Back Birchwood) was asking for (city) Public Works and Parks to make some changes that inevitably could dispalce our homeless neighbors," Barker wrote Tuesday, Feb. 25, in an email. "The TBBW intent was to reach out to those who may be displaced appropriately, prior to implementation of area/site changes.

"It's the first time a neighborhood in Bellingham has requested such an outreach."

While "Take Back Birchwood" intends to eliminate the problem of homelessness and vagrancy in the neighborhood, Barker has said it wants to do so with sensitivity. She refers to the people who hang out on the streets as neighbors.

Neighborhood residents know some of them by name.

"They've been in our community for a really long period of time," Barker said.

(Homelessness and vagrancy are distinguished thusly: Homeless people don't have a home. Vagrants do but often spend their days on the streets, usually drinking. Homelessness service groups can help the former. The latter are more a group for the police to handle, people in social services say.)

Theresa Meurs, a volunteer for the outreach group Hope House, said the budding partnership with groups like hers and the city had an early setback when a city crew removed homeless camps along the Cedarwood Trail (see photo). These were the very people Meurs had tried to start contacting through the new coordination with the neighborhood.

Why the homeless people in Birchwood and elsewhere aren't quickly and easily placed into housing is a complicated question. The simplest answer is supply and demand -- there's not enough housing for chronically homeless people to go around. 

Meurs said the weekly efforts of Hope House to meet people on the street and try to help them isn't enough. More work -- and public dollars -- must be committed to outreach, in her opinion. It takes time to gain the trust of homeless people and get them to accept help or, more specifically, housing.

Advocates for homeless people, including Meurs and Whatcom Homeless Service Center Director Greg Winter, disagree with the commonly accepted notion that most homeless people are happy where they are, on the street or in a tent under a bridge.

"Occasionally we come across somebody who might express that opinion," Winter said. "In our experience, for the hundreds and hundreds of people who have been living unsheltered, that’s not the case. People want to come inside."

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