As the city continues to clean up homeless camps in parks and under bridges, Mayor Kelli Linville said a proposed shelter would offer one solution to a growing problem.
The city has a backlog of more than 70 camps. Since 2014, the city has removed 427 camps at nearly 300 places around Bellingham. Most of them were in the city’s parks and creek corridors.
“We need a place for people to receive services. This is why we’re pushing for a low-barrier shelter now that can serve up to 200 people,” Linville said. “That will allow us to more permanently clean up some of these camps and get people integrated with services, if they choose to want help.”
The shelter would be part of continuum of care in Bellingham – services made possible through a combination of public funding as well as housing and social services provided by government, nonprofits and community groups. The struggle, as it has been for a number of years, is in not having enough affordable housing for those in need, officials said.
Linville is pushing for a shelter on roughly 1 acre of waterfront property on Roeder Avenue. It is being opposed by the Working Waterfront Coalition of Whatcom County and others who said that those who are homeless should be helped, but not in that location. They feared that harm would be done to area businesses and waterfront redevelopment.
Linville has proposed putting a 24/7 emergency shelter on the property between C and F streets for up to 200 homeless women and men. It would be done with Lighthouse Mission Ministries, which would raise $1.5 million to renovate the largest building on the site to turn it into what also is referred to as an easy-access shelter.
Such shelters have minimum requirements for access, so people aren’t tested for drug or alcohol use before being allowed entry, although they can’t drink or use drugs once inside. Fighting isn’t allowed either.
The goal is to get people through the door, give staff a chance to connect with them, and build trust so those who are homeless are willing to get services. The emphasis is on having people come in so they can be stabilized, assessed and moved into recovery, allowing them to address their homelessness and get out of it.
Lighthouse Mission Ministries already has been operating a smaller, easy-access shelter on a temporary basis in Old Town. What they found was that it was taking seven days for people who used that shelter to be willing to listen about available services, compared to to the usual 30 to 40 days.
“That doesn’t mean they rush out and do it, but it gives me hope that we can offer a lifeline to someone instead of a cot,” Linville said. “That’s not what we really want to do.”
The City of Bellingham spent at least $300,000 last year to clean up homeless camps. It’s on track to spend more this year.
“We’re paying for it one way or another,” said Mike Parker, director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center. “It’s a lot better to pay for a way with dignity, with housing.”
A variety of factors, some overlapping, cause homelessness. They include economic hardship, domestic violence, family crisis, job loss, mental illness as well as alcohol or drug abuse.
Homelessness has been increasing in Whatcom County in recent years. About 719 people are without homes – a 10 percent increase over the previous year, according to a 2016 report that provided an overview of homelessness.
That number is expected to increase by some 3 percent, according to preliminary results of the annual census of the homeless, known as the Point-in-time Count, conducted in January. It was a good sign that the increase hasn’t been as sharp as the previous year, Parker said.
Cleanups of homeless camps are done for public safety and environmental reasons, city officials said, and are a combined effort of Bellingham Police, Public Works, the Parks Department, as well as the Homeless Outreach Team.
Washington Conservation Corps teams also help the city with restoration work after a cleanup, and Bellingham workers frequently monitor sites afterward.
‘We see this wheel...’
Some Bellingham residents have been upset by trash, stolen bicycle frames, and used needles found in camps, and have posted their concerns on websites such as Nextdoor, which is geared toward neighborhoods.
“Not every camp has needles. Not every camp has bikes,” Parker said, adding others are more discreet and have less garbage. “There also are people who are not like that.”
Eric Osterkamp, the neighborhood officer with the Bellingham Police Department, is one of those who works on the cleanups, which are initiated by city staff or from public complaints.
His duties include notifying the people living in them ahead of time, as required by law, that crews will be by to remove the camp. He’s been doing the work for nearly three years and has gone to hundreds of camps in that time.
What he’s seeing are fewer mentally ill people in them, and Osterkamp said that could be due to people receiving help at Francis Place, which opened in 2015 on Cornwall Avenue in Bellingham.
Developed by Catholic Housing Services, the 42-unit apartment building houses people who are homeless and low-income, including those with mental illness and addictions. They also receive support services.
Osterkamp, who has gone into hundreds of camps, expressed frustration over the habitual offenders among them who cause the most amount of work and the most amount of damage.
“The tools that we have are ineffective,” he said, adding that people in camps aren’t just those who are down on their luck.
His ability to arrest people who are breaking the law is limited because of jail overcrowding.
Osterkamp said he can trespass someone he finds in a city park for one year, and for that park alone. He can write citations for trespassing and destroying park property, but they would be misdemeanors and not likely to faze a habitual offender.
“We see this wheel – the same result, the same problem,” Osterkamp said.
Linville said homelessness is a complex issue, adding the term refers to different groups of people in different situations – women, children, veterans, teens and young adults, and homeless people who are difficult to place into housing, among others.
Cleaning up such illegal campsites, and helping the people in them to services, is one of the ways the city is grappling with that complexity.
And, the mayor said, the cost of cleanups is a small part of the money spent and the effort made on the larger issue, which includes intensive case management, housing vouchers, housing efforts that involve the city, the Homeless Outreach Team, as well as drug and mental health courts.
A $10 million project of Northwest Youth Services and the Opportunity Council is one of those efforts. The city helped secure funding for the project and also is contributing some money, although most of the funding is coming the federal low-income housing tax credit program.
Called 22 North, the building will have 40 apartments with supportive services. It will serve homeless young adults as well as older chronically homeless adults.
“There’s always been a need but more recently there’s been much more visual signs of homelessness in Whatcom County,” said Riannon Bardsley, executive director for Northwest Youth Services.
She said the organization has about 130 people who are on a waiting list for housing.
Northwest Youth Services is raising $780,000 for the 22 North housing development in Bellingham, which will serve the homeless. The money will be used for construction and staffing. Make a tax-deductible donation by going online, nwys.org/22north.