Bellingham police officer walks through homeless camp before cleanup begins
Eric Osterkamp walked through a homeless camp Tuesday at Whatcom Falls Park, pointing to stripped-down bicycle frames, luggage, tools, and some five spots turned into latrines.
“Watch where you step,” said Osterkamp, the neighborhood officer with the Bellingham Police Department.
Around him, about 15 city workers – wearing Tyvek suits, thick boots and gloves for protection – went about picking up piles and piles of discarded and stolen items left behind at the camp, which was hidden in the woods near the Waterline Trail.
Nearly all of the items from what officials describe as an unusually large camp will go to the dump.
“You can see the environmental damage,” said Steve Nordeen, grounds supervisor for Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department, as he stood Tuesday in one part of the camp where a large tarp had been tied to trees, over a tent – all covering an area cleared of ferns and other native plants.
There are pots and pans, blankets, rolled up carpeting and a propane tank, as well as spray paint and bicycle wheels in an area of the camp that Osterkamp said was a chop shop.
Whatcom Creek’s rushing water could be heard at the camp, which also was near wetlands. Fecal coliform from feces in the latrines could wash into the water.
“I don’t even know how you calculate the damage here,” Osterkamp said.
Cleaning up such illegal campsites, and linking the people in them who want services, is one of the ways that the city is grappling with the complex issues that make up homelessness.
And it’s a small part of the money spent and the effort made, which includes intensive case management, the Homeless Outreach Team, as well as drug and mental health courts.
This camp in Whatcom Falls Park was one of 76 awaiting cleanup from City of Bellingham crews.
Last year, the city spent at least $300,000 to clear out such camps because of public safety and harm to the environment.
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.
The cleanup is a cooperative effort that includes the Parks Department, Bellingham Police and Public Works. Doing so means they’re not doing their regular jobs.
“They were not hired to do this,” Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said. “It’s a difficult thing.”
Osterkamp knows that first-hand. He’s been handling such cleanups – and notifying the people living in them ahead of time as legally required – for 2 1/2 years.
“It’s not a pleasant job. All of us who do this, none of us like doing it,” he said.
Osterkamp knows the person responsible for the camp, which had been there for about two months. He’s dealt with him – Osterkamp identified him as Brett Stenevich – a number of times, has trespassed him from the park, and has known him from a previous cleanup.
Stenevich wasn’t there when crews showed up Tuesday morning, and Osterkamp said he has refused services from the city’s Homeless Outreach Team.
There’s not much police can do to stop Stenevich’s alleged criminal behavior. Osterkamp said he could issue citations to Stenevich, a man he described as a congenial and habitual offender, but the charges would be misdemeanors.
“There’s only so much we can do with the resources we’ve got – and the law,” said Vanessa Blackburn, Bellingham spokeswoman, while walking through the camp.
Nordeen knows Stenevich, too.
“In essence, we’re just moving this individual around from place to place in Whatcom Falls Park,” Nordeen said. “It’s frustrating.”
By Tuesday afternoon, crews have finished cleaning up Whatcom Falls Park. They head over to one near the Civic Athletic Complex, and start all over again.
“It’s not an easy solution,” Nordeen said. “We’re trying to stay on top of it.”
Report a camp
Let Bellingham Police know about a homeless camp by calling 360-778-8623.
How is the City of Bellingham trying to deal with homelessness? What are the challenges and the limitations? What’s working? What still needs to be done? The Bellingham Herald will tackle those issues in a story online at bhamherald.com and in print on Sunday.