City Hall campers want a tent city for the homeless. How did Bellingham respond?

Organizer with homeless camp at City Hall talks about the group’s goals

Jim Peterson, president of Homes Now!, discusses the group's goals and meeting with Mayor Kelli Linville on Friday, Dec. 15, in Bellingham.
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Jim Peterson, president of Homes Now!, discusses the group's goals and meeting with Mayor Kelli Linville on Friday, Dec. 15, in Bellingham.

People camped outside City Hall since Dec. 1 want the city to stop its cleanup of homeless camps and allow people to legally camp in a designated spot on public land this winter.

But Mayor Kelli Linville said Friday the city can’t legally designate such a campsite without changing city ordinance, a lengthy process. Instead, the city is asking religious organizations, which are authorized to do so under state law, to offer space for up to 30 tents on their property for 90 days.

The city would then partner with that organization and provide garbage pickup and portable toilets.

“We’re on their side. We’ve been dealing with this issue,” Linville said, noting the city spends about $4.9 million a year on housing and homelessness.

Regardless, campers have been told they must leave City Hall on Lottie Street by noon Monday, when their permit expires.

Linville spoke to the campers Friday, with City Council member Dan Hammill at her side. She said city officials received both complaints and support for the campers from community members.

“Having people be safe and housed is a top priority for us,” Hammill said.

A nonprofit group called HomesNOW! organized the campout to bring attention to the cleanups and the needs of the homeless. The camp at City Hall has grown from two people, organizer Jim Peterson said, to as many as 50.

“It becomes not this hidden thing. You can’t ignore it any more. That was part of the purpose of being visible,” said Lisa Papp, a HomesNOW! volunteer, of the campout at City Hall.

Organizers asked the city to provide a designated safe and temporary homeless camping area with port-a-potties and dumpsters – a tent city where they wouldn’t be rousted.

“We’re not asking for a lot,” said Peterson, founder of HomesNOW! who was himself homeless for 17 years. “Nobody’s willing to take the risk and try something outside the box.”

HomesNOW! is a nonprofit that aims to build tiny homes to house the homeless in Whatcom County.

On Friday, a disappointed Peterson criticized Bellingham officials for not designating such a camping area.

“I just feel like there’s no will at the city to solve the problem but there’s plenty of will at the city to throw Band-Aids on the problem,” Peterson said.

Seattle, Tacoma and San Diego have opened such tent cities, organizers said.

The request comes at a time when homelessness is growing on the West Coast, including in Whatcom County, where there are about 742 people without homes, according to an annual census of homeless here. A tight rental and housing market that has driven up prices also contribute.

About 70 percent of the homeless here are from Whatcom County.

The City of Bellingham is working with Whatcom County to find a site for a homeless shelter for up to 200 people while partner Lighthouse Mission Ministries continues to operate a temporary one at its Drop-In Center at 1013 W. Holly St.

Space was available at the Drop-In Center for emergency shelter, city officials said.

Camp organizers acknowledged long-term efforts to deal with homelessness but said there were some people who were uncomfortable in a shelter because they had been assaulted in shelters, been banned from the Drop-In Center or had their possessions stolen. Some also want a more permanent community no matter that they’re outside, organizers said.

A place for them to camp isn’t a solution to homelessness, Peterson said, but an answer to an immediate problem.

“Where do people want them to go?” Peterson said. “They just want them to disappear.”

People already are camping all over the city, he added, and having a designated place takes care of related issues such as trash and people urinating and defecating outdoors.

Bellingham Police officer Eric Osterkamp tours a homeless camp on Sehome Hill in Bellingham, Washington and explains the process of cleaning it up.

Bellingham has spent more than $300,000 this year to clean out homeless camps, and organizers said a designated campsite would cost the city and taxpayers less than continuing the cleanups.

As for the camp cleanups, Linville said the city has scheduled a few that were priorities – cleanup of homeless camps are complaint-driven, done for public safety and environmental reasons and after notifying campers – through December 20.

But she asked staff to stop additional cleanups for the next few weeks while the city explores emergency camping options.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

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