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Homeless break camp at Bellingham City Hall. Where to now?

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.

After 18 days, the homeless campout in front of City Hall has ended.

Campers had to leave the Lottie Street location by noon Monday, when the permit for their protest ended. They missed the deadline, but Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville gave them an additional two hours to move out.

On Monday, they packed up their belongings and cleaned up their trash, with the help of volunteers, as Bellingham Police watched.

People had camped outside City Hall since Dec. 1 to bring attention to homelessness. The protesters, many of them homeless, wanted the city to stop its cleanup of homeless camps and to allow people to legally camp in a designated safe spot on public land for 90 days this winter – a tent city where they wouldn’t be rousted..

City officials told them they couldn’t legally designate such a campsite without changing city ordinance, a lengthy process. Instead, the city asked 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 to provide garbage pickup and portable toilets.

As of Monday, no religious organization offered to allow homeless campers on their property.

“This demonstration did raise the awareness level for people in our community about the conditions under which a lot of our residents are living. That’s a good thing,” Mayor Kelli Linville said Monday.

A nonprofit group called HomesNOW!, which aims to build tiny homes for the homeless in Whatcom County, organized the camp at City Hall. It started with two people and grew to 45, organizer Jim Peterson said.

“I think it was a lack of will,” Peterson said Monday of the city’s decision to not designate a tent city. “It’s pretty disheartening to see this happening now, and not being able to give these people what I’ve been able to give them the last 18 days – and that’s some stability.”

Although HomesNOW! didn’t get what it asked for, Peterson said four people stabilized enough to be able to contact their families and return to housing.

The group’s request came at a time when homelessness has been 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 have driven up prices are contributing factors.

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

Peterson said HomesNOW! will take its request to Whatcom County government.

The group had hoped to use the 90 days as a trial period and, if that worked, to ultimately move the homeless from tents to tiny homes and then into regular housing, Peterson said. It also asked the city to put up dumpsters and port-a-potties near illegal campsites and to find a place where the homeless could store their belongings.

Linville said she was working to find a nonprofit group that could provide such storage.

“Of course, we need a site,” she said of the storage. “That seems to be a problem with anything.”

Among the services the City of Bellingham provides to the homeless and for housing, it also is working with Whatcom County to find a site for a homeless shelter for up to 200 people. Lighthouse Mission Ministries, the city’s partner in the endeavor to open a permanent shelter for the homeless, continues to operate a temporary emergency shelter at its Drop-In Center at 1013 W. Holly St.

Space was available at the Drop-In Center for emergency shelter, the mayor said, although HomesNOW! has said about half of the people camped at City Hall have been banned from the center or don’t want to go to a shelter because of past trauma.

The mayor said some campers told her they didn’t want to be inside or have to follow the center’s rules.

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

But she has asked staff to stop additional cleanups until after the first of the new year.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

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