For those worried about homeless in cars, here’s what Bellingham police say they can do

Bellingham police officer walks through homeless camp before cleanup begins

Bellingham Police Officer Eric Osterkamp walks through a homeless man's camp at Whatcom Falls Park before a cleanup by Bellingham Parks and Recreation in 2017 in Bellingham.
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Bellingham Police Officer Eric Osterkamp walks through a homeless man's camp at Whatcom Falls Park before a cleanup by Bellingham Parks and Recreation in 2017 in Bellingham.

The city is restricting parking where the homeless living in vehicles have generated complaints about trash spilling onto the road, people illegally plugging into power sources and customers being deterred by unsightly RVs.

“It’s affected our business, mostly when it’s dark,” said Richard van Dommelen, the owner of Jeckyl & Hyde restaurant on Orchard Place.

In response, parking in the area – parts of Orchard Place and West Orchard Drive – is being reduced from 72 hours down to two hours, and van Dommelen hopes that will keep people from camping near his business.

It’s been an issue for the past six months, according to van Dommelen.

“It’s a problem for the neighborhood,” he said.

Other businesses in the area include medical offices and Bellingham Cold Storage. There’s also a trail, and Orchard Place connects to Birchwood Avenue.

Doug Thomas, president and CEO of Bellingham Cold Storage, supported the city’s action.

When people camp on the streets for three days at a time, he said, large semis can’t pull into or out of the BCS loading docks.

Thomas also was concerned about people relieving themselves on BCS property, which the company has to clean up.

He understood that people were trying to find a place to camp peacefully.

“Unfortunately, just about every place you go it impacts somebody,” Thomas said. “There’s really no good place for it in the city.”

The parking signs have started to go up, van Dommelen said at the end of last week. They seemed to be helping so far because no RVs have shown up.

What drives complaints

Bellingham isn’t alone in grappling with the issue. Large metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and Seattle have as well, and legal challenges that have sought to protect the homeless have been part of the complexity for municipalities dealing with a growing crisis.

Bellingham Police learn about people living in their vehicles – as they do about people living in the woods – when the public complains. It’s an issue that also pops up on the Nextdoor website, which allows neighbors to share information.

A vehicle parking for too long in a spot is the main grievance, Lt. Bob Vander Yacht said.

In residential neighborhoods, street parking is allowed for 72 hours at a time unless a posted sign says otherwise.

“We will check out any reports of vehicles that seem suspicious but the vehicle owner will not be told to move the vehicle if it is less than the 72 hours maximum,” he said.

People also are concerned about sidewalks being blocked “by belongings associated with vehicles,” he said. “Occasionally, we receive reports of an RV that is leaking sewage. We have occasionally gotten reports of intimidating behavior from occupants that causes other citizens to not feel safe.”

Other areas in Bellingham that have generated a lot of complaints include the foot of Cornwall Avenue, Cornwall Park, Squalicum Creek Park, Birchwood Park and the area around Civic Field, according to Vander Yacht.

Police have identified 43 vehicles in the city that have people living in them.

Of those, seven to 10 take up much of the time for police.

“They’re really our chronic violators that we have to contact a lot,” Vander Yacht said, referring to behavior such as parking too long in an area, blocking sidewalks and waste.

He said police want to first educate people living in their vehicles and then make changes such as the parking restriction. Next up is enforcement, such as parking tickets.

‘A safe place to go’

Being homeless and living in your car isn’t illegal, Bellingham officials said.

“We’re looking at behaviors,” Bellingham Police Chief David Doll said. “We’re looking at responding to complaints and dealing with those issues as best we can.”

Police said they connect people living in their vehicles with the Homeless Outreach Team for services. They also explain that “disorderly behavior is the primary reason that results in police contacting these vehicles,” Vander Yacht said.

“The objective is absolutely not to punish anyone,” he said. “We hold all vehicle owners that park on city streets accountable to obey the legal limits for the specific area they are in.”

Most of the people living in their vehicles are men. Some are couples. It’s rare to find children living in a car with their family, Vander Yacht said.

“In all of these cases one of our objectives is to assure that occupants are aware of services and alternatives,” he said.

Mike Parker, director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center, said its staff will go out and provide people with garbage bags so they can clean up and minimize their impact.

“For some people, that’s their last asset they’re living in,” said Parker, adding that they want people at least be able to keep their vehicles.

A place for people to park their vehicles was one of the requests made by those involved in a homeless campout in front of Bellingham City Hall in December.

A nonprofit group called HomesNOW!, which is working on a pilot project to build tiny homes for the homeless in Whatcom County, organized the camp at City Hall.

He said the request for a place to park was made so people wouldn’t have to move their vehicles every eight or 24 hours, or come back from work and find a parking ticket on their vehicle.

“People complain about people living in vehicles parking alongside the road,” said Jim Peterson, founder of HomesNOW! “Give them a safe place to go.”