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Nearly a year ago, protesters asked for a tent city. This is how Bellingham responds.

Homeless advocacy group wants to provide tent camp at City Hall this winter

Jim Peterson, president of Homes Now!, talks to the Bellingham City Council on Nov. 19, 2018 about Winter Haven, a temporary homeless camp that would allow 20 tents in part of a parking lot at City Hall this winter.
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Jim Peterson, president of Homes Now!, talks to the Bellingham City Council on Nov. 19, 2018 about Winter Haven, a temporary homeless camp that would allow 20 tents in part of a parking lot at City Hall this winter.

Nov. 21 update: HomesNOW! has applied for a permit to temporarily provide shelter for up to 40 people in part of the parking lot behind City Hall. If approved, the nonprofit could do so for no more than 90 days at that location. Comments on the proposal will be accepted through Dec. 7, and a decision will be made after that. Send written comments and requests for information to Lisa Pool at lapool@cob.org or call 360-778-8390. Additional details are available by going online to cob.org and then clicking on “News.”

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BELLINGHAM - The city is moving toward allowing up to 40 people who are homeless to temporarily camp in part of a parking lot behind City Hall during the coldest parts of this coming winter.

Called Winter Haven, the tent encampment would be managed by the nonprofit HomesNOW!

The homeless advocacy group proposes to put up to 20 tents in the western part of the parking lot at 210 Lottie St., which is owned by the city of Bellingham, from December until the end of February. The city also would bring power and water to the site, the Bellingham City Council was told Monday.

Jim Peterson, president of HomesNOW!, cheered the decision and thanked the city of Bellingham.

“If I cry, I’m sorry,” he told the City Council on Monday. “It’s been a long, hard fight to get here.”

HomesNOW!, which has been talking to city staff, is expected to put in its application Tuesday, or soon after, for Winter Haven.

For months, it has been trying to get approval and land for a tent encampment or tiny homes for the homeless in Bellingham, and Peterson has at times butted heads with the city over the effort.

Rick Sepler, Bellingham Planning and Community Development director, will be the person with the power to OK the project for the city under new rules that the City Council approved Oct. 22 for temporary homeless shelters.

Still, the City Council voted unanimously on Monday to state its support for the proposal. Bellingham officials made it clear the project was a stop-gap measure.

“This isn’t housing. It’s safe camping. It’s important. We need to have safe camping in our community,” City Council member Dan Hammill said.

Mayor Kelli Linville said the tent encampment wasn’t a permanent shelter for the homeless that the city has been trying, for years, to find a location for in Bellingham.

“This is not that shelter,” Linville said to the City Council. “This is a temporary shelter that allows people to come out of the cold. It will be in a location that I believe will be the least impactful to all residents.”

A temporary tent city was one of the primary requests made by homeless protesters who camped out in front of Bellingham City Hall for 18 days in December 2017. HomesNOW! organized that event to bring attention to homelessness.

If approved, Winter Haven must follow public health and safety rules required by the city under the new rules for temporary homeless shelters.

As laid out by HomesNOW! on its website and as discussed before the City Council on Monday, Winter Haven requirements and measures would include:

  • A ban on drug or alcohol use for people living there.

  • A 6-foot chain link fence around the camp to control access.
  • 24/7 surveillance, as requested by HomesNow!, and round-the-clock staffing.
  • Providing Bellingham Police with a list of residents, including their full name and date of birth. Police would check prospective residents for active warrants and against the sex offender registry.
  • Resident selection based on a screening process with input from the Homeless Outreach Team, which is part of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center. Residents likely will be working or disabled and have a source of income.
  • Requiring residents to follow a code of conduct for behavior, quiet hours, guest policies, cleanliness and participation in community chores.

Peterson said six churches have agreed to provide food to those living in the encampment, and 20 businesses have stepped forward to sponsor HomesNOW! The larger community support points to something Peterson told the City Council he has said from the start.

“HomesNOW! can’t do this alone. The city can’t do it alone. Council can’t do it alone. It takes a community,” Peterson said to the City Council.

HomesNOW! estimated that running the camp for three months would cost $11,000, and Peterson told the City Council on Monday that the full amount has been raised.

“I think they (HomesNOW!) are committed to providing a shelter that works within our rules,” Linville said in an interview Tuesday with Herald reporter Dave Gallagher. She added that the city will evaluate this first attempt to help determine what the city does in the future.

“We are taking the attitude that it is too cold on some days to be outside, and the Lighthouse Mission can’t accommodate everyone,” she said.

The Lighthouse Mission turned its Drop-In Center at 1013 W. Holly St. into a temporary overnight shelter in October 2016, allowing those who were homeless to stay inside during the day as well.

The spot behind City Hall wasn’t the only one being considered for the temporary tent encampment.

Linville said the city also considered an area near Civic Field, but ran into challenges that included neighborhood concerns as well as figuring out a way to supply water and electricity to the site.

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

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea
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