Bellingham neighborhood group ‘Take Back Birchwood’ makes strides against vagrancy in first year

Residents of Birchwood concerned about their safety on the streets have begun to take back their neighborhood. The balance neighborhood leaders seek is to take back without pushing anyone out.

In the heart of the neighborhood, at Birchwood and Northwest avenues, trees and shrubs that were hiding places for vagrants and bottles of alcohol were replaced by open landscaping. Managers at Albertsons and Rite Aid near the same corner took steps to deter crime in their stores. A code compliance officer found what was described by the neighborhood’s president as a “very compassionate but very firm” way to tell people in tents along the Cedarwood Trail that they couldn’t stay there.

Public drinking and sheltering in tents, either along the trail or under the Northwest Avenue bridge, had been tolerated in the neighborhood for a long time. When a committee called Take Back Birchwood formed a year ago, its members decided the behaviors were the problem, not the people.

“We know that these are our neighbors. ... The last thing we want to do is blast them out of our neighborhood,” Birchwood Neighborhood Association President April Barker said at a meeting Tuesday, Nov. 25, of more than 100 residents at the new Birchwood Elementary School.

The neighborhood association called the meeting to celebrate how far Birchwood had come in a year. Association officers handed out certificates to Mayor Kelli Linville, other city officials, business leaders and volunteers, thanking them for helping to improve the neighborhood.

One resident tried to bring down the evening’s mood by dismissing all the awards and saying people are still afraid to walk through the neighborhood.

Barker responded: “When you’ve set up a community that has allowed this vagrant behavior for years ... it’s not going to change itself in a couple of months.”

The attention given to homelessness in Birchwood over the past year has brought results, said Greg Winter, director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center, who received a certificate.

“We have stepped up outreach,” Winter said. “That led to a couple of people we were specifically concerned with getting help.”

More significant, Winter said, was the opportunity Birchwood presented for helping more people.

“Birchwood is the first neighborhood that reached out to our homeless coalition seeking help from our homeless housing system,” Winter said. “The experience of working with April and the association really opened our eyes to new ways of partnering with individual neighborhoods.”

Winter is also part of a coalition of churches, social-service agencies, neighborhoods and other groups seeking to help people on the verge of homelessness who have been staying at motels on Samish Way. Residents of the Aloha Motel and Villa Inn were displaced after rooms were found to be contaminated with methamphetamine.

The Birchwood approach, along with Mayor Linville’s Community Solutions Workgroup, spawned the idea of creating a neighborhood-focused homeless outreach team next year.

The team still must be approved as part of the city’s 2015-16 budget.

“As soon as possible next year after the outreach team gets established, we will have designated neighborhood association representatives who can call the outreach team when they’re concerned about a person or people living unsheltered,” Winter said.

Vagrant and homeless people have been less inclined to duck under Northwest Avenue bridge to pitch a tent, or escape with stolen beer, after the city tore down a berm that hid people under the bridge from passing cars on Squalicum Way. Now police and emergency responders can drive into that homeless camping area more easily.

Stores have reduced shoplifting by being more watchful and putting lock caps on liquor. To counter public drunkenness, some stores agreed to stop selling certain inexpensive, high-alcohol beverages.

“By putting those in place, it’s really helped deter a lot of that,” Albertsons store manager Eric Sailer said in an interview on Wednesday, Nov. 26.

By being inclusive — even of the people causing the trouble — Take Back Birchwood has come up with an approach that could help the whole city, said council member Jack Weiss, who is on the committee.

“Everybody was pretty shell-shocked at the approach,” Weiss said, describing how inspired it seemed to committee members. “Let’s not just try to kick the problem down the road. Let’s get them the assistance they need.”