Cities still can’t ban homeless from sleeping in parks. Here’s what that means here

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 of Bellingham spent $209,168 last year cleaning up illegal homeless camps under bridges, on streets and sidewalks, and in parks and trails in the city.

The 2018 amount was among the information the city shared with The Bellingham Herald while answering questions about the impact, if any, of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision, earlier this month, to reject a request from the city of Boise, Idaho, to reconsider the court’s September 2018 ruling.

That ruling grew out of a 2009 case in which six homeless people sued the city because it prohibited sleeping in public places and cited people for doing so under its “anti-camping” ordinance. The court sided with the homeless, saying its enforcement violated the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment

At the time, Boise had three homeless shelters. But they had a limited number of beds, sometimes restricted who could use the shelters and sometimes required people to take part in religious programming.

The federal appeals court ruled that people can’t be prosecuted for living outside if there aren’t enough shelter beds, essentially if they have no alternative to sleeping outside.

Its ruling rippled out to other West Coast cities, including Bellingham, that are grappling with homelessness.

Here’s what Bellingham officials said about the impact of the court’s decision to not reconsider its own case.

Vanessa Blackburn, the city’s spokeswoman, responded to The Bellingham Herald’s questions in consultation with City Attorney Peter Ruffatto, Police Chief David Doll and Planning Director Rick Sepler.

Items in parentheses are provided by The Bellingham Herald for further clarification. The city’s responses were lightly edited.

How did the latest court decision affect the city of Bellingham?

A: The 9th Circuit ruling did not impact the ability of the city of Bellingham to enforce its no-sitting-and-lying ordinance or its rules against camping in parks for a few reasons.

One, there has been capacity at the Drop-In Center and other shelters within the city of Bellingham. (The Drop-In Center is the emergency overnight shelter at 1013 W. Holly St. run by Lighthouse Mission Ministries.)

For example, during the recent period of severe weather, the Drop-In Center and other shelters had sufficient capacity to house those who are experiencing homelessness.

Two, Bellingham’s prohibition against sitting and lying on sidewalks is limited to the hours of 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and applies only to the Central Business District (downtown) and the Fairhaven Business District.

(In a previous Bellingham Herald article, Ruffatto also said he didn’t expect the ruling to affect Bellingham because its ban wasn’t citywide.)

Bellingham Police officers will issue a citation/infraction only after the Homeless Outreach Team attempts to connect individuals with services.

(The Homeless Outreach Team is run by the Whatcom Homeless Service Center, which is a program of the non-profit Opportunity Council.)

And Bellingham’s ordinance that prohibits sitting and lying on sidewalks requires a warning and previous violations before a misdemeanor citation can be issued.

Enforcement is in response to complaints by members of the community.

What is the process for camp cleanups?

A: The city receives a complaint either through email, online or phone. Then we contact the individuals in the camp and provide information immediately about services that are available in the community. At the same time, we assess cleanup priority based upon public safety issues, environmental impacts and number of complaints received.

If a camp is to be cleaned up, we then give notice that the city will be cleaning up the camp.

Part of the outreach includes notifying the Homeless Outreach Team, so they can connect individuals with service.

Most cleanups are then scheduled for the following week, and campers are usually given five days’ notice.

We make sure they are aware that the Drop-in Center and other services are available, in case they move out before the Homeless Outreach Team makes contact.

We provide an extension if needed, depending on the individual circumstances.

How is the city helping those who are homeless?

A: Mayor Kelli Linville believes in safe places for all people in Bellingham and has directed city staff to work on a comprehensive plan to address not only the effects of homelessness that we see today, but also the underlying causes.

This includes preservation of existing facilities and development of new programs and housing for people experiencing homelessness, and we do that through a variety of means.

The mayor has directed staff to ensure there are places for people to go, and while not everyone who is camping in our forests, stream corridors or streets is interested in moving, we need to offer the choice.

The city partners with and provides funding to several organizations that provide emergency overnight shelter, day center accommodations and safe camping for people experiencing homelessness.

The city also provides funding for rental assistance, housing stability and emergency housing vouchers through a variety of nonprofits in our community, such as the Opportunity Council, Northwest Youth Services, DVSAS (Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services), YWCA, Lydia Place and Catholic Community Services.

Learn more at the city of Bellingham’s 2019 “winter actions” page.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.