While the city works on a way to shelter more people experiencing homelessness with fewer restrictions, staff will continue to break up illegal campsites.
“We’ve all been getting more concerns that we’ve stopped cleaning up the camps,” Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said.
For a time, various city departments — police, public works, parks — were breaking up maybe 15 camps per week and cleaning up debris, but that work was paused because the number of places to send homeless people dwindled, Linville said.
“I didn’t want to just move people along. ... I don’t want to just be cleaning up 15 camps a week and then starting another 15, which is what was happening,” Linville said. “The whole premise was for those that were willing to have another place to be. For a while, we did.”
What we’ve seen is not paying more attention to this isn’t helping the people, it isn’t helping the public health, and it isn’t helping the environment.
Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville
But since the enforcement was stopped, the issue hasn’t gotten better.
“What we’ve seen is not paying more attention to this isn’t helping the people, it isn’t helping the public health, and it isn’t helping the environment,” Linville said.
As the city is told about or finds a camp, that information will be passed to the police department, which will compile a list of the campsites. Police, parks, or public works staff will visit and assess each campsite, depending on where it is located, and then coordinate a cleanup.
The city’s Homeless Outreach Team, or HOT team, which operates through the Opportunity Council, can work with people who may be living in the camps to try to connect them with services. They may have up to five days under a grace period, if it takes that long, to work with people before enforcement action.
“The concept of a low-barrier shelter is that they try to be as inclusive as possible for lots of different types of people who may have situations that may prevent them from going into other shelters,” said Vanessa Blackburn, city spokesperson.
Some housing shelters don’t allow people who are intoxicated or high on drugs to spend the night, while others may have policies against pets or sleeping with a partner, or may have religious affiliations that are disagreeable for some people.
The city is working to find a location for a low-barrier shelter that wouldn’t have such restrictions, with the hope that a community partner can operate the shelter.
“The sooner we have some transitional place for people to be, I am going to feel much better moving people away from all the places we don’t feel are appropriate,” Linville said to Bellingham City Council in an update Monday night, April 18.
Linville told council about a list of projects city staff and community organizations are working on to reduce or address homelessness in the city.
The city helped secure $6 million in the state’s capital budget to help Northwest Youth Services with a new project to continue addressing youth homelessness, she said.
Lydia Place is working with Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services on a housing expansion, and Mercy Housing Northwest is looking to build an 80-apartment, affordable-housing project for extremely low and low-income seniors.
In addition to the low-barrier shelter, the city has talked to some faith-based organizations about the potential for things like a place for people to safely park with access to sanitation and water, or having families adopt a person or a family to shelter or care for, Linville said.
“These are all ideas I have that haven’t been agreed to by anyone yet,” Linville said in an interview. “We’re trying to break the cycle.”