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Homeless camp in front of Bellingham City Hall, call for housing

Atiba Fleming, left, Laura Rawes, and Dane Loewen pose for a photo outside Bellingham City Hall. Rawes, who was homeless until she got a place in supportive housing in 2015, gathered a group of homeless people who camped on the lawn May 1 and 2 to call for housing and shelter.
Atiba Fleming, left, Laura Rawes, and Dane Loewen pose for a photo outside Bellingham City Hall. Rawes, who was homeless until she got a place in supportive housing in 2015, gathered a group of homeless people who camped on the lawn May 1 and 2 to call for housing and shelter. swohlfeil@bhamherald.com

Two weeks after Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville announced the city would again break up homeless camps, several people without stable housing set up camp in front of City Hall.

Laura Rawes, 44, said she was lucky to have been placed in supportive housing at Francis Place, but she wanted to set up a camp with her friends who were still unsheltered.

“I wanted to help my homeless brothers and sisters,” Rawes said.

Rawes and two others slept under tarps strung up between a handful of trees on the lawn Sunday, May 1, in order to be there for Monday’s Bellingham City Council meetings, which take place throughout the day. They were joined by more people Monday night, May 2, and planned to clear out May 3.

I want them to maybe set up a place for my friends with a toilet, a place to wash, garbage service, and a place they can call their own, like a space in the woods and it needs to be safe. Think of how much money you’ll save on cleanups.

Laura Rawes, on what Bellingham should do to address homelessness

Rawes said she got the the idea to bring attention to the issue by camping in front of City Hall from the Homeless Outreach Team, which works directly with homeless to connect them with services.

Being at City Hall would give them the chance to talk to the mayor, city council members and city staff. Rawes wants stable housing for all, and until that happens, at least a safe place to camp.

“I want them to maybe set up a place for my friends with a toilet, a place to wash, garbage service, and a place they can call their own,” Rawes said, “like a space in the woods, and it needs to be safe. Think of how much money you’ll save on cleanups.”

The city had halted clearing out camps, but after realizing that wasn’t helping the people who are camping, the environment or the public, Linville announced the city’s police, parks, and public works departments would start clearing out camps again in late April.

“If you stay 25 feet from water, if you pick up your trash, what’s the problem?” asked 36-year-old Atiba Fleming, who stayed outside City Hall. “We are individuals too. We are people.”

City staff members ordered a portable toilet be placed on the City Hall lawn so people could use it Monday night when the building was locked.

Linville went out to speak with Rawes and others camped in front of City Hall to let them know she and city staff members have been working to get a low-barrier shelter somewhere in the city.

Such a shelter would be open to people who may not meet the requirements of other shelters, such as couples who want to stay together, people with pets, and people who may be high or drunk.

“I didn’t view this as a protest,” Linville said. “I viewed it as a demonstration of support for what we are doing.”

Contributing issues

The city has focused on supportive services and funded the Homeless Outreach Team to try to help address the extenuating circumstances that often land people on the street.

A lack of case management for mental illness or health issues, not knowing where or how to sign up for social services, making sure to follow up when you’re on a waiting list, being the victim of domestic violence, and injuries preventing people from working are just a few of the factors that can contribute to someone having unstable housing.

My relatives can only do so much for me.

Dane Loewen, who was injured and hasn’t had stable housing for two years

Fleming said he grew up in Trinidad, eventually moved to Seattle and has been stuck in Whatcom County since he was convicted for residential burglary here in 2005. He said he suffers from PTSD, bipolar disorder and other health issues.

Fleming said he asked to be released in King County when his prison sentence was up, but they returned him to Whatcom, where the charge originated.

He said he thought Bellingham could prevent the larger housing crisis happening in Seattle if it takes action now.

“This town has so much ... potential,” Fleming said. “They can stop what’s happening in Seattle before it hits here.”

Dane Loewen, 52, said he camped in front of City Hall Sunday night because he arrived back in town after the Lighthouse Mission had closed for the evening, and Rawes had approached him at a park to let him know about the demonstration.

Loewen said it’s been two years since he had stable housing. He was injured on the job.

“My relatives can only do so much for me,” Loewen said.

Rawes said mental health and domestic violence contributed to her being homeless, and she appreciated living at Francis Place, where she has a case manager to keep her on track and make sure she is doing well.

Before she was placed there, she was camping in Bellingham. She thinks clearing out the camps is wrong and doesn’t give people sufficient time to move.

“The homeless take a lot of time to move stuff from place to place,” Rawes said. “That’s not OK. That’s criminalizing the homeless.”

Low-barrier shelter

The city is looking at properties that might be able to serve as a shelter that would be operated by a partner organization. There have been talks with the Lighthouse Mission, which already operates shelter and transitional housing spaces.

“We visited Port (of Bellingham)-owned properties, and we’re going through city properties to see if anything would be suitable,” said Rick Sepler, city planning director. “That’s the first step.”

The city would prefer to find an existing building, rather than construct a new one, because that space is needed right away, Sepler said.

“We are trying to find a feasible choice for people who want to be sheltered,” Sepler said. “The Lighthouse is now willing to operate a low-barrier shelter, to allow couples, people with pets, people under the influence, and to their credit, they’ve said they would do a secular shelter.”

Finding a building or site may prove tough. The city, which has been searching for about 90 days, already found a building to lease for the shelter, but the owners rejected the offer when they found out what it would be used for, Sepler said.

Once the city finds a building, it may be difficult to convince neighbors that the shelter should be allowed there, but the Lighthouse has proven it can work well with the neighbors, Sepler said.

“The Lighthouse have been extraordinary in policing their shelter and being good stewards to the neighborhood,” Sepler said.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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