JC Mansfield guest writes. She has resided in Bellingham for 22 years as a mom and artist, working in childcare and bookkeeping. She is BTC alumna, AAS - Legal & Administrative Assistant, supporter of Homes NOW tiny home development, and advocate for Consumer Awareness, Human Rights, Green Energy, and the Ehler's Danlos Society for rare diseases.
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Many broken hearts in Bellingham are struggling to find their way home, seeking friendship, losing their health, losing their well-being, losing their dignity to a life of homelessness, striving for a home they may never come to know. A person’s past can be riddled with heartbreak, and their life a seesaw of estrangement, balancing sobriety with survival, sanity, and whatever version of love they receive or subscribe to from their youth into adulthood. People are not indestructible, and every person deserves a chance to meet their highest potential. When we have opportunity to thrive as individuals, we have the potential to thrive as a community. All our lives are interwoven and connected even if we cannot see it. My name is JC Mansfield and I am writing to my fellow Bellingham citizens as an advocate for homelessness rights.
Michael Anthony Watrous (February 1974 - September 2016)
My friend Michael moved to Bellingham, WA in 2013. Michael was a substance abuse survivor. Michael entered the local detox program December 2015 after a rocky relationship with a woman suffering from heroin addiction. He exited the program and returned to this strained relationship to maintain housing. The condition for this relationship was that he participate in drug activity. September 2016, Bellingham Herald reported Michael deceased from heroin overdose.
Moving to Bellingham, WA was a new beginning for Michael, an opportunity to reclaim his life. He wanted to pursue certification for drug and alcohol counseling. He was a DJ. He loved tribal drumming. He loved his cat. He loved his parents. We were high school friends, reunited after twenty years apart. Our reunion was a miracle. The circumstances of his life and death are heartbreaking to me, and I have spent four years trying to reconcile my heart to the reasons for his absence.
What is homelessness?
Homelessness is a drowning person; a person treading water trying to get back to land. They are relying on their friends and neighbors and onlookers on land to SEE them. It does not matter how they got thrown overboard or why they swam out into unsafe waters in those critical moments of survival; what matters is responsiveness to save their life. We do not sit stagnant, pondering why a person is drowning. We first get them to dry land, throw a life preserver at the very least, but get them to safety. Some will swim out into frigid waters risking their own lives to bring a drowning person back to shore. Action is what is needed for homelessness. Inaction is certain death. Once on dry safe land, then we can question how a person fell into the water, try to find better ways to avoid falling in again, but we cannot save someone who is treading water by watching them, wondering what to do, ignoring them, or worse, adding to their weight. As much as a life preserver can help, dry land is the goal. This is what I see the Housing First model providing – land.
Miracles happen when someone can swim back and survive homelessness. There are some walking miracles in our community who have impressed on us the message of how they were able to survive – and many survivors endorse the HOUSING FIRST model. No one can tread water indefinitely, and those who survive have imparted their knowledge to those of us striving to understand homelessness and find solutions. Working together is how we can improve our collective awareness, circumstances, and open doors for opportunity and advancement as a community. When municipal codes in the modern form of civic violations conflict with human survival, we must recondition ourselves to recognize and differentiate survival vs. criminal intent. Camp cleanups are the equivalent of a game of Musical Chairs, shuffling people about, with no place to sit when the music stops.
Where do homeless people go?
It is not for lack of shelter that homeless people live outdoors. A shelter has its benefits and its limitations. People resort to camping for various reasons. Some people may inhabit a vacant rental home, a shuttered up broken hotel, or a city street corner to avoid freezing to death. Some may narrowly escape death but suffer the consequences of lighting a fire to stay warm, inadvertently setting fire to the city itself. The assessment of why a person may occupy a space illegally needs further analysis when survival is the intention, and criminality is the result.
Complaint-driven law enforcement by housed people toward unhoused people has unseen yet severe ramifications that cement bias. This bias can curtail efforts toward real housing solutions, real relief, and any chance of recovery from poverty. When we overlook a person’s rights, and turn to others to determine the proper response, we defer responsibility that we innately know is ours. I deferred my responsibility to my friend to the default of my own pluralistic ignorance knowing that social services existed in our city, therefore my friend would have the sound judgment and ability to access them. This is a common misperception. I left it up to him to seek and acquire the help he needed. Unfortunately, I did not know about the circumstances that would systematically degrade his position to the point of homelessness and death.
People do not choose to be homeless
It is for lack of choices that a person becomes homeless. Sustainability is circumstantial and circumvented when a person is mired with legal infractions, criminal history, unpaid fines and fees, poor credit, limited work history, assisted living costs for disability, mental health condition, or chronic substance abuse that further incapacitates their quality of life and earning ability. Permanent housing cannot be attained if public housing is not affordable, available, or conducive to a person’s needs. When permanent or temporary shelter is not accessible, people may resort to sleeping outdoors in public places where housed citizens perceive them to be a nominal threat.
While alcohol and drug abuse are catastrophic coping mechanisms often associated with homelessness, and often fatal, the real villain of homelessness is the lack of choices that offer sustainability. Defining moments when choices are made can alter a person’s direction in life. Options that are omitted can literally cost a person the opportunity to survive. Being displaced without a support system, the very system meant to catch us when we fall, is rationally unexplainable because it means a person’s life is in a state of emergency for lacking what we all know is available, shelter. So, we do not look at homelessness with urgency, and we assume that the responsibility belongs to the person who is homeless. The grievances of persons experiencing homelessness become perpetually stagnant, at best only responded to when convenient, and at worst completely ignored; but all under a false notion that because we have community shelter, homeless people are okay.
Law enforcement and homelessness
Municipal code that defines life-sustaining activity as criminal can adversely impact our homeless community. Daily Police blotter reports give evidence of how homeless people and housed people have oppositional stances for survival. Who is the victim? The housed person who feels that transients are ruining the neighborhood, or the unhoused neighbor dependent on public access points to survive day and night when affordable housing and safe shelter conditions are absent?
Presently, homelessness intervention falls squarely on the shoulders of our local law enforcement agencies. When inequality and bias exist, application of the law may become difficult to navigate and enforce. Interpretation of the law may reflect inequality or bias in policy. It is not for lack of services that we find ourselves at a crossroad regarding homelessness. It is not for lack of caring that people are bound to poverty. Many citizens of Whatcom County expend time, energy, and money to promote a healthy lifestyle and safety nets for those who may invariably experience hardship in their lives. Despite our best efforts, we are in a cycle of pluralistic ignorance where voices go unheard despite the fight for legislative reforms. As a result, many are fatally poised for self-destruction because proper sustainability for their lives is further debilitated by negligence from those positioned to either offer assistance or categorically condemn them on a measurement of social failure.
Our police department cannot carry the weight of homelessness response or do their jobs without acknowledging the detrimental cycle of criminalizing life-sustaining activities which add to the complexity of illnesses such as addiction and substance abuse, mental and/or physical disability, lack of income, lack of family support, or any other cause for life-altering loss, trauma, or chronic pain. Without choices that afford basic needs for survival, people do in fact unnecessarily suffer and die. Illegal camp cleanups fundamentally feed a pattern of recidivism.
- The Bellingham Police Department (BPD) makes no notation that a considerable number of unhoused people have legitimate reasons for resorting to illegal camping:
- what the risk-assessment is for each individual who is relocated,
- how they are relocated,
- where they are directed to go if a shelter is or is not an option based on personal need,
- whether data is retained of each individual’s circumstances,
- whose authority is credited with evaluating the circumstances of each unhoused resident,
- how that is determined and maintained with proper oversight,
- what form of evaluation is used to confirm that a person’s situation is constitutionally justified or in fact illegal,
- whether people experiencing homelessness as a result of loss, trauma, or chronic pain need further social, legal, or professional intervention and advocacy such as an ombudsman to evaluate and legally legitimize their circumstances.
Cities that adopt housing first measures reduce their reliance on law enforcement. Housing reduces the endless cycle of legal infraction, jails, and life on the streets. Renter’s rights provide durability for permanent or long-term housing. Strengthening renter’s rights can eliminate evictions without good cause and make it unlawful to deny housing based on previous criminal record, eviction, or credit history. Providing educational reform and restorative justice programs for transitional living is essential to a healthy community.
The repercussions of illegal cleanups
BPD policy for cleanups does not address the causation for why people are not willing to utilize a shelter. It is assumed that people are choosing to break the law when in fact camping illegally, sitting and lying, urinating in public, lighting fires to stay warm during wintertime, are last resort measures when choices for survival are absent or too narrow. This perspective that a person chooses homelessness is a caste system bias that “beggars can’t be choosers” based on the social conscience that a person’s net worth and contribution dictates their value. When a person’s occupancy of public space must be earned, and they do not have equal or equitable access, we must question why. When a person must prove their worth monetarily by thriving and maintaining their personal dignity, cleanliness, sobriety, law abidance, and general self-worth measured and defined by society and social dogma, we must equip a person with every possible resource to do so. Where do you sleep? What do you eat? How do you clean yourself? Where does your waste go? How are your belongings kept safe? What is homelessness? Why would a person be unable to manage self-care? Maintaining social standards of care requires a home as a starting point. How is self-care accomplished without a home? How is self-care maintained without a support system, education, healthcare, work, mutual respect, or a sustainable income? How do homeless individuals personify an identity that has been devastated beyond repair?
How is our local BPD positioned to identify human crisis and by what protocol do they enlist assistance for social services? Who should be making the critical determination of lawlessness in our city when the bias toward homelessness is potentially life threatening to them? Is a housed person devoid of conscionable action by satisfying their warranted concern of safety? Are all homeless people criminals? Are the constitutional rights of unhoused people sheltering in place outdoors in jeopardy of being erased? These questions align with recent discussion regarding defunding, reallocating, and diffusing bloated incomes and dead-end funding in favor of diversification of duties and funds to more effective and hospitable efforts, making distinctions regarding the law, most importantly when enforcing it.
The BPD and local government intervene on behalf of homeless rights. The Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) publicly personifies the city’s collaborative effort that is culpable in making the assertion that illegal activity pertaining to homelessness is humanely dealt with in alignment with the Constitution. The summer months of 2020 have demonstrated continuance of cleanups despite Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines for sheltering in place. With the additional hazards of COVID-19, the risk to public health and safety is amplified. Lax adherence to CDC guidelines and Washington state mandates for contagion reduction have been witnessed by body-cam footage of police officers who, in the course of daily duty, lack proper COVID-19 protective equipment, specifically masks, when attending to cleanups of illegal camps. In addition, concerns have been buried by the semantics of defining cleanups as “sweeps.” The current policy of our government is equivalent to a housekeeper cleaning rooms with no walls. We are in fact witnessing a cycle of chasing undesired people away like wild animals that have nested in a back yard. We are, by extension of our police department, declaring, “You are not welcome here, you are unwanted, and you are perceived as a threat.”
Citizens are categorizing cleanups by BPD as SWEEPS because the tone dedicated to policy that limits a homeless person’s choices to one choice, with no alternative, a choice that poses high-risk, is in direct violation of their constitutional rights. The complexity of the human condition demands a more insightful approach. Homelessness is not a crime. Sweeping camps is a response measure dedicated to the housed population, not the unhoused population, which further invalidates homelessness and creates divisiveness in our community.
Municipal code violations are centered on maintaining a standard of health and safety in public settings for which we all convene and benefit from, except when it pertains to people who use these areas for self-sustainment. When we lack housing, and the resources and amenities that correspond with housing are absent (restroom access, safe storage, sleeping center, cooking center, waste and hygiene management, etc.), people resort to using public access points to survive. The choices for survival become limited, and worse, viewable for all to see and witness, no walls, no privacy, for which many are shamed into compliance by onlookers with a standard that cannot be achieved without intervention. Homelessness leaves a person naked and at the mercy of the public. This vulnerability is further indoctrinated with shame-based reprisals in the form of social bias, civic mandates, and ostracization from public accessibility to dining, restrooms, shopping centers, and parks, indeed, to any public setting ordinarily purposed for general public use. Homelessness becomes a target for blatant corrosive disdain that keeps the workforce under a supposed healthy peer pressure, when in fact, these societal expectations become judgments and ridicule that plummets self-esteem of people already experiencing trauma, loss, and/or pain. With little or no opportunity to rise out of their circumstances, people become dependent on the kindness of strangers and/or exploited by those who prey on vulnerability.
Municipal code violations may eventually result in arrests if we continue to criminalize homelessness. Homeless people are human beings whose lives have been reduced to institutionalized poverty. Where are they supposed to go? What are they supposed to do? Die on our streets? Die in jail? This is the brutal context for which local citizens are vocalizing complaints to local government. These complaints are not a criticism of city council members or county council members or the BPD as individuals; citizens are sounding an alarm in defense of human rights, a need for action rather than complacency, to assist our underrepresented unseen citizens. We have the resources, but do we have the political will and representation of the people to prioritize human life? Do we have a methodology to promote health and well-being for the lives who are already impacted by trauma?
Restorative Justice programs may be needed to diffuse the debilitating conflict arising from criminalizing poverty. We may need mitigation groups to counter various repeat municipal code violations, “scofflaw” for parking, sitting, lying, sleeping, living, and breathing illegally in spaces where targeted persons are unwanted, incapacitated, underrepresented, unhoused, and when policy conflicts with a person’s right to exist.
Re-entry into society can be a difficult feat. How do we bridge the gaps for sustaining a person’s life? We do not have the fail safes to catch our dependently housed population who are poised to become categorically homeless and by default of circumstances, criminalized. We cannot sustain our current unhoused population indefinitely. Despite the Home Fund, the various nonprofit efforts, the network of civic responsiveness, the life preservers we have in place are not sustainable.
Bellingham Municipal Codes ofte attributed to people experiencing homelessness.
- Disorderly Conduct 10.24.010
- Urinating in Public 10.24.020
- Sitting or Lying 10.24.070
- Parking 11.33 (general)
- Overnight Parking 8.04.050 (parks and public spaces)
- Overnight Campig 804.080 (parks and public spaces)
- Litter Control 10.60.280
- Pedestrian Interference 10.24.020
Resources for homelessness advocacy:
National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty https://nlchp.org/
HRAP Homeless Rights Advocacy Project
Legal occupancy of Bellingham, WA
The city has designated a navigation center for homelessness called Base Camp coordinated by Lighthouse Mission Ministries (LMM). Base Camp was manifested by relocating the crippled Drop-in Center facility (repurposed for emergency winter shelter 2016 through 2019 by emergency ordinance) to the Bellingham High School, and then to the Public Market building. This effort was implemented to meet shelter-in-place and social distancing CDC guidelines during COVID 19 with emergency funding.
Base Camp recently gained approval for new zoning for Municipal code enforcement downtown in proximity of the Public Market building. The goal is to minimize conflict and safeguard Base Camp guests. The city approved the request to expand the protection zone in late September 2020 (reference: COB-Agenda-Item-22665-Expansion-of-Basecamp-Protection-Zone.pdf). This zoning also satisfies complaints from outlying businesses experiencing negative reports due to homelessness activity outside. While it is justifiable to enforce safety protocols for these high-volume public areas, we must also consider the detriments to the people these laws impact when enforced. There are reasons why people congregate near Base Camp but refuse to go inside. There are reasons why people are challenging the law. Not all reasons are with criminal intention, and it is important to differentiate the law-abiders resorting to survival and the intentional abusers of the law seeking to deliberately cause civil disruption or harm. How will our BPD maintain this site? Where will people be shuffled to next when the legal choice of residing at Base Camp conflicts with their personal objections not to?
Is there a solution for people who will not or cannot reside inside Base Camp, but have been dislocated from illegal campsites that are “cleaned up”? Where do people legally go when they cannot go to Base Camp? Camp cleanups have continued through summer months of COVID 19 shelter-in-place mandates.
How can the BPD Constitutionally relocate an illegal campsite if the campers cannot reside at Base Camp? The BPD does not offer or establish any option or legal location for people to move along to other than Base Camp which is a limited and sometimes compromising option. Choices are missing.
Bellingham City Hall December 2017 event for Homelessness Awareness/Stop the Sweeps became a campsite of over fifty unhoused people who were evacuated from camping on the lawn after two weeks. During the two-week event, campers provided public testimony and record of personal reasons for why using the local shelter posed risk to their health and safety.
A week before Christmas, the most charitable time of the year, campers were told that the shelter had enough beds to accommodate them despite their public testimonies for why sleeping at the shelter posed more risk than camping outdoors. The city used WA state law as a legal premise for evacuating the lawn. Three more lives were lost to winter conditions after the site was evacuated. Citizens interpreted this action to mean the city government prioritized WA state law protecting the lawn over WA state law protecting people experiencing homelessness (because special needs of our homeless neighbors were not acknowledged).
The point-in-time headcount of campers is not the only consideration to be made when identifying options for legal occupancy. Campers at the 2017 event were increasing daily and made visible on City Hall property during the camp event. Concerned citizens contemplated contacting the Red Cross to assist the effort. Had the campsite permit been extended, it is likely the population on the lawn would have doubled or tripled in size given the rate of rising occupancy from Dec 3 – Dec 18. For all intents and purposes, the magnitude of this concern and persons impacted could easily have resulted in a class-action lawsuit against the City of Bellingham. Citizens chose instead to redirect their energies towards solutions for housing and proceeded with establishing ordinances at county and city for implementing emergency homelessness sites.
Constitutional Amendments can provide a reference guide for sound practices for establishing, reforming, and enforcing policies that impact homelessness. Local government fundamentally avoids responsibility by not challenging dated policy that resembles social exclusion predating the Civil Rights Law of 1964. The misinterpretation of the Martin vs. City of Boise ruling is one example of how city government can place an unfair vice-grip on our unhoused neighbors.
In response to local concerns of homeless “sweeps” this summer 2020, BPD issued a formal document to clarify policy for removal of illegal camps. The legal reference the BPD uses for justifying local complaint-driven cleanups is that the Martin vs. City of Boise ruling supports BPD activity when a shelter is present. This generalization does not consider the vast members of our community who cannot and will not use the local shelter for extenuating circumstances that pose health risk. The BPD has made the formal declaration that law enforcement is authorized to remove illegal camps because our city and county has a funded shelter as an alternative to illegal camping. This BPD interpretation and shelter provision falls short of the ruling because the sector of our homeless population who have special needs are categorically excluded from this analysis, meaning, the shelter in reality cannot accommodate all demographics of homeless people or the entirety of the existing population. The argument that the BPD is using for their determination that enforcing cleanups is justifiable must include more than general bed availability.
Special needs for some persons
Shelters impact persons with special needs. Categories of special needs for homelessness can include but are not limited to complications such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), disabilities (mental and physical), probability of theft when requiring safe storage, risk to personal safety such as violence, abuse, or rape, and restrictive or dogmatic adherence to routines conditional to accessing a public resource. These limitations that compromise a person’s situation and obstruct their legal rights, can cause separation of families/pets, can be triggers to mental health or chronic illness including substance abuse, and in extreme cases, can provoke volatile behavior that reduces personal safety of the individual and those in close proximity.
The ruling of Martin vs. Boise identifies that local shelter and/or legal camping is a requirement, and that enforcing Municipal code can potentially conflict with 8th, 13th, 14th Constitutional amendments. WA state law also identifies the Homestead Act in instances where people resort to living in a vehicle. We have a local shelter; we do not have legal camping or designated public space as an alternative to the shelter when the shelter is not equipped to satisfy all homelessness situations.
The Homeless Strategies Workgroup is trying to identify local partners to host additional sites for relief; meanwhile, this generalized interpretation of Martin vs. Boise ruling by the BPD presumes there are adequate choices, that the shelter satisfies the overall need, and that homeless people are choosing homelessness by not using Base Camp. If the Golden Standard for legal occupation of space is to reside at Base Camp, then camping illegally, sitting and lying in public restricted areas, and other such means for survival are perceived by law enforcement as deliberately scoffing the law (scofflaw).
The cost of illegal cleanups of homeless camps in Bellingham between 2014 and 2017 is publicly recorded as over $215K. The revelation of this data is the primary argument for why citizens advocate for homelessness rights and affordable alternative housing such as tiny home communities, rather than endorsing sweeps or lawsuits. Citizens feel these funds would be better allocated toward housing efforts and social services for restoring and stabilizing a person’s life and livelihood in cooperation with local government. Reallocation of funds for cleanups toward restorative services and affordable housing options can potentially reduce and replace illegal camping.
Choices open doors
The Homeless Strategies Workgroup manifested from citizen outreach and public concern for homelessness. This network of community advocates works for both short and long-term objectives impacting our unhoused community. The simplest measures to afford human dignity to our unhoused neighbors has proven to be achievable by citizen outreach efforts, yet we are bound by political stagnation, indistinguishable conflicts of interest, and lack of priority. Local citizens are upset with local government because they know the death toll, the hazards, the measured risks, and what is at stake. Local citizens cannot comprehend the lack of immediate human aid and responsiveness, the length of time it has taken to get where we barely are after 15 years since 2005 when WA state guidelines for homelessness directed all municipalities to pursue a 10-year plan to end homelessness.
Wintertime poses greater difficulty for residing outdoors, so a proposal to use pallet shelters by local hosted sites could afford a solution. Is Bellingham ready to invite their neighbors indoors? Do we have neighborhood lots, land, churches, citizens willing to host an emergency site? Homes NOW! Not Later is coordinating ongoing efforts and willing to partner with the city, county, and local citizens to help host sites. A request for proposal (RFP) may spur local interest groups to rise to the occasion.
I support the Housing First model. I support the tiny home development spearheaded by Homes NOW! Not Later… because this model works. Our homeless neighbors need us. We can provide more choices and avenues for stability by embracing this model in Bellingham neighborhoods. If every Bellingham neighborhood could identify at least one site to host a tiny home village, imagine the lives and dignity restored – an end to homelessness in our city – people thriving, not just surviving.
We can best honor our living neighbors by providing choices. We can honor our lost loved ones by ensuring that present and future neighbors survive displacement. Human displacement can occur anywhere to anyone. Natural catastrophe, war, immigration, and homelessness cause displacement. We can alter the bystander effect by offering choices that meet the criteria of a person’s needs, not just settle for what we know is not working. What are alternative options we can provide our unhoused community that aligns with their health and well-being? What is the missing stopgap measure or measures we need? How do we endorse these measures to better sustain our community collective, with equitability, and overall livelihood? What are we missing that can improve lives? We need to look beyond the common practices we have inherited, the path of least resistance that lets us off the hook, and be skeptical of our own bias that delays action and responsibility for what is causing suffering around us.
Conveying citizen observations to local government is our responsibility, despite the style of delivery. These observations by local citizens need attention, can open doors to vital safety nets, close the gaps of disparity, and save lives, maybe even our own. We are more than our net worth. We are more than a hostile platform for shaming our government into compliance. We are the highest return on investment in a cooperative effort as the seat of local governance, the people. Our quality of life is the priority for sustaining a healthy community. Every person experiencing homelessness has a name, a face, and a beating heart. This is Michael’s legacy from me to you, my memory of him smiling with a sparkle in his eye, to the beat of his own drum in Bellingham. His legacy to me is a living testament of the truth, that homelessness is not a crime. I wish I did not have to learn that lesson the hard way. Maybe with these words, others will not have to.