Homeless Camp Cleanups: A Personal Report

Markis Dee Stidham guest writes on his personal experience with homeless in our county. He is the county council appointed Homeless Advocate for our county.

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Greetings esteemed colleagues. I am writing in this forum to make the investigation I have been conducting as an advocate for the Homeless Strategies Workgroup a matter of public record. First, I need to explain that in a town this size, many of us wear several different hats as we try to make things better for the whole. It is in that spirit I identify myself as the vice chair for Homes Now, Not Later, and the program director there as well. I am also the Homeless Advocate for Whatcom County, put there by a unanimous vote of the Whatcom County Council. The hat of homeless advocate is the hat I am wearing as I speak to you now.

My role with HomesNow is strictly solution-based as a shelter provider in Whatcom County. In no way should my investigation to uncover uncomfortable truths regarding homelessness in Whatcom County be construed as the activities or opinions of Homes Now Not Later and/or its board members.

During my tenure as Homeless Advocate, beginning July of 2019, I have engaged many participants in the Homeless Strategies Workgroup, and applaud their attention and efforts to alleviate homelessness in our community. Communication is going to be key to providing quality service in this arena. In my role as advocate, I have an inordinate amount of direct contact with the homeless population. I know them; they know me.

In our conversations, many homeless people have come to me with a consistent story of police taking all of their belongings, or trashing them during the process of what the City of Bellingham and Bellingham Police Department currently call “camp cleanups.” As these issues arose, I reported them to the HSW, but when the problems continued, I asked for permission to go out with the BPD and observe as they performed these cleanup duties. My intent was to either confirm or dispel these reports. I was very happy to receive an invitation from the BPD to ride-along but was unable to do so at that time.

At the March 30, 2020 HSW meeting, Ann Deacon of the Whatcom County Health Department advised, based on CDC recommendations, that people who were camping be left in place, as they were among the safest homeless shelters, already practicing social distancing, and usually not in a congregate setting. I asked the BPD to heed these recommendations, and was gratified when BPD Deputy Chief Flo Simon gave assurances they would comply with these national and county recommendations. I was heartened that the BPD seemed to be on top of this and had already started an emergency policy.

May

Six weeks later, I was alerted that camp cleanups were resuming and a look at the police blotter verified this. I made noise on Facebook about this and during our next weekly HomesNow meeting with BPD Chief David Doll and Bellingham City Planner Rick Sepler, Chief Doll looked into the camera on Zoom and said, “Let me make this perfectly clear to you Markis. If someone is camped out in one of our parks, they will be moved along immediately. We have zero tolerance for campers in our parks, and camping is not allowed. Furthermore, our current policy on cleanups is to leave campers where they are unless there is an egregious health issue noted, like needles, human waste, or excessive garbage and filth.” At a later date, Chief Doll would amend this verbal policy by adding a fourth component that might also qualify a camp for cleanup, any “public safety issue.”

I was concerned about the limited capacity of our shelters and the available resources in Whatcom County at the time. For instance, this was also a time when many shopkeepers had shuttered their businesses, leaving many of our homeless with no ability to use their facilities; our park facilities were also closed. This thrust our homeless citizens into much worse conditions.

At this point, I again reached out to the BPD to ask if I might observe some cleanups done under this pandemic emergency. Again, I found the BPD to be cooperative and forthcoming, and through Officer Dave Crass, we booked a ride-along date for June 3rd.

We met in the morning in the BPD parking lot where we talked over the day’s assignments. The officers were reviewing packets containing their orders for the day and coordinating with the independent cleanup crew for routing and planning. Also in attendance were two “security” officers who, according to Chief Doll, are not enforcement officers, but act as security for the independent contracted cleanup crew. Lieutenant John Knutson was my personally assigned liaison officer at the time.

I was not really sure at that point exactly who did what in the field, and was very happy to have the officers respond to my questions openly and informally. There was general agreement among all of us that transparency was important here, and I genuinely felt that. I was full of questions and knew I was missing a lot because I didn’t want to be a drag on the security officers. Officer Knutson and I occasionally lagged behind, but always caught up so I could observe what I wanted. I enjoyed a friendly banter among all three officers. It was a lot to “grok,” and as I said, I left a lot behind to be answered later.

In the interest of expediency, I will outline what I came to believe was the policy of the BPD on that day.

I had been led to believe that BPD was obeying their own moratorium and no camps were being cleaned up. But, when cleanups resumed, they were specifically going back to a backlog of all camps that had been reported during the moratorium. I established early on, with all three officers, that none of them had heard of any policy changes or recommendations from either the CDC or Whatcom County Health Department. They had no idea there had been any change in policy whatsoever, including my liaison officer, John Knutson.

June

My impression of the process as of June 3rd was: A citizen might call to complain about a camp and the police would direct that information to the Opportunity Council’s Homeless Outreach Team. The Outreach Team would establish contact and visit the camp. In a later conversation with Teri Bryant of Opportunity Council, I was told the Outreach Team makes contact, assesses needs, tries to direct people to services, and lets them know they are in an illegal site and might hear from the police. Also, Teri said if no one is present, the Team tags the camp for cleanup.

The cleanup crew, usually minus my liaison officer and me, makes the next contact with the camp. They carry aerial photographs with brightly highlighted locations for clarity on which individual campsites have been tagged. I didn’t know who was out in the field making decisions on whether a camp should be cleaned up. I had presumed it was Enforcement Officer Claudia Viscarra. Notification happens at the time officers go through encampments that have been previously notified. They give them 15 minutes to get out.

It appears to be a friendly interaction, generally… a little too friendly in some aspects, I suppose. By that I mean the exchange is very servile and deferential on the part of the homeless person. They are clearly just trying not to get involved in a legal issue with the BPD.

The smiling officers were not wearing masks during these interactions and didn’t seem to realize the power they held in this relationship. Officers often told campers they could have a little bit longer if they were actively moving their stuff, but that seemed to be the extent of the courtesy they were willing to give. There is no alternative shelter proffered to citizens as they are asked to move. When a camper asks, “Where should I go?” the answer is usually in the form of a repeated order. In some cases that order was to completely vacate an entire block. If the individual should ask again, the officer responded with the same reply. The officers attended the scene as long as the camper was present.

The deference toward the officers astounded and disconcerted me in light of such displacement, often in the rain. When the camper had vacated the site, everything they left behind was assessed for valuables by the independent contractors. According to the officers, valuables include items like bicycles, wallets, watches, and other hard items; most cloth items, especially when wet, were considered garbage. I did not see any cloth items saved. In fact, I ONLY saw a bicycle saved; but I departed with the officers, so I didn’t witness the entirety of the cleanup.

I mentioned to my liaison officer that I was specifically looking for fecal waste and/or needles.

We all searched for these items together as our day progressed. On this particular day, I saw needles in one camp, and no fecal matter in the at least six camps we cleaned up that day. We also served notice on several others. We parted company after the officer’s duties were done, around 3:30 p.m.

I hoped my observations of the discrepancy between policy and procedure would be passed on by my liaison officer to leadership at BPD. And as I reviewed my notes, I had many more questions about the sequence of events between a call requesting a cleanup, and the actual cleanup.

July

I inquired if I might attend cleanups once more, and was granted that opportunity on July 1st.

We met in the morning as before, with all new officers, including a new liaison officer, Sergeant Joseph Leighton. This day was much like the previous, only wetter, and busier. I again found the officers behaving with a similar demeanor as before, (perhaps a couple off-color homeless-related jokes, out of earshot of campers), but otherwise found them to be forthcoming. These three officers, like the previous three, had not been informed of any policy changes. However this time, I was allowed to see the written orders the officers were given to conduct these cleanups. In each case, there was a specific set of orders to proceed.

Each campsite has its own specific reason for cleanup, and each camper has their own specific set of orders, as some of them are repeat campers in an area and known to the people who decide whether the camp should be cleaned up. I was still unclear who that person was. I had presumed, as I stated, she was Code Enforcement Officer Claudia Viscara, as she was the one who typed up the orders for security officers to follow.

Some of the reasons stated on these forms for cleanup included:

● Belongings spilling onto thoroughfare

● Bicycle chop shops

● Increased crime in area

● Cleanup of every encampment on an entire street (Note: Once this reason is in print, it becomes absolute orders to any officer, and people who had just arrived and set up camp were summarily moved along with a 15 minute warning in spite of no prior contact. In some cases, a faceless voice from inside cardboard was told to move along.)

● Some people, who were repeat campers and seen as a problem, were banished from an entire block. It was easy to see that none of these reasons seemed in compliance with stated policy.

At the end of the day we went our separate ways, at least feeling good about our relationships with each other. But I concluded that day with tears in my eyes and my heart heavy at the compassionless removal of campers. Of the many camps we cleaned up that day, I observed two with needles and four sites with toilet paper with presumed fecal matter. In two days of observations, I never saw a single turd.

After an uneasy review of what I had seen that day, I decided I needed to contact Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood. On Monday, July 6th, I had a telephone conversation with Fleetwood and told him what I had observed. I suggested we needed to reallocate funds from the cleanup program by about 50% and fund tent encampments to stabilize the population we were currently compromising with this program.

He seemed genuinely concerned, and I suggested he introduce an emergency agenda item at the City Council meeting that evening. He carefully measured his words and told me he was unsure he would be able to do that for me. I thanked him for his time, and began to prepare for public comment period at that night’s council meeting.

That night, as predicted, Fleetwood did not introduce an emergency agenda item. In fact, the issue got no mention at all, until the public comment period. EVERYONE who spoke specifically addressed this issue, including me. After the public comment, when opportunity arose for councilors to speak of old and new business, they all remained silent on this issue.

The day after the council meeting, July 7th, I drafted an email to almost all of our civic leaders and asked them to please engage in the issue. Later that evening, I spoke to the County Council to alert them to the problem as well, again, without any council comment.

On Wednesday July 15th, after some back and forth with various civic leaders, Deputy Chief Flo Simon arranged a Zoom meeting. Present at that meeting and representing the Bellingham Police Department was the Deputy Chief, Lieutenant Crass, Sergeant Joe Leighton, Officer John Knutson, and enforcement officer Claudia Viscara. Representing the City of Bellingham was Mayor Seth Fleetwood, and councilors Lisa Anderson, Ward 5, and Michael Lilliquist, Ward 6.

Also in attendance was Theresa Muirs from the Opportunity Council’s Homeless Outreach Team, independent homeless advocate Shari Lapof, and me.

In this meeting I finally got to ask the question, “Who determines which camps get cleaned up?” Officer Viscara explained that when the Bellingham Police Department receives the call, they pass the information along to the Homeless Outreach Team. They claimed the HOT team reached out, per their policy, and even revisits the sites once or twice more, before determining whether to advise officer Viscara to have the camp cleaned up or left in place.

In this meeting I pointed out that absolutely none of the reasons given for camp cleanups in the written orders to the officers on the ground, were in compliance with the emergency policy as dictated by Chief Doll. Theresa Muirs from Homeless Outreach responded to this rather emotionally and raised her voice quite a bit. The way she spit the word “chop shop” was quite venomous, and I had to remind her that chop shops are in no way covered under the current stated policy nor a valid reason for camp removal. The group acquiesced to this. I also pointed out that belongings spilled onto the roadway are something our HOT team should be able to help campers with.

Muirs defended her actions. But because this had been a burning question in my heart for several weeks, I paid close attention that they were claiming that Muirs was the sole arbiter of which camps were recommended for removal. I asked specifically if Officer Viscara had gone out to see any of these camps, and the answer was no. Officer Viscara had been working remotely from home during this pandemic.

As our meeting was drawing to a close, I presented two key points I felt we all needed to acknowledge:

● Officers in the field needed to have a copy of the current emergency policy as dictated by Chief David Doll.

● Having observed there was no way to accurately judge the health of a camper without a qualified health professional present, I suggested there was no way to have compliance with Doll’s stated policy. I insisted a health professional be present at the time of the cleanups as opposed to an observation up to three weeks beforehand.

The group agreed to my two points and we parted company amicably. (A third suggestion was that officers should wear masks.)

At the City Council meeting on July 20th, the entirety of the public comment period was on the issue of homelessness and homeless relief. And again, the entire leadership of Bellingham was silent. On Friday the 24th, in our regularly scheduled weekly HomesNow meeting with Chief Doll and Bellingham City Planner Rick Sepler, we were surprised with a couple of extra guests. (I had been trying to keep my position with HomesNow as separate as I could from my role as a Homeless Advocate for Whatcom County, but this meeting was going to force an intersection of those two roles.) Present at the meeting were: Chief David Doll, Deputy Chief Flo Simon, City Councilor Hannah Stone, HomesNow chair Doug Gustafson, and me.

In this meeting we followed up and detailed how we might move forward. A few concessions were made, including Chief Doll’s agreement that a qualified health professional should be present at the time of camp cleanup, and that this person would make the final determination as to whether the camp should be cleaned up or remain, based on, ideally, health department and CDC recommendations. Chief Doll offered to reach out to the health department to see if they might have available staff to help with this. He also agreed that a written version of the current emergency policy would be included in the packets with camp clean up orders.

Furthermore, Councilor Hannah Stone requested specific written materials to help her understand the issue in more detail. HomesNow asked for a copy of this material as well. The requested items were:

● BPD camp clean up policy

● Any changes to the policy in light of the pandemic

● Definitions of “sweep” vs “camp cleanup,” and “public health and safety” concerns

● An outline/flow chart of the camp cleanup process and a record of camps that have been allowed to remain.

August

As of August 24, one month after this meeting, absolutely none of these materials have made it to Councilor Stone’s desk. After this meeting, the cleanups again stopped. I was told this was because Officer Claudia Viscara was on vacation and cleanups would not resume until August 10th, when she returned, but they did not.

A group of citizen volunteers and I often go into the streets to render aid. We offer garbage bags, water, toiletries, food, and advice on how to keep a camp clean. If others are also doing outreach to these folks it has not been readily evident, which creates an environment, I think, that is more likely to provoke a demand for cleanups. There have been sporadic camp cleanups throughout the month of August since Officer Viscarra’s return.

An email from Councilor Hannah Stone verified that the health department believes BPD is following CDC guidelines. She also said she had not received confirmation of this from the BPD. A conversation with Ann Deacon from the Whatcom County Health Department confirmed that Chief Doll gave this assurance.

As a homeless advocate for Whatcom County, I call on all civic leaders to please pay attention to this EMERGENCY issue. I realize this is a lot to unpack and will be somewhat difficult to solve.

In spite of that, I need to remind you that we are in the middle of a global pandemic emergency, Phase 2 in Whatcom County, and winter is just around the corner. There are literally hundreds of people living on our streets with absolutely no options.

I am calling for:

● 50% reduction in budget for camp cleanups

● Emergency access to other municipal, county, state, and federal funds to be applied to a fund administered by the Homeless Strategies Workgroup, or similar entity, that will provide emergency shelter, mental health, and health services for those impacted by camp cleanups. In short, bring them in and welcome them back home.

This document serves as a public record to the truth as I know it through multiple sources needed to glean my information. Please heed this call for leadership. This failure to protect the most vulnerable among us puts every one of us at risk during this challenging time. I am at your disposal day or night as we, together, forge a positive outcome to our current plight.

With the greatest respect, and expectations,

Markis Dee Stidham, Homeless Advocate on the Homeless Strategies Workgroup for Whatcom County

About Guest Writer

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jun 15, 2008

The name "Guest Writer" is used on over 100 articles by individuals who are not regular contributors. Their name and a brief bio can be found at the top or bottom [...]

Comments by Readers

Bob Burr

Sep 12, 2020

Thank you Markis for this article and for your devotion to your work.

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