As we bear witness to the aggressive removal of unhoused people from the encampment at City Hall, we should remember this sort of combative response to people power is not new in Bellingham. The beginning of the U.S. Army occupation in this region was marked by the forced removal of people from their homes in order to construct a watchtower and prison. Bellingham is no stranger to militaristic actions disguised as “public safety measures.”
My question is: if safety for all is what Mayor Seth Fleetwood portends to care about, why the need for SWAT officers, paramilitary units, Customs and Border Patrol officers, rooftop spotters, weapons, bulldozers, vehicles and police, from both Bellingham and out of town? No city is safe when occupied by agents of state terror. Far from advocating for his houseless constituents, Seth Fleetwood has waged war against them.
This is maddening, considering that Mayor Seth Fleetwood campaigned with the promise of addressing homelessness. He claims in his website that his second priority is “working towards collaborative and effective solutions to Bellingham’s homelessness problem.” His first priority is to “maintain the highest quality level of essential public services for our residents.” And yet, in the last week, he has: authorized the cancellation of essential sanitary services to the portable toilets at Camp 210; ignored CDC guidelines regarding health risks of evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic; overseen a violent sweep of unhoused people and their belongings and; broke his promise by ordering the sweep 24 hours before schedule. It has become glaringly obvious that Seth Fleetwood is not so much concerned with ending the root causes of homelessness as he is with ending public display of it.
Advocates from Camp 210 and community supporters have been actively and consistently showing up to City Council meetings and Homeless Strategy Workgroup meetings. They have presented multiple, clear and concrete action steps for increasing safe housing options, including the construction of pallet shelters (a project for which they had already secured a construction company and identified a realistic source of funding), and the transformation of empty buildings like Motel 6. One of the main authorities of the mayor’s office is the ability to expropriate unused properties. In the middle of a pandemic, there have never been more unused properties in Bellingham. This should mean that it has never been easier for city government to create safe housing for its community.
The City of Bellingham insists that there exists more space at Base Camp, a program offshoot of Lighthouse Mission Ministries. This is misleading, as any remaining space at Base Camp is nowhere near enough to house the 150+ people at Camp 210, not to mention all the other unhoused people throughout Bellingham. It also overlooks the urgent need for securing dignified housing. Lighthouse Mission (which includes Base Camp) and several other shelters in town have faced criticism for offering support conditionally and condescendingly. Many existing shelters force religious views and discriminate based on mental health status and addiction struggles. Several have sexual assault allegations. Most adopt savioristic attitudes and support the myth of meritocracy—the idea that only people who work hard and follow the rules deserve housing. These are only some of the many ways existing shelters in Bellingham have denied folks’ humanity and dignity.
I am calling on Mayor Seth Fleetwood to make reparations for the damage he has done in terrorizing the community, both housed and houseless. He must secure safe housing for every individual in Bellingham, and publicly apologize to the entire community for waging war on our streets.
Marii Herlinger, Bellingham, Washington