Recent Articles

Emergency Management

By

[Guest Writer Garrett O’Brien is a lifelong resident of Bellingham and lives with his wife Brittany and their three children in the Birchwood neighborhood. Garrett has worked in the building trades since 1995, has a degree in construction management, and is the president of Volonta Corporation.] 

Alarmist language and accompanying emergency declarations often shape public policy, but not successful public policy. Tax dollars flow from the emergency-induced public policy to the balance sheets of its most strident advocates. Once funded, such advocates are free to implement programs that support their social vision, but are rarely held accountable to performance measured against clearly stated goals. 

A regional example of this phenomenon occurred in 2015, when then-mayor of Seattle, Ed Murray, declared a state of emergency, which he asserted was necessary to address the "devastating" homelessness crisis. Supported by the myriad homeless service providers set to receive the additional emergency funding, Murray confidently told the Seattle Times that Seattle "will have more administrative authority and flexibility in contracting for services and distributing resources." 

The prevailing narrative of an emergency homelessness crisis was so widely accepted that the city and Seattle Times gave little attention to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) published that same year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In contradiction to the declarations of elected officials, the report showed that homelessness in Washington state had been steadily decreasing over the previous eight-year period, belying the claim of an emergency crisis. Even less attention was afforded to the same AHAR report published in 2019 that measured the change in homelessness for the five years after the state of emergency declaration, showing that homelessness increased by 11% despite the additional funding. 

Mayor Murray was correct that the emergency declaration would authorize dramatic spending increases for homeless services. Still, there is little evidence to suggest the increased spending has been effective in reducing homelessness. The lesson: Declarations of a crisis should be supported by evidence, and proposed solutions, once implemented, should be measured for efficacy.  

Within most statistics, data can be mined to support almost any narrative or overall vision; in recognizing this axiom, it is vital to pursue evidence-based practices with clearly stated goals, routinely and objectively measured. In short, are our efforts working? 

Far from being an expert in the field of social services, I rely on, and am grateful to, the many service providers who apply their talents toward reducing homelessness and artfully navigating the immense web of funding and regulatory constraints that further complicate their job. The causes and classifications of people experiencing homelessness are nuanced, and services for veterans, families, and those struggling with drug addiction or mental health care must differ — and simply sheltering people is not an end in itself. 

Pursuing solutions to complex issues requires a plan, a commitment to the plan, and a willingness to abandon approaches that prove ineffectual. Ad hoc responses induced by inclement weather should not be accepted as a substitute for a coherent year-round strategy. We need a central command approach that provides an overarching structure to link the many disparate service providers currently serving their niche demographic.

Fortunately, small cities like Bellingham don't need to create this structure alone, and we can learn from the successful programs of others. For example, the city of San Diego, in partnership with Jewish Family Service, operates safe parking lots for people who are recently, and often for the first time, experiencing homelessness. The lots are safe, secure, and adequately staffed, allowing caseworkers to develop individual relationships and direct people toward appropriate resources. The backdrop to the program's success is a secure environment with enforced rules that prohibit drugs and alcohol, require visitor registration, and holds residents accountable to work toward securing permanent housing. 

Community Solutions is another example of a nonprofit that provides a successful blueprint to cities serious about reducing homelessness. Community Solutions provides an overarching structure that partnering cities can use as an overlay to help coordinate their existing services. Cities can use this blueprint to improve their established and diverse social service infrastructure by providing a central command and common goals. I have had the opportunity to visit a Community Solutions partner city and observe firsthand how small changes, like replacing the "point-in-time" count with an individualized "by name" count, can humanize and personalize the outreach team's efforts. 

These are just two programs I believe are worth further research and consideration as Bellingham works toward a sensible and long-term approach to reducing homelessness. As our elected officials work toward pragmatic solutions, I hope they resist alarmist rhetoric that is seldom an antecedent of successful outcomes, and are willing to challenge prevailing social narratives in pursuit of measurable success. 

Comments by Readers

Karen Steen

Feb 28, 2021

Thank you, Mr. O’Brien, for this timely reality check and solutions-based approach to Bellingham’s housing crisis. Consider also Los Angeles’ black hole of public funding for emergency housing. As with Seattle, I expect inadequate and failed programs are occurring in most west coast cities attempting to manage a national housing and mental health crisis at the local level.

Your suggestions for comprehensive, evidence-based criteria for program development and funding, together with the systemic assessments and recommendations in “The Gristle” and “Beyond Camp 210” (2/3 Cascadia Weekly), offer solutions worthy of public investment and implementation.

I hope City Hall and Bellingham citizens can emerge from the fog of a frontal assault these recent months; consider anew the public safety and fiscal responsibilities of Bellingham; and embrace solutions suggested by you, “The Gristle” and “Beyond Camp 210” (2/3 Cascadia Weekly).

Read More...

Christopher S Hudson

Mar 02, 2021

Good article, thank you. Emotional responses to perceived or actual emergencies derail critical analysis, reasoned response and assessment of actions.

Los Angeles is a classic example of throwing money at an inadequately understood social problem and hoping for the best. There is no one I encounter in Bellingham who is not concerned with our complex local homeless situation, which is part of a greater regional situation and part of a national situation. And no one has “the answer.”

I think we need a thorough census of local groups, to determine the details of that population. “The genius of the Founders was taking a tool of government and making it a tool of political empowerment for the governed over their government.” (from Census in the Constitution). Self-empowerment!

How many are homeless in greater Bellingham?

....because of financial hardship?

.... or a drug/booze lifestyle choice?

....or untreated mental illness?

....or many other reasons?

I have no idea.

Read More...

Emergency Management

By Guest WriterOn Feb 27, 2021

[Guest Writer Garrett O’Brien is a lifelong resident of Bellingham and lives with his wife Brittany and their three children in the Birchwood neighborhood. Garrett has worked in the [...]

2 comments, most recent 1 hour ago

Public Banking For The State of Washington Inching Along

By Dick ConoboyOn Feb 13, 2021

SB 5188, a substitute bill to establish a state public financial cooperative (no longer referred to as a bank) moved out of the Senate Committee on Business, Financial Services & Trade [...]

2 comments, most recent 2 weeks ago

COB Puts The BAG In A Box

By Jon HumphreyOn Feb 07, 2021

Since the City of Bellingham decided not to broadcast or record the first meeting of the Broadband Advisory Group in an open manner, I think it’s important that we [...]

3 comments, most recent 3 weeks ago

Public Banking Bill Gets A Warmer Reception In Olympia

By Dick ConoboyOn Jan 30, 2021

A hearing was held on “An act relating to the creation of the Washington state public bank” (SB5188) before the Business, Financial Services & Trade Committee of the Washington State [...]

After worker victories, The Bellingham Herald’s union is in place

By Ralph SchwartzOn Mar 02, 2021

McClatchy put up a fight, but newsroom employees at The Bellingham Herald and three other Washington newspapers got what they wanted -- a single union to represent workers at all [...]

The Reality Of Zoom And Citizen Participation

By Dick ConoboyOn Feb 21, 2021

We have entered into the age of Zoomification, book-ended by the Boomers and the Zoomers. We, the public, have now been consigned to being pixels on a screen with electronic [...]

2 comments, most recent 6 days ago

Letter: Secretary of Department of Corrections

By Letter WriterOn Feb 20, 2021

Dear Governor Inslee, I am writing to you today after learning your Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary, Stephen Sinclair is resigning. I’ve watched over the decades as many people [...]

Ranked-Choice Voting – Let’s Keep It Moving

By Stoney BirdOn Feb 12, 2021

Over 1,500 Washingtonians signed in “Pro” to the House State Government and Tribal Relations Committee’s February 8th hearing on HB 1156, sponsored by Rep. Kirsten Harris-Talley. On February 11th, the Committee [...]

1 comment, most recent 2 weeks ago

Cruising And Tourism: Wretched Excess

By Dick ConoboyOn Feb 10, 2021

A friend in Juneau, Alaska sent me this article, “Towns and businesses across Alaska brace for a second summer without cruise ship tourists” which states in part: “[Alaska] saw more [...]

4 comments, most recent 2 weeks ago

Political Pretzel Logic without Cognitive Dissonance

By Guest WriterOn Feb 09, 2021

Ray Kamada guest writes. Ray is a retired atmospheric physicist from NOAA/DoD, and is now mostly involved in climate change and renewable energy studies. - - - - - [...]

5 comments, most recent 6 days ago

Letter: Internet home service and Olympia lawmakers

By Letter WriterOn Feb 01, 2021

I’d like to express my appreciation of Jon Humphrey’s well-informed article on broadband that appeared on your website last Wednesday. Just as with health care, Americans pay more [...]

Task Force Slams Bellingham City Hall

By John ServaisOn Jan 31, 2021

The Whatcom Human Rights Task Force normally works with the police and local authorities as it pursues long term advances for human rights in our local communities. This is the [...]

Letter: Bellingham Sweep of Homeless Camp

By Letter WriterOn Jan 30, 2021

Dear Editor, 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 [...]

City Hall homeless camp cleared out a day early

By John ServaisOn Jan 28, 2021

The Bellingham Herald has a frequently updated online reporting going on all morning. Julie Shirley, the Managing Editor, is covering this herself, and doing a thorough job. Maybe underreporting on [...]

2 comments, most recent 3 weeks ago

State’s Telecom Standards Full of Loopholes

By Jon HumphreyOn Jan 27, 2021

Some say Senate Bill 5511 is a big leap forward for new Washington state broadband standards. However, after analyzing the bill, I suggest that it does what our leadership consistently does [...]

Planned Roberts Bank Terminal Threatens Orcas

By Michael RiordanOn Jan 26, 2021

Less than a mile north of the border, the Port of Vancouver is planning an enormous new container-ship terminal on the Salish Sea that Canada’s Federal Review Panel has [...]

2 comments, most recent 6 days ago

City Hall Clutches its Pearls

By John ServaisOn Jan 26, 2021

Homeless folks and their advocates from Camp 210 (the Lottie Street address of city hall), finally spoke clearly and without apology to Mayor Fleetwood and the Bellingham City Council last night, [...]

25 comments, most recent 1 month ago

Will City Double-Down to Kill Public Trail?

By Tip JohnsonOn Jan 24, 2021

Somehow an application to abandon the public’s right to a 26-year old trail in Happy Valley got through the Technical Review Committee (TRC), made it to Hearing Examiner Sharon [...]

3 comments, most recent 1 month ago

New Public Banking Bill Introduced in Olympia - Hearing On January 28th

By Dick ConoboyOn Jan 21, 2021

While several public banking bills are cooking in the legislative ovens of the U. S. Congress, a new bill (SB5188) to establish a Washington State Public Bank has been introduced [...]

5 comments, most recent 1 month ago

Satpal on Insurrection

By Guest WriterOn Jan 14, 2021

We rarely post statements from officials, this being a venue for local residents and citizens. However, Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu released this statement and, considering the dangerous time in [...]

2 comments, most recent 1 month ago