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If Campers Had Housing, They Wouldn’t Be Camping

By

Douglas Gustafson guest writes, with assistance from Lisa E. Papp. Doug is Chairman of HomesNOW! Not Later, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization operating in Bellingham and Whatcom County. HomesNOW operates Unity Village, the first tiny home community for homeless individuals in Bellingham. Doug is also a small business owner providing community IT support and has lived in Bellingham since 2006.

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Three years ago, in December, 2017, I helped organize the sleep-out at Bellingham’s City Hall, which lasted for 18 days. The purpose of that “Stop The Sweeps” sleep-out was to pressure local governments into taking action to ensure that every individual who is facing homelessness would be housed immediately. The need for action was important then, but the need is even greater now. The current camp is known as the “210 Camp,” named for the address of City Hall (210 Lottie Street).

Bellingham is currently experiencing a severe lack of adequate shelter. Base Camp (the shelter managed by Lighthouse Mission Ministries) is reaching full capacity on a nightly basis, the city and county have not yet activated their emergency shelters, and the Byron Street facility has not yet opened. There is an obvious lack of shelter, and as a result, it has overflowed onto the lawn of City Hall. It all could have been prevented.

Lisa E. Papp spoke with Lois, one of the homeless people camped out in a tent in front of Bellingham’s City Hall. Lois is 60 years old and never thought she’d be homeless. She has owned homes many times over the years, was employed for decades, and has raised a family. She and her husband moved back to Whatcom County in 2019 to help out a friend. Lois was her disabled husband’s primary caregiver. On the way here they had car problems, the friend’s place was not a suitable place to stay, and then, sadly, Lois’ husband passed away. Now, she can’t find work or an affordable place to live in Bellingham. She’s been homeless for almost a year.

The “210 Camp” has been in operation since Wednesday, November 11th. Immediately after the camp was set up, campers were served with a notice from the Bellingham Police Department to vacate the city hall lawn by 8:00 a.m. Thursday, November 12th, or they would face legal consequences.

Early Thursday morning, advocates, students, activists, homeless individuals and other members of the community came out in significant numbers to observe the anticipated police action, and to protect the rights of the unsheltered individuals. Eight a.m. came and went, and there was no police action, largely due to the number of people who were there to provide witness and to protect the campers.

What started with six people camping on the lawn, has grown to over 60. Homeless individuals are camping at City Hall to make known the challenges they face and the actions that are required to implement immediate solutions.

Lois continued, “People think the homeless don’t want to work. We put out so much energy a day just to stay alive. Many homeless people are very hard workers or have a part-time job or more than one job, and still can’t afford a place to live in Bellingham.”

Unlike the camp three years ago, which was organized by HomesNOW and focused exclusively on homelessness, this camp is organized by a decentralized group of advocates, students, activists, and protesters referring to themselves as “The Collective” or “The Cooperative.” The group is not an official organization, but an affiliation of like-minded individuals involved in other advocacies such as “defunding” the police, returning land to the Coast Salish First Nations people, democratic socialism, and the Black Lives Matter movement. The camp has been popularly referred to as Bellingham Occupied Protest (BOP).

Their objectives for the camp are:

1. Policy reform, including the city’s municipal codes and administrative policies. One of these proposed code changes would be to BMC 20.15.050 Section C, to extend the maximum permit length for temporary shelters from two years to five years.

2. Formation of a worker/tenant cooperative that can be self-sustaining.

3. County purchase of modular structures to be used as shelters and deployed at as many locations as possible, either on city or county land, i.e.: Market Depot Square, former Safe Haven site, former Winterhaven site, former Clean Green site, and any other viable location. Companies in Ferndale and Everett provide affordable, easy-to-construct modular structures.

4. Safe camping sites with no conditions. No barrier/low barrier camps.

5. Cessation of sweeps/cleanups of homeless camps.

6. Reallocation of funds from the Bellingham Police Department to community programs.

The organizers have stated they are not leaving camp until all homeless folks at city hall have clear and feasible access to permanent housing solutions.

What to Expect

Homelessness will only continue to get worse if current policies regarding homeless camp sweeps/cleanups aren’t changed to provide options to those in need. There must be a way to prevent camps from forming in the first place. Put very simply, if most of these campers had housing, they would not be camping. Remember, when a camp is cleared, it doesn’t go away. Because the person has not been housed, they simply set up camp somewhere else. Then, eventually, they are moved along, once again, and the cycle repeats.

Unity Village is the first tiny home community for formerly homeless individuals in Bellingham, and is managed by HomesNOW. Many of the residents of Unity Village, were campers before they became residents, and most of them have been cleared on multiple occasions when they were stuck in the cold. Classism and gentrification are also major factors in preventing housing for those who can least afford it. Forming programs based on these assumptions has a tendency to produce faulty outcomes for homeless individuals. There is no “one size fits all” solution.

Because Unity Village was able to provide emergency/triage and transitional housing, we have not only prevented people from having to camp (reducing the cost of cleanups for the city), we have also provided better outcomes for individuals through an increased quality of life. On top of that, we have over a 40% rehousing rate, meaning 40% of our residents have found permanent housing. And that rate is rising. Having the ability to quickly and efficiently provide even the most basic housing for people will result in seeing fewer camps in town, and thus fewer cleanups, allowing those funds to go toward something more meaningful.

Lois: “I get it. I’ve been a homeowner my entire adult life. I can understand how people can be upset about the trash, the yelling, or crazy behavior of mentally ill people. I wish people would understand that there’s a difference…a difference between homeless people and mentally ill people and people with drug addictions. Just like there are differences between people who live in homes…some of them work, some of them don’t, some of them are mentally ill.”

Our program won’t prevent every illegal site, but there will be fewer of them and it will reduce the amount of repetitive police work needed to move the same person along multiple times. We will continue to do our best to house more people and provide campers a better quality of life, which will not only ensure better outcomes for them, but for the whole community in terms of health, public safety, and environmental impact.

An Ounce of Prevention, A Ton of Red Tape

The truly sad part is that this all could have been prevented. HomesNOW has been pushing for increased shelter capacity for years. As an organization, we have been eager to set up additional villages. A few weeks ago, we submitted a proposal to the city of Bellingham to set up a second tiny home village at the former Safe Haven location at 620 Alabama Street in the Sunnyland neighborhood. The city denied our proposal and instead asked for an RFQ (request for qualifications). We are being asked to compete with other sheltering agencies in order to prove we are qualified to manage city sites—sites like Unity Village, which we have been managing under the city’s watchful eye for the past two years. This requirement will only slow a cumbersome process even further.

Had this RFQ been in place two years ago, HomesNOW would not exist and there would be no Unity Village, because one of the qualifications is two years experience with sheltering. The city is effectively eliminating new organizations, such as the collective/cooperative at city hall or a new nonprofit, from providing homeless shelters. These barriers and bureaucratic processes are counterproductive because they push the ability to help people further and further out of reach.

While we’re waiting for local governments to take action to help people, the outreach team with HomesNOW, as well as other members of the community, have been donating food, supplies, cooking amenities, a generator, propane, heat, masks, hand sanitizer, batteries, tents, sleeping bags, warm clothing and other much needed items.

Ultimately, I hope the city and county will take swift action, get experimental, and embrace multiple sheltering agencies and community members in an effort to provide future shelters and villages for different segments of the homeless population. For the sake of the entire community, I hope it happens soon.

And finally, A Call to Action:

If you are able or interested in making a donation, supplies needed for the Bellingham City Hall camp-out include: food, tents, blankets, warm socks, gloves, hats, coats, clothing etc. Donations can be dropped off directly at City Hall. There is an obvious main “welcome” tent to the left/west of the main City Hall entrance at 210 Lottie St. in Bellingham.

Donations can always be dropped off at Unity Village - 210 McKenzie Ave, Bellingham - for their ongoing homeless street outreach. They have a storage unit at Unity Village as well as off-site storage donated and managed by other volunteers.

Thank you in advance for your kindness and compassion!

Comments by Readers

Abe Jacobson

Nov 23, 2020

I am very sympathetic to the situation of (a) the homeless and (b) the mentally ill. I appreciate that these are distinct, though they are blurred in the media.

 Could someone please explain to me, and to others who might also be asking the same question, what is the alleged benefit to the homeless and to the mentally ill, from others (“students”, “activists”) grafting onto this  additional causes that strike me as (at best) unrelated, such as “defund the police”?

 I for one am a montly donor to The Opportunity Council, to the Bellingham Food Bank, and to Kulshan Community Land Trust. These nonprofits are doing a great job at social support. Also, the City and County are doing what they can, but are resource-limited with our extremely regressive state tax code (no progressive income tax.)

 But I am NOT for “defund the police” (whatever that means…) So, I see this bundling of “defund the police” with homelessness as really unhelpful.

 Anyone care to enlighten me?

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Douglas Gustafson

Nov 23, 2020

To answer your question:

what is the alleged benefit to the homeless and to the mentally ill, from others (“students”, “activists”) grafting onto this  additional causes that strike me as (at best) unrelated, such as “defund the police”?

I don’t know how it benefits them. I would say it’s a mixed bag. I agree more so with having a tightly focused objective related to just homelessness and to not add all the other stuff on top. In the article I was factually describing the group and their advocacies so that the public was aware. Also that I have not been part of organizing this camp. I chose to write about it though from my perspective comparing the difference to the camp 3 years ago. They do have as one of their objectives to help homeless individuals, mentally ill, etc. But they have other advocacies as well.

While HomesNOW has been helping with supplies and knowledge related to municipal code, bylaws, setting up a non-profit, etc. We do have researvations ourselves about taping too many things together like that.

Regardless of all that though, we have 700+ homeless and there’s not enough room at the standard sheltering options. HomesNOW has been ready to set up more sites as soon as the city or county can designate some land for us to start on. We’ve already done it, and it’s already working with Unity Village, we’re just ready to do more.  I have also been trying to encourage the organizers to form their own non-profit co-op so that they can enter into contracts with local governments or individuals.

I am not for defunding the police either, defunding is only the financial side, but there’s other reforms which are needed too, such as a civilian oversight board, or an obudsman. Taking the money away but without fixing the way it works, will just create a situation where you go to dial 911 and nobody can get to you in time. (my opinion).

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Dick Conoboy

Nov 24, 2020

Doug,

I fully agree with the last paragraph of your comment above.  This “defunding” effort, although well-intentioned, was frought from the beginning of using this slogan or motto, “defund the police”.  We need to reinvent policing by looking a missions and functions.  Then the money is applied or reapportioned according to the new organizational realities. 

What about a new Citizen Health, Justice and Safety Department at County Level in which the Bellingham Police (Lynden, Ferndale, etc.), the Sheriff’s Office and the Health Department are combined and provide county-wide citizen protection from all threats.  None of the issues we are discussing stop at any city limits. 

We need some original thinking out there or otherwise we are rearranging deck chairs. 

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Douglas Gustafson

Nov 24, 2020

Totally agree that we need original thinking. We are doing our best with HomesNOW, but only one organization and only one issue (homelessness). But any kind of board or system that gives oversight over the various police departments would be a good thing. But the financial side is the least of our worries. It’s not like the county, city or state is strapped for cash, they can make it happen if they really want to.

“defund” is the red herring. There needs to be real reforms and tangible results. It can be done quickly if there’s enough pressure to do so.

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