After housing shortages forced the city to pause homeless camp closures, Bellingham is continuing efforts to address the homelessness problem.
In the last four weeks, the Parks Department, Public Works Department and the Bellingham Police Department have restarted a coordinated effort to identify camps and contact the residents and coordinate cleanups, said Vanessa Blackburn, city communications director.
The city will prioritize camp cleanups based on public safety and environmental concerns. This is in response to concerns about crime associated with the camps coming from community members and city departments, Blackburn said.
Homeless since 13 years old, Blake is a Bellingham resident who asked to be identified by his first name. He said his camp on Glass Beach, officially known as Cornwall Beach, was cleared out Saturday, May 7. A friend camped beside him was notified beforehand, but didn’t tell him. The city’s outreach team gives camp residents up to five days’ notice before the cleanups.
“Luckily, I was home,” Blake said. “They were like, ‘Grab what you can. You got 10 minutes.’”
In the cleanup, Blake lost his mattress, sleeping bags and cooking supplies. He retained a backpack full of clothes, his cell phone and his bike.
“Instead of being mean to us, talk to us like you would your neighbor.”
“My camp was spotless,” Blake said. “My tarps were immaculate, strung up with tent poles. I took pride in where I lived, and they had no right to do that. The police shouldn’t be able to just push anybody out of anywhere, especially public property.”
Blackburn said homelessness is an issue throughout the West Coast and the city is addressing symptoms of the larger issue. This has meant seeking a low-barrier shelter for the city that wouldn’t turn away people who are intoxicated, high on drugs or have pets, Blackburn said.
“Long-term success will be fully funding mental health and drug addiction programs, having enough affordable housing and supportive housing for people who need homes,” Blackburn said. “We would view success as a much larger system that prevents homelessness in our community.”
Scott Browning also grew up homeless in Bellingham. He said little of the city’s anti-homelessness efforts have worked.
“They’ve got quite a few of those shelters for the meals, and that does work, but as far as the city doing away with homelessness like they said they were going to, they’ve failed,” Browning said.
Temporary, out-of-sight sleeping spots shouldn’t be seen as problems, Blake said. He said the city could make life for the homeless much easier.
“Quit covering up the power outlets everywhere,” Blake said. “That way we don’t have to break open power boxes so we can charge our phones. How are we supposed to have resumes or email contact with any potential employer if we can’t have our phones charged?”
Bellingham could also provide homeless people with jobs, such as mowing the lawn and trimming bushes in the park, Blake said.
“Long-term success will be fully funding mental health and drug addiction programs, having enough affordable housing and supportive housing for people who need homes.”
Vanessa Blackburn, city communications director
“Hire some homeless people. Give them a paycheck, and then they get to eat for a couple days, take a shower, get into a motel room and feel better about themselves. They feel more human,” Blake said.
Blake said he currently fixes bikes, dumpster dives and trades for parts — offering his services in exchange for cash or camping supplies.
“Instead of being mean to us, talk to us like you would your neighbor,” Blake said. ‘“Because whether you like it or not, we are your neighbor.”
Lighthouse Mission Ministries, The Opportunity Council and Northwest Youth Services are a few sheltering options for individuals experiencing homelessness in Bellingham.