Temporary homeless encampments are now legal in Bellingham, which spends more than $1 million every year on homelessness, after the Bellingham City Council passed an emergency ordinance provision on Monday.
The Bellingham City Council passed the provision after an executive session held earlier Monday, bringing city law in line with a state law allowing religious organizations to host temporary tent encampments. The ordinance allows camps to remain in place for six months with the possibility of a 90-day extension.
Members of the community came to speak about homelessness, citing concerns about people’s living conditions, the safety of women and transgender people and the effectiveness of measures aimed at ending homelessness.
Planning and Community Development Director Rick Sepler said the new ordinance will allow the city to review an application for establishing a camp quickly by waiving unnecessary requirements.
“If we waited and used conventional means, it would take at least six months to meet our statutory notice requirements, do environmental review and process this — which means that someone who came forward would have to wait six months from now before being able to consider doing this work,” Sepler said.
All council members voted in favor of the emergency ordinance except Council Chair Roxanne Murphy, who said it was not good enough in its current form, as it was rushed through the executive session.
Councilmember Murphy said she envied other cities’ programs, but the solutions must be proportional and fit in Bellingham’s financial framework. She said she wanted to help provide affordable housing support and help with mental health and substance use.
A public hearing will be held within 60 days to take comment on the ordinance with the aim of developing permanent rules, Sepler said. Discussions could also touch on the use of public locations for camps, he said.
Sepler said 100-person camps are hard to manage, especially for a city like Bellingham which should opt for smaller, more manageable camps. This would help in terms of sanitation, for example.
Mayor Linville said she was open to the idea of the city providing dumpsters and portable restrooms to homeless camps, tiny homes and religious organizations after these were requested by community members camping in front of City Hall in solidarity for those experiencing homelessness last December.
Community speaker Amy Glasser and other community members shared safety concerns for the current resources for homelessness. She brought up the issue of public and portable toilets being inaccessible after 10 p.m. during the public comment period.
“It might not be enough, but we’re trying.”
MICHAEL LILLIQUIST, CITY COUNCILMEMBER
Linville said that while it was challenging as a few people were misusing them, a better solution could be found quickly.
Community speaker Michael Studhoff said the Lighthouse Mission was the only option for many people experiencing homelessness other than being chased from one camp to the next.
“Many women are in danger at this facility, those who have been raped are forced to stay with their attacker if they care to seek shelter,” Studhoff said. “They’d rather face the elements and dangers of camping outside, struggling with basic needs, rather than stay in the vicinity of their harassers.”
Executive Director Lighthouse Mission Ministries Hans Erchinger-Davis, who was not at the event, commented on the concerns.
He said there was a police report about a sexual assault that happened a few blocks away from the drop-in center among people who had stayed there, but he was not aware of any cases within the facility itself.
“We do have some really challenging people. Thankfully we have staff there 24/7. We have a large open area which we monitor so there is nowhere for sexual assault to happen,” he said.
Erchinger-Davis said he could imagine groping going unnoticed if unreported. He said there was potential for some harassment and there has been domestic violence between partners occasionally. He said men and women only mingle during the day and sleep in separate facilities at the drop-in center.
He encouraged reporting to the police about any incident occurring at or among people staying at shelters.
“We have a safety plan process before returning to our services. If someone has a restraining order against someone else, we work with that person first to ensure their safety,” Erchinger-Davis said.
Councilmember Michael Lilliquist said that while tent camps are necessary now, he looks forward to long-term brick and mortar solutions which the city is supporting, such as the proposed 200-person shelter which has faced several setbacks.
“It might not be enough, but we’re trying,” Lilliquist said, in response to community speakers skeptical of the use of large shared spaces.
Jim Peterson, HomesNOW! Not Later president, who spoke first during the comment period. He said the proposed 200-bed shelter was just a way of hiding the homelessness problem.
Councilmember April Barker said addressing employment, housing, consumer finance options and healthcare are important to help people stay on their feet. She said 70 percent of low income earners are not able to get help with legal problems and this should also be addressed.