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Bellingham
Monday, June 1, 2020

We are all responsible for the fire

By Monique Merrill

Having a home is a luxury. Having a home during the winter is lifesaving.

The responsibility for the fire at Hohl Feed & Seed lies on no single person’s shoulders. If we had to point a finger, though, that finger would point at the city.

It’s hard to live in Bellingham. Rental vacancy rates are low (.24 percent) and the average rental price is high ($985 per month). Most of the available housing is snatched up by students, as with many of the jobs.

There are housing vouchers that families and individuals in need can receive, but they usually cover about $700 and can be subject to discrimination from landlords when applying. (Yes, that is illegal. Yes, it still happens.)

Not everyone has a safety net. Even the city doesn’t provide a safety net. Shelters have been proposed and struck down for years: They’re too inconvenient, they require too many resources. Community members want to see progress, but they want that progress to happen miles away from their homes.

We, as a city and a community, can’t pretend this isn’t our problem, or that homelessness couldn’t become our reality. Some of us here at Western are as close to homelessness as defaulting on a student loan or missing rent.

The fire at Hohl Feed & Seed was tragic. It devastated a historic building and the lives of small pets. There is no arguing that the community suffered from the fire. But it’s not fair to blame someone who didn’t have the luxury of a home to keep him warm in the midst of this shortage of shelter.

A man, who the city described as a transient, was arrested for starting the fire. His bail is set at $50,000.

The fire happened after a long stretch of cold winter nights. The night time temperatures are still below freezing, and just last week police responded to another fire started outside under a bridge at the edge of downtown.

In both cases the fires were started by people without shelter. In both cases the fires were started to stay warm.

The Point In Time Count (an annual measurement of who is without home on a given night) from 2018 counted 815 people outside in Bellingham, unhomed on a January night. Before the snow this year, the city announced there were 220 bed spaces available between the Lighthouse Mission Ministries and Fountain Community Church.

Shelters are great resources, but not the answer. Some people aren’t safe in shelters, and many people don’t want to be separated from their families who often can’t find a place to stay together. They’re not longterm answers, but they’re vital on cold nights.

Weather is out of our control, but practical solutions are not and the city should recognize its role in creating desperate circumstances.

We need a comprehensive plan to create more temporary and permanent housing, not just nightly shelters. We need to provide stability.

We need to provide warmth.

The Western Front Editorial Board is composed of Dante Koplowitz-Fleming, Monique Merrill and Laura Place.

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