By Zoe Buchli
During the public comment period of the city council meeting on Monday, Feb. 11, community members addressed the Bellingham City Council and demanded the city do more to provide shelter for people experiencing homelessness when temperatures outside are below freezing.
Mayor Kelli Linville opened public comment with an update on the issue, saying the Lighthouse Mission Ministries, Fountain Community Church, Winter Haven and the Bellingham Public Library are providing different levels of service at different times.
“I feel like we have a variety of options for those of our residents that are unsheltered,” she said. “And we still have some capacity in those beds.”
She added that Winter Haven, a temporary encampment for the winter months set up by HomesNOW!, has been able to purchase vouchers to house its residents in hotels while temperatures remain below freezing, and HomesNOW! has secured a church further out in the county to shelter more people.
Linville said no one has been turned away from the Lighthouse Mission Ministries, and the barriers for access at the mission are lower because of the weather.
In a Feb. 11 press release, Linville issued an emergency proclamation due to the winter storm conditions that began on Feb. 8. According to the press release, the proclamation enables the city to open a temporary shelter location if the mission reaches capacity.
The city is working on this contingency plan for an emergency shelter in case the number of available beds at the drop-in center run out, but finding staff for another facility is difficult, Linville said.
Councilmember April Barker said the Whatcom Transportation Authority is allowing people to stay on the bus and ride as long as they follow the rules of conduct, and is giving people free rides to shelter locations.
WTA would never deny someone who is in need of a ride to a shelter location as long as the location is on one of their fixed routes, WTA Community Relations and Marketing Manager Maureen McCarthy said.
Barker said WTA has also extended the hours of the downtown station and has parked a warming bus at its Cordata station.
Lighthouse Mission Ministries Associate Executive Director Bridget Reeves spoke during the public comment period and shared information about the status of the mission over the past week. She said because of a collapsed pipe, the mission has been without water for a week.
Because of the extreme conditions, there are extra people coming into the drop-in center and staff are stretched thin for providing services in the community, Reeves said.
Several community members experiencing homelessness as well as other community members spoke about the lack of safety and accessibility of the drop-in center.
“I was recently [at the drop-in center], and my stay wasn’t pleasant,” a Winter Haven resident said.
The resident said he had sentimental items stolen, and the drop-in center didn’t help him find mental health services in the ways HomesNOW! president Jim Peterson has.
Peterson said HomesNOW! has three outreach teams currently driving around town picking up people and two 15-passenger vans taking people to a HomesNOW! shelter they have set up on Smith Road.
The Smith Road shelter is about 10 people from capacity, Peterson said.
“I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know how many times in the last year and nine months I’ve said people will not go to the drop-in center,” he said. “I’m not saying shut the drop-in center down it’s bad, or the mission’s bad, I’m saying we need other options.”
He said he has 17 Winter Haven residents living in motels until this Thursday, when the funding HomesNOW! has will run out.
“I’m begging you, I’m pleading, open something tonight,” he said.
A Western student experiencing homelessness said she has received no assistance from Western, the city or the mission, and has been living out of her van and unable to find a shelter in the extreme cold.
“If you want to say there’s misinformation going around, that no one is going to be turned away, well that’s not true. I was turned away,” she said.
HomesNOW! is the only organization that has offered her assistance, she said.
“[The city] needs to offer emergency assistance in these extreme conditions, not just long-term assistance,” she said. “You need to offer alternatives to the mission because people do not feel safe going there. I do not feel safe going there.”
HomesNOW! volunteer Rachel Duval said she has been driving people around in vans
to the shelters to help them stay warm.
“The citizens of Bellingham should not be the ones out here busting our butts trying to save people,” she said. “I thought that was a community effort, I thought [that] was part of the city, but the people are doing it right now.”
Lighthouse Mission Ministries Executive Director Hans Erchinger-Davis responded to the public comments saying people need to trust the Mission.
“I know that many have experienced incredible wounding in their lives, which makes being able to trust again really difficult,” he said. “But you can’t heal emotionally, spiritually, physically or mentally if you’re continually being told you can’t trust city leadership.”
He said the people on the ground, where the immediate impact is, need to promote trust in the institutions that are in place to help people.
Bellingham resident Brenda Bentley was one of the last people to speak during public comment period.
“I feel like [the city has] had so many opportunities here to prove yourselves as leaders, as problem solvers, as an entity that embraces community dialogue, and you have failed,” she said. “We know winter comes every year, is this the kind of infrastructure we have set up? This is really problematic.”