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As temperatures dip below freezing, Depot Market Square will serve as shelter until Feb. 16

Signs on the windows point toward the shelter entrance at Depot Market Square in Bellingham, Wash. on Feb. 11, 2021. Depot Market Square will serve as a 24/7 cold weather shelter until Tuesday, Feb. 16. // Photo by Nolan Baker

By Nolan Baker

With bitter-cold temperatures gripping Whatcom County this week, the city of Bellingham announced the opening of a “temporary warming site” for unsheltered residents.

During a Whatcom County Housing Advisory Committee meeting on Feb. 11, 2021, officials said four people used the warming center on Tuesday night and 17 people used it on Wednesday night.

The 35-bed facility, located at Depot Market Square, sits at the 1100 block of Railroad Avenue in downtown Bellingham. The site will be open 24/7 until noon Tuesday, Feb. 16, and is being staffed by community volunteers.

Just one day after the first call for volunteers, the Opportunity Council announced all volunteer needs at the temporary site were filled.

A statement on the city’s website read, “With frigid weather followed by snow in the forecast, standing up this site is the right thing to do to provide an additional place for people living unsheltered to stay warm.”

Temperatures in Bellingham have not gone above 30 degrees since Tuesday, Feb. 9, and are expected to stay low throughout the weekend, the National Weather Service reports.

The city does stipulate rules of admission to the site, requiring masks, banning alcohol and drugs and limiting a resident's possessions to a “maximum of one cart,” according to the statement. 

After the highly-publicized Jan. 28 sweep of Camp 210, the months-long occupied protest and homeless encampment established on the City Hall lawn, city and county governments are experiencing intense public pressure to provide housing and shelter solutions immediately. 

Bellingham Occupied Protest Mutual Aid, an activist group heavily involved in organizing the new encampment near Civic Field that began in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 28 sweep, have argued the cost of that sweep could’ve been reinvested into permanent and temporary housing solutions. 

In a Jan. 10 tweet, the group said police budget funds can be used to house those same people who are being swept. 

“Defunding is crucial in achieving a society where the economic injustices that create and criminalize homelessness stop,” the tweet read. 

But city and county officials say the delays in providing adequate housing are not related to funding, but rather a lack of staffing and potential site locations.

Jed Holmes, a spokesperson for Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu, explained that materials for 25 “tiny homes” like the ones at Swift Haven or Unity Village operated by HomesNow! have been shipped and are ready to be built, but the city and county have been unable to find a location and staff.

“The last batch [of tiny homes] is going to show up maybe next week, and we don’t have a place to put them,” Holmes said. “We don’t have a place to figure out how they can be run as tiny homes for unsheltered folks.”

The 2020 Whatcom County Annual Report on Homelessness conducted by the city and county governments in tandem with local outreach services reported at least 707 people in Whatcom County were unsheltered on January 22, 2020. A new count for 2021 is expected to be finalized by the end of this month, said Anne Deacon from the Whatcom County Health Department. 

Point-in-time studies are required by state and federal laws as a condition for receiving funding for homeless services. The study stated these types of censuses can often underestimate the number of those experiencing homelessness because it’s entirely voluntary and done on a short-time scale. 

Deacon, in a presentation to the Bellingham City Council on Monday, Jan. 8, said the shelter bed capacity in Whatcom County has increased from 382 beds last winter to 522 beds this winter. 

But most of these beds quickly fill up, especially as temperatures dip and shelters lower their barriers for entry. Swift Haven, the newest tiny home village, quickly filled its 25-bed capacity, keeping city and county governments scrambling for locations as winter continues to rage on.

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