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As beds fill faster than expected, Base Camp expands shelter space; the needs of many unhoused people are still unmet

Incoming winter brings adversity for the houseless and Base Camp, the overflow shelter may not be enough

The Lighthouse Mission opened its overflow shelter on Oct. 16 located at 1013 W. Holly St. in Bellingham, Wash. Concerns have been raised regarding services for the houseless beyond just the space and numbers the second shelter location provides. // Photo by Kai Uyehara

In preparation for an attendance increase with winter nearing, Lighthouse Mission Ministries reopened its drop-in location on 1013 W. Holly St. as an overflow shelter on Oct. 16 in addition to its Base Camp at 1530 Cornwall Ave., but some needs go beyond the extra 40 beds.

“Living outside’s been real tough,” said Alex Brackbell, who is from Marysville and recently signed into Base Camp. “It’s a lot of dread knowing what tomorrow's gonna bring and sleeping outside in the cold.”

Bridget Reeves, chief operating officer of the Lighthouse Mission, said the number of houseless folk looking for warm shelter like Brackbell has increased rapidly, much earlier than expected.

“We hit our 200 person capacity at base camp at the end of September,” Reeves said. “That's pretty early for us to be hitting our full capacity.”

In recent days, Base Camp sheltered 186 people on Oct. 29, 182 people on Oct. 30 and 194 people on Oct. 31. 

The Lighthouse Mission planned for the overflow shelter to start on-call staffing based on need in October, then begin full operations in December. The quick influx took the team by surprise and prompted them to begin having consistent staffing for the 1013 building mid-October.

For many, the Oct. 16 opening couldn’t come soon enough. 

“I’ve had a couple of blankets, and I just sit outside and just try to survive one day at a time,” Brackbell said.

The overflow location is staffed by Christ the King Church in partnership with Lighthouse Mission Ministries and is led in part by Wendy Powell, the community outreach pastor.

“The beautiful thing is that we already had volunteers last year,” Powell said. 

Powell said the church has about 60 volunteers already working and was able to bring back 14 drivers from last year when the overflow shelter was initially slated to open but did not due to the pandemic.

Reeves said guests at the overflow shelter can access Base Camp’s “medical clinic, all other service providers, showers, laundry, three meals a day, mental health case workers, substance use professional, EMT, Opportunity Council” in addition to a renovated bathroom facility and cots at the new location.

Providing all these services requires many workers, and the Mission has “nowhere near enough volunteers right now,” Powell said. “I would be pleased if we had 150 people.” 

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A volunteer cleans windows at Lighthouse Mission’s overflow shelter at 1013 W. Holly St. Many volunteers have returned from last year, but the church needs more. // Photo courtesy of Christ the King Church

Christ the King church will host training sessions and an orientation for new volunteers. They will do a third round of recruiting in November. An annual Point in Time Count released in July reported 859 unhoused people in Whatcom County in 2021 — that’s 707 more than the previous year and the highest number since the county began counting in 2008. 

Unmet needs

The services Base Camp provides for the influx of houseless folk still falls short for some guests — especially in the winter months.

“We need winter clothing,” said Omar Ramirez, a houseless man waiting for check-in outside Base Camp. “We suffer with normal laundry, showers, restrooms, there's 300 people that use four toilets.”

Base Camp generally has 175 to 200 geuests each night. There are four stalls and two urinals for the men and five stalls for women. There are six individual unisex bathrooms that are avilable when needed.

Several guests said they get cold when Base Camp closes for cleaning for 30 minute periods three times a day as part of the Mission's COVID-19 protocols.

“We need warmth; we wish we could get heaters,” Ramirez said. “You see those restaurants that have those propane heaters outside? We need a couple of those here.”

Beyond complications with warmth, some houseless individuals are adverse to attending Base Camp, taking issue with the Mission’s christianity, sleeping schedule and its weapons, drugs and alcohol policies. 

“[If] you just smoke a little weed before you go to sleep, they'll kick you out in this weather right now,” said Marshall Tronsdal, a guest at Base Camp for two years. “You’ll freeze your ass off.” 

Base Camp tries to restrict guests as little as possible, Reeves said, stating they don’t do breathalyzers and only ask folks to leave if they are using on-site or if their behavior is deemed threatening.

In some cases, the guests are asked to take a couple hours to cool off, and in more extreme cases, they are no longer able to stay the night at the facility.

“They help you with a place to sleep, but it's their rules,” Tronsdal said.

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The kitchen staff serves pizza inside the Lighthouse Mission’s new overflow shelter. Guests at 1013 W. Holly St. will be able to access dinner at the Base Camp as well before they are transported to overflow. // Photo courtesy of Christ the King Church

Reeves said she understands many of the issues some guests take with the Mission and assures they pursue the best interests of the guests.

“Good relationships are the key to sustaining an ongoing recovery,” Reeves said. “We really want to build that relational thread.”

There are many more houseless people in Bellingham beside those staying at Base Camp, some of whom have their own reasons for not attending.

Community alternatives 

Since they were swept repeatedly until their disbanding, many campers from Camp 210 — a large assembly of houseless folk that initially congregated at City Hall in November of 2020 — have been utilizing resources from Bellingham Occupied Protest mutual aid instead of relying on Base Camp. 

“Some of the most incredible people that I met at Camp 210 had been banned from Base Camp,” said Brel Froebe, a local activist who helped at Camp 210.

At Camp 210, campers abided by rules they designed themselves.

“We wanted to make sure that everyone agreed to them so that everyone would feel safe and comfortable,” said Aida Cardona, an essential liaison of the decentralized BOP organization. 

But, unable or adverse to attending Base Camp, Cardona said perhaps hundreds of houseless folks have been on the run since the dispersal of Camp 210. 

“On a weekly basis, the city is still sweeping people from the places that they stay,” Cardona said. 

BOP currently serves the houseless by doing daily distributions and fundraising for the specific needs of individuals on social media. BOP’s Instagram handle is @bopmutualaid.

Both BOP and Lighthouse Mission Ministry made calls to action for their community. Those interested in volunteering at Base Camp’s overflow shelter can visit Christ the King church’s volunteer sign-up website. 

“If people want to get involved, if they want to serve in this way, I'd highly recommend it because it’s a great way to get your feet wet and to engage with our neighbors who are experiencing houselessness in our community,” Reeves said.

Some BOP organizers are promoting POOR Magazine’s Homefulness project to raise awareness in the city on Nov. 12 and 13. Some of the project’s events include spoken word performances, paid writing workshops and interviews for houseless folks and community prayer in a ceremonial walk across sites of historic oppression. 

Other cities in Washington are expanding shelter options for houseless people within their communities as well. The Ferndale Community Service Cooperative is also setting up a temporary severe weather shelter as winter approaches in a local church whenever the temperature reaches 28 degrees or below. Volunteers are needed in order to operate the shelter, and those interested can sign up at the Community Service Cooperative’s website.

(Nov. 10, 2021) Editors note: After this article was published, the Lighthouse Mission reached out with additional information about the number of bathroom families and the length of time guests spend outside during cleaning periods. The article was updated to include that information. 

Kai Uyehara

Kai is a senior at Western and has decided to finish his undergrad journey with News/Editorial Journalism. His focus is on social issues and is committed to the people within these stories.

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