Bellingham Must Do Better for Its Houseless Citizens

True compassion is not conditional: the heartless plan to disperse the Camp 210 Occupied Protest

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Nicknamed The City of Subdued Excitement, Bellingham is a college town. 90 miles North of Seattle, our city is home to Western Washington University, stunning views of Mt. Baker, and more breweries than you could ever possibly need. Bellingham is my home, we moved to the area when I was 10 and I’ve lived here since other than a four year stint in my early 20s when I went south.

Downtown has long been one of my favorite areas. When I was in my late teens, I spent hours at Stuart’s Coffeehouse journaling and attending poetry readings. I love wandering and window shopping, visiting the farmer’s market and supporting local businesses. As far as I can remember, there have always been houseless people. But in the last year, these people have become harder to ignore for the average citizen.

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Along with the social uprisings that are occurring around the U.S. came the establishment of Camp 210, a homeless encampment and occupied protest, in front of Bellingham’s City Hall. With it, area allies and citizens are shouting for local government to do something about the housing issues our area has experienced for years.

On Tuesday, January 26, Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood announced the City’s intention to sweep the houseless encampment at City Hall in four days. This decision seems to be largely based on supposed incidents that took place a few days before, which were widely reported as much different than they happened, according to folks who were actually there.

My friend Jupiter wrote the following in response to the Mayor’s announcement:

The height of inhumanity. Mayor Seth Fleetwood is continuing to be willfully ignorant to the needs and requests of the folx at Camp 210. Requiring over 100 houseless people to disperse and find housing in a city that offers close to NOTHING for people experiencing houselessness.

They have closed down the library and city hall for the entire week starting yesterday and going until next week. Calling the city hall’s phone yields a recorded message that blames the encampment for creating “unsafe working conditions” for the people who work in these buildings and for the people who provide services around these buildings such as the people who empty the dumpsters AND the people who empty the portable bathrooms. Yet ANOTHER way messages are being sent to the folx living on these lawns that THEY DO NOT MATTER, and DO NOT DESERVE BASIC HUMAN ACCOMMODATIONS.

The CDC offers guidance surrounding the suggestions of BANNING SWEEPS during COVID-19. Performing a sweep during this pandemic goes against CDC guidelines. The city of Bellingham and the Bellingham Police Department need to be held accountable for willfully ignoring these important recommendations and for putting the lives of our most vulnerable even further at risk.

Seth Fleetwood has compared the peaceful protest of last Friday to the insurrection that happened at the Capitol earlier this month. This is total false equivalency — these two things are nothing alike. And now, because of these fallacies that you’re spreading, Mayor Fleetwood, you’re actively calling attention to Camp 210 in the MOST negative way we could have ever hoped for — inviting white supremacists into this space who are causing trouble, driving their vehicles through at nighttime, honking their horns, and causing mayhem. YOU are responsible for this negative attention, yet again choosing words and phrases that erase our houseless and are putting their lives and safety at risk.

In the words of @kai.rapa: NO SWEEPS SHOULD BE ENACTED. Reinstate the porta potties and the dumpster services for those houseless at the lawn. I support a no barrier housing that would house all of the houseless at the lawn of city hall of at least 150 shelters. This will not end houselessness. But this will make a significant impact in this community. If you make this happen, the community will be behind you. Thank you.

In the middle of winter, in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century, people will be forced into unsafe and inhumane situations because as a society, we are too shitty to make real change. In a culture where Jeff Bezos could solve homelessness instantly and still be rich enough to literally do whatever he wants for the rest of his life, we are blaming the disadvantaged and once again proving we just want to pretend they don’t exist. Out of sight, out of mind, at least for a little while.

ONE apartment building would hold all of the people who are living in this encampment. One building. It’s simple. Either we care about people, or we don’t. Either we believe humans have basic rights and deserve basic respect, or we don’t.

What does caring look like? It looks like making an actual effort to understand the challenges other people face, even if we have never experienced them. It means that empathy is important. In this case, it means creating no barrier housing as well as affordable housing for people who are not homeless, but are close to being so.

Making someone’s basic human right to not live outside in the dead of winter dependent on sobriety is not humane. Requiring someone to abandon or give away a pet that may be their only support and contribute positively to their well-being is not humane. Telling someone to live outside because they don’t have the right I.D. is not humane.

In a culture where Jeff Bezos could solve homelessness instantly and still be rich enough to literally do whatever he wants for the rest of his life, we are blaming the disadvantaged and once again proving we just want to pretend they don’t exist.

When we require people to pass drug or alcohol tests before having shelter, we are saying, you must be sober because you are poor. I have a house. If I get drunk every night, no one will stop me. No one will care. I won’t lose my home. If I show up to work drunk because I have an addiction, I am in an ADA protected class, but if you don’t have a job already it just makes you un-worthy of help.

It is not fair or equitable to require things of people just because they are living in a tent. We should be telling people that we accept them as they are. That we do not base their worth on the challenges they face or coping mechanisms they have developed.

If our intention is to take care of one another, to allow people to live out their lives with basic amenities, we need to put better systems into place to provide support for people who struggle with poverty, abusive pasts, trauma, other mental health challenges, and addiction.

We should not be putting conditions on treating people like humans.

Our Mayor’s only suggestion for where these people should go is to go to the “Base Camp” shelter run by Lighthouse Mission Ministries. Though they claim not to enforce participation in prayer groups or religious activity, they are a faith-based organization. There are many, many firsthand accounts and reasons why this particular shelter doesn’t work for everyone. The attitude that there is a place to go for these people is ignorant of the idea that having one, religion-based shelter as an option is insufficient.

Suggesting that the current residents of Camp 210 just move to Base Camp isn’t realistic or helpful.

LMM’s policies include that you may not possess drugs or alcohol within 3 blocks, including in your car. They will not let you take a backpack or purse into the restroom. They require people to leave their belongings in places where they are accessible to others in order to use basic facilities. They are also currently over half full.

Suggesting that the current residents of Camp 210 just move to Base Camp isn’t realistic or helpful. Some of them have been ejected from there, and many have felt unsafe or unsupported in that environment. There is one option, that may work for some, but for others is stressful and difficult in many ways for people dependent on their privacy and health needs.

Rather than focusing on the idea that people without homes are the ones who should fix all of this, we need to acknowledge that they are not the problem. Our system is the problem. Rapid re-housing, low-barrier housing, and housing first policies are a huge part of the solution.

Rapid re-housing is a primary solution for ending homelessness. It has been demonstrated to be effective in getting people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing and keeping them there. By connecting people with a home, they are in a better position to address other challenges that may have led to their homelessness, such as obtaining employment or addressing substance abuse issues. The intervention has also been effective for people traditionally perceived to be more difficult to serve, including people with limited or no income and survivors of domestic violence.

Research demonstrates that those who receive rapid re-housing assistance are homeless for shorter periods of time than those assisted with shelter or transitional housing. Rapid re-housing is also less expensive than other homeless interventions, such as shelter or transitional housing. National Alliance to End Homelessness

This is not about the money, not really. It’s about stigma. It’s about how we allow ourselves to look at other human beings as less than, of being unworthy. Even the tiniest bit of research provides the simple fact that it is less expensive to provide low-cost or free housing than to manage the ongoing effects of homelessness. People ask: where will we get the resources? We have the resources already, we just need to change where they’re going.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness,

A chronically homeless person costs the taxpayer an average of $35,578 per year. This study shows how costs on average are reduced by 49.5% when they are placed in supportive housing. Supportive housing costs on average $12,800, making the net savings roughly $4,800 per year.

One study done by the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness indicated that “the region was spending about triple on policing homeless people’s nonviolent rule-breaking as it would cost to get each homeless person a house and a caseworker.

In Toronto, housing first policies showed that folks who were given intervention experiences significantly fewer days with alcohol problems and spent less money on alcohol. If this were really about money, we would be putting roofs over heads already.

Most of the unsupportive comments I see all along the lines of “Why don’t these people just get jobs?” and “They should spend their money trying to get jobs and housing and saving up instead of buying drugs!”

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Beyond showing a complete lack of compassion, these kinds of comments show a gross misunderstanding of what causes people to be houseless and how easy or hard it might be to change your circumstance.

If you think that all it takes in Bellingham to find housing is to have a job, you’re wrong. I know, because I’ve been there. I lost my job in 2016. It was an extremely traumatic experience. I was wrongfully terminated and accused of things I didn’t do by someone I considered a friend and who I thought respected me professionally. I had to work through that trauma to move out of my apartment in a week because I wasn’t going to be able to make rent.

I am LUCKY I had family for my kids and I to move in with, or I would not have had anywhere to go. That’s how easy it is to become houseless.

I am LUCKY I had family for my kids and I to move in with, or I would not have had anywhere to go. That’s how easy it is to become houseless. It took me over 18 months to find another job, and that’s with a Bachelor’s degree and years of experience, a roof over my head, food to eat, and a stable internet connection to apply for dozens of jobs. That’s with a shower and clean clothes and transportation to be able to go to job interviews.

Even when I got that job, it was hard to find a place to live that I could afford and that wasn’t snapped up immediately because the housing here is so far over capacity. I literally saw the availability, called immediately, paid the application fee before seeing the house, and signed a lease within a 24 hour period.

So, if it was that hard for me with all of the advantages I had what makes everyone think it must be so easy for these folks to just go out and fix our fucked up, broken system?

If you don’t understand firsthand what it’s like to choose between feeding your kid and paying for the electric that keeps your heat on, you are lucky. That’s it. Lucky. It’s not because you’re a better person or work harder. Sure, those things can come into play in some situations, some of the time. But the reality is that most people I know are one step away from being in an impossible situation.

Our system is broken. We live in a world where Elon Musk’s wealth increases by my entire yearly salary every 15 minutes, and he and other centibillionaires are allowed to hoard obscene amounts of money that they can never possibly use. It makes me physically sick. Imagine the amount of good that could be done with just an ounce more selflessness and compassion.

We must choose love and community, we must choose compassion, right now, today.

We allow stigmas and politics to get in the way of our humanity, and I am enraged by it all. I do what I can, but it never feels like enough, and the idea that the people who could really help just choose not to is infuriating. We must choose love and community, we must choose compassion, right now, today.

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Alexander Bodi Hallett is an advocate and photographer, who graciously allowed use of his photos here, and who has had feet on the ground getting to know the humans who live at Camp 210. I leave you with his powerful words:

These actions seem to point to the city preparing to sweep the camp in full, using the actions of Friday as justification for doing so. This is morally bankrupt, and void of basic care for our fellow human beings. Individuals who live in houses in a neighborhood aren’t a monolith, and neither are our houseless neighbors at Camp 210. They are Marie, Autumn, Buster, Melissa, Jack, Lonnie, Sasha, Jacob, Eric. individuals with hopes and dreams, love and empathy, skills and integrity. Strip away the walls on all of our houses, and we would see an equal number of hard workers, couples in love, individuals battling addiction, demons being faced, and folks striving for the good.

Sweeping the camp will do nothing but disperse our houseless neighbors. At the height of Winter and in the midst of the greatest public health crisis in a century, it will undoubtedly lead to death. We must act.

Stand up against slander and hatred aimed at our houseless. Call/email the mayor, city council, and planning department. Volunteer to bring hot meals, clothes, coats.

We all need one another. There are countless times in all of our lives where we only survive through the kindness of strangers. Right here, right now, we have an opportunity to act. To let love guide us, let community unite us, and not let hate divide us.

If you’d like to help our neighbors at Camp 210, here are some resources:

Polyamorous, loud laughing unapologetic feminist, rad fatty, and epic sweet tooth.

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