Homelessness FAQs Winter 2021

UPDATED 3/8/21

Looking for information about encampments at Bellingham City Hall and Frank Geri Field? See the City, County addressing tent encampment and emergency winter shelter needs page.

Want to learn more about the City’s work on homelessness? See the Addressing Homelessness page.

Despite the many factors unique to each individual’s situation, the major driver of homelessness in our region is the cost of housing. Quite simply, as rents increase, so do the number of people living in shelters and outdoors.

Although it is difficult to see any of our neighbors sleeping outside, most people who experience homelessness are not living on the streets or in encampments. In fact, 69% of people in Whatcom County who are counted as homeless were sleeping indoors in shelter or temporary housing in 2020 (see the most recent Point-in-Time count for details). This is good news – it means that the majority of people who face homelessness do seek and receive help from one of our many community partners.

We are doing more than ever. The City spends approximately $5 million per year on contracts with partners who provide services to help either prevent or respond to homelessness. The Whatcom County Health Department contributes an equivalent amount each year, for a total of about $10 million per year county-wide.

The City and County are working simultaneously to provide permanent housing solutions, respond to the need for emergency shelter, and address the root causes of homelessness. For more information about the City’s efforts to address and prevent homelessness, visit our State of Housing and Homelessness and Addressing Homelessness pages. 

The City and County do not work alone to prevent or respond to homelessness:

  • Using our local Housing Levy, General Fund, and Federal grants, the City funds over a dozen local housing and human services non-profits, including the Opportunity Council, Lydia Place, Northwest Youth Services, Sun Community Services, Catholic Community Services, YWCA, Interfaith Coalition, Mercy Housing Northwest, and Sean Humphrey House.
  • With the support of City and County funding, the Opportunity Council’s Homeless Service Center helps more than 3,000 people each year with things like emergency rental assistance, case management, motel stays, and other services.
  • In spring 2020, the City and County partnered with Lighthouse Mission Ministries (LMM) to relocate its emergency drop-in center to provide adequate social distancing and other COVID protections. LMM’s Base Camp location opened in July 2020, with space and services for nearly 200 individuals.
  • In response to requests from homeless advocates and the public to provide more immediate shelter options, in December 2020 the City approved Swift Haven, a tiny home village at the Civic Athletic complex. This new 25-unit site is operated by HomesNow and will remain at its present location until spring 2021.
  • We are always working to build even more capacity. In November 2020 the City issued a request for qualifications for a qualified partner agency that could operate a longer-term tiny home village on City property. The most qualified applicant was selected in December and the City is looking forward to announcing this partnership soon.

Despite the perception that the problem is getting worse, local data indicates that there has not been a dramatic increase in the homeless population in recent years. For example, the average number of households awaiting a housing placement decreased in 2020 compared to 2019, as reported by the Whatcom Homeless Service Center. And the annual census of the unsheltered homeless population has decreased over the past two years (according to the Whatcom County Point-in-Time Count) .

Providing enough shelter that is suitable and acceptable for everyone who needs it is a difficult problem that communities across the country are wrestling with. This challenge has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, even with our increased resources and attention to this issue, it is not enough to meet the total need. The County has adopted a strategic plan which prioritizes housing for people with the greatest needs. That may mean families with children, seniors, and medically fragile individuals receive immediate assistance while others must wait longer for help.

Even if there are enough warm shelter beds available for anyone who wants one on a given night, some people might choose not to take them. There are many reasons why a family or individual may want to avoid a congregate shelter. Some are couples who want to remain together, individuals concerned about their exposure to COVID-19, and also those whose mental health or addiction makes it very difficult to function in a large group setting.

Because we lack the appropriate, trained staff to operate such a space. If the City is going to provide a location for people to stay, it must be safe; there must be protocols in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and to ensure the personal safety of anyone staying there. A group of dedicated volunteers is not enough. Without experienced staff who have specific training to work with people who may have a broad range of disabilities (addiction, PTSD, mental health issues, etc.), such a situation could quickly become unsafe.

Before Camp 210 started, the City had issued a request for qualifications to recruit a qualified agency to open an additional tiny house village later in 2021 to offer more options to couples and individuals who are homeless but do not want to live in a congregate shelter setting. That process resulted in the plans for the City to partner with two non-profits on a new tiny home village to open in Spring 2021.

No-barrier housing is a “harm reduction” model in which residents are not restricted from drug and alcohol use, very few rules are established regarding behavior, and aggressive behavior is often left to the police to handle.

As barriers are lowered or eliminated, risks to public safety increase significantly. Credentialed individuals with experience working with the chronic unsheltered are needed to ensure that encampment residents and the community in general are safe.

City ordinances currently allow for very-low barrier encampments, provided that credentialed professionals with experience working with the chronic unsheltered are on-site.

The City can act as a funder for very-low barrier encampments and has offered to do so.  A process exists for organizations to apply for funding to support encampments and other programs.

The City and County took significant steps to ensure that there would be enough shelter space available, even with the additional space requirements dictated by Covid-19 precautions.

  • Most notably, the City and County partnered with the Lighthouse Mission Ministries to find a new location for their emergency drop-in center that could provide adequate social distancing. The new Base Camp location was opened in July 2020, with space for nearly 200 individuals, plus meals, showers, laundry facilities, and other services. For more information, read about LMM Base Camp and the City’s role in the facility’s move to its current location.
  • The City and County partnered to lease the former Motel 6 on Byron Avenue, and convert it to a 58-room facility for anyone in the community exposed to Covid-19 who did not have a safe place to isolate or quarantine. This site provides meals and connects guests with healthcare services during their stay.
  • The City and County increased funding for motel stays, which are administered by the Opportunity Council. Families with children, seniors, and other medically fragile adults are prioritized.
  • In December, 2020, the CIty, Whatcom County, and HomesNow worked together to establish Swift Haven, a new tiny home winter shelter site at the Civic Athletic Complex.

We were prepared. Recent efforts increased the community’s shelter capacity by nearly 30% compared to last year, from 280 beds in December 2019 to 360 beds in December 2020. Based on last year’s peak shelter occupancy, it was predicted that the amount of emergency shelter space would be adequate to get us through this winter while we work on more longer-term housing solutions.

In addition to Base Camp, LMM representatives worked with other community partners and volunteers to prepare an overflow shelter location for an additional 39 adults, should the Base Camp reach capacity this winter.

According to area homeless services providers, the top challenge to serving the homeless population this winter has been the “Camp 210” encampments at City Hall and Geri Field. These encampments have:

  • Disconnected individuals from services, medications, and caseworkers, and created an atmosphere with no rules or boundaries, reversing the progress of many clients toward overcoming personal struggles and obstacles.
  • Undermined the legitimacy of an agreed-upon county-wide strategy and the multiple agencies that serve this population every day.
  • Reduced the use of indoor, fully staffed, and operated shelters, resulting in those services being underutilized.
  • Violated CDC guidelines for social distancing and avoiding groups.

While Camp 210 increased community awareness of and support for the needs of people experiencing homelessness, this attention has come at a cost, including the problems listed above and serious health and safety incidents and concerns.

We are all fortunate to live in such a caring and compassionate community. Our local partner agencies continue to work tirelessly to help those who are facing homelessness and would greatly appreciate your support!