City, County addressing tent encampment and emergency winter shelter needs

List of key communications in reverse date order, updated regularly

A tent encampment began on the lawn in front of City Hall in mid-November, later expanding to the north lawn of the Central Library. Many people who are living unsheltered are staying at the encampment, aided by a group working as a collective to assist campers with food and other necessities and to bring attention to the needs of those who are unsheltered.

The situation is complex, challenging and dynamic. We are actively engaged in the urgent work of creating the conditions to end the encampment, with the safety of all – campers, volunteers, City employees, and members of the public – of paramount concern. The City is continually working, along with Whatcom County and other partners, on short- and long-term solutions to providing safe shelter for those experiencing homelessness.

The Bellingham City Council and Whatcom County Council met in a special joint meeting to discuss winter shelter and issues related to homelessness. The video of the meeting can be viewed on the City’s meetings portal at meetings.cob.org.

January 8, 2021: City and County councils schedule joint special meeting for January 11, 2021

The Bellingham City Council and Whatcom County Council have scheduled a joint meeting at 3 p.m. Monday, January 11, 2021, for discussion and possible action on shelter and other issues related to homelessness in Whatcom County.

The meeting agenda for the January 11 special meeting posted on the City’s meetings webpage, along with agendas and meeting materials for the Bellingham City Council committees and regular meetings the same day. Council members will participate in this meeting remotely through an online web-based meeting platform. Council meetings are streamed live via the City’s website at meetings.cob.org and on the City’s YouTube channel. 

January 5, 2021: Progress made at Swift Haven, with first set of individual shelters delivered

The first set of individual shelters were delivered today to Swift Haven, the tiny home site operated by Homes Now in the Geri Field parking lot. The modular structures were purchased by Whatcom County for this purpose, as part of collaborative efforts to increase winter shelter capacity. See Whatcom County’s Facebook page for photos and more information.

January 3, 2021: Mayor’s statement

Mayor Seth Fleetwood made the following statement to The Bellingham Herald: “We have acknowledged that local governments need to increase winter sheltering capacity and we are making solid and diligent progress to do so. Partnering with Whatcom County and Homes Now is a key step in that process. Together, we have established a new winter shelter site at the Geri Field parking lot – called Swift Haven – and we are actively in discussion with a potential operator for yet an additional site. This new capacity is in addition to the shelter operated by Lighthouse Mission Ministries, known as Base Camp, which has capacity for 200 people and rapid COVID-19 testing procedures in place for people to return there. This progress to increase winter shelter capacity creates the conditions to end the encampment at City Hall, which we expect to occur in January.”

December 22, 2020: Homes Now! licensing complete for Swift Haven

The City license for Homes Now! to operate the Swift Haven temporary winter shelter is complete and representatives have access to the site to begin their work. Swift Haven will start with tents, and as modular structures purchased by Whatcom County become available, tents will be replaced with them. (See also December 10 announcement below about use of Civic Athletic Center Geri Field parking lot by Homes Now! for temporary emergency winter shelter.)

Video of Puget Neighborhood meeting to discuss Swift Haven, hosted by Homes Now! on December 20

Homes Now! on Facebook

Homes Now website

December 22, 2020: County Executive confirms timeline for “tiny home” modular shelters

Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu confirmed in an email today that county officials have placed an order for 50 individual shelters from 360Modular, a local Ferndale company. As of today, the company confirmed that 25 units will be delivered by end of December and another 25 by January 15, 2021.

“My office has communicated the urgency of the situation to the vendor and have asked them to expedite the shipments ASAP. I understand fully that we as Whatcom County community (public – private partnership) must do more than just severe weather shelters and pursue longer-term solutions,” County Executive Sidhu said.

“The limiting factors continue to be the availability of suitable locations, site readiness with utilities and amenities along with proper management with certified case worker availability. Just purchasing the units is not enough to successfully deploy them as functioning shelter,” he said.

December 22, 2020: Library resumes curbside services

Bellingham Public Library resumes curbside pickup service appointments today. Thank you for your patience. The temporary pause allowed us to create a fire protection buffer at the Central Library and to reaffirm that all of our health and safety protocols are accurate and up to date.

We look forward to providing you materials – and we are happy to announce new services, including a new way to schedule curbside appointments using the MyLIBRO web portal and MyLIBRO App and opening the returns bins at the Fairhaven and Barkley branches.

More details at bellinghampubliclibrary.org

December 22, 2020: Base Camp accepting more guests, walk-up or by appointment

Base Camp now has the capacity to offer rapid COVID-19 screening at any time of day. Anyone in need of shelter is welcome to walk up to Base Camp or to call ahead and schedule an appointment for screening (360-733-5120 x215). If the antigen test is negative, the person will be admitted on the spot. If the test is positive, they will work with the individual and the Health Department to connect them with the Isolation and Quarantine Facility.

Check with Lighthouse Mission Ministries for more information on Base Camp services.

December 16, 2020: Base Camp begins rapid COVID-19 testing, able to screen and accept more guests

Lighthouse Mission Ministries’ (LMM) Base Camp is able to accept more people into its homeless services center in Bellingham after gaining the capability on December 15 to administer a rapid COVID-19 test.

LMM officials said the new screening process has limited capacity and is only done in the early afternoon hours. They encourage potential guests of Base Camp to call 360-733-5120 ext. 215 or get in contact with Basecamp staff to set-up an appointment.

Prior to this new screening process, LMM officials restricted for more than a week who could stay at Base Camp to those who had stayed continuously there or who came from a verified source, such as hospital or jail, to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. These restrictions were put in place in early December, after three guests and one staff member had positive tests.

More details about Base Camp rapid testing and other efforts to safely welcome guests can be found on the LMM website Base Camp COVID-19 Update page.

December 10, 2020: Mayor announces temporary use of Civic Athletic Complex for temporary winter shelter

We announced today the City is working with Homes Now! to locate a temporary emergency winter shelter at the Civic Athletic Complex in the Geri Field parking lot.

We are actively engaged in the urgent work of creating the conditions to end the encampment at City Hall and this is a key step in that work.

On Thursday, Dec. 10, City crews began the work to prepare the Geri Field parking lot to house up to 28 people. We anticipate the site will be ready for occupancy next week.

We are working with Whatcom County in their efforts to procure modular tiny homes and expect to locate tiny homes at this site when they arrive, anticipated later this month. Homes Now! intends to house people at this location who have been screened by their organization and the Bellingham Police Department. It will be supervised at all times and will be authorized until Spring 2021. (more details below)

We continue to explore additional temporary winter shelter sites with interested partners. More information about our work to increase shelter capacity and address the encampment at City Hall available on the City website.

Post containing December 10 statement.

December 10, 2020: City informs Puget Neighborhood and other stakeholders about temporary use of Civic Athletic Complex

Due to the significant health concerns associated with potential COVID-19 exposure among our unsheltered community members, the City will be establishing a limited-duration emergency encampment in the Geri Field parking lot at the Civic Complex. This encampment will be operated by Homes Now!, a not-for-profit which has successfully operated two prior similar encampments in Bellingham as well as Unity Village currently in operation at Post Point in Fairhaven.

The emergency encampment will:

  • House up to 28 people who have been screened by both Homes Now! and the Bellingham Police Department;
  • Will be a drug and alcohol-free campus;
  • Will be supervised 24/7 by non-resident volunteers and Homes Now! staff;
  • Will not allow sex offenders;
  • Will close in Spring, 2021 when a longer-term facility at a different location is will open. The City currently selecting an operator from applicants who responded to the City’s Request For Qualifications (RFQ).

The emergency encampment is being developed and authorized under the Governor’s, Mayor’s and County Executive’s declarations of an emergency and executive orders to respond to the high risk of COVID-19 spreading amongst unsheltered community members.

Many community members are aware of the encampment at City Hall, which was initiated to draw attention to the needs of those who live unsheltered and grew to become an unauthorized tent encampment. More information about this posted on the City website.

December 7, 2020: Summary of Mayor’s report to Bellingham City Council

… I want to fully convey today is that first and foremost, the safety of all is the paramount concern. That goes to everybody, the campers, the volunteers, the public and City employees. …

We are actively engaged in creating the conditions that are going to allow us to increase winter shelter capacity, which has been one of the acknowledgements that we have made and one of the chief things that is being insisted upon by the people that have organized the protest. …

We have three sites that are likely to be utilized. I look forward to making a more public expression on that in the next couple of days. But we are doing the urgent work of creating the conditions to end the encampment. We can’t say the precise date that is going to happen, but everybody is animated and filled with passion to see this tent encampment at City Hall come to a safe end. …

We are participating in this work with our colleagues at the Whatcom County Health Department. They have been very present and engaged, and we continue to follow their guidance and recommendations. They have provided on-site COVID-19 testing on a couple of occasions at City Hall. They have committed to additional testing twice weekly. They have provided health and safety guidelines and requirements to protect public health and mitigate virus spread. And towards that end they’ve been working directly with camp volunteers and organizers. …

The events of the last few days certainly increased concerns and awareness, I think from everybody involved in this. So, I just want you all to know that our team is working with folks to bring this difficult situation to an end.

Video of December 7 Bellingham City Council meeting, Mayor’s Report begins at 15:25.

December 7, 2020: Whatcom County Health Department guidance

Health Department provides additional guidance.

December 7, 2020: Library suspends curbside services

In light of recent events outside the Central Library, such as additional COVID-19 cases among campers and the fire on the lawn, as well as an abundance of caution for staff, the public, campers and volunteers, this pause in services will allow the Library to reassess safety measures. More information about library services on the Bellingham Public Library website.

This is in addition to public access to City Hall being temporarily limited to essential business only, per the City’s December 4 statement below.

December 5, 2020: Fire at encampment

Bellingham Fire and Police departments respond to fire on Central Library lawn.

December 4, 2020: Test results identify additional COVID-19 cases

Health Department announces identification of two additional cases of COVID-19 among unsheltered individuals at the tent encampment.

December 4, 2020: City statement

The situation is complex, challenging and dynamic. We are actively engaged in the urgent work of creating the conditions to end the encampment at City Hall. The safety of all concerned is paramount. The encampment has caused apprehension among some city staff and members of the public. We have reminded city employees to call 911 if they observe an emergency or illegal behavior, or if they feel their or someone else’s immediate safety is threatened.

Bellingham Police Chief David Doll said his department has increased patrols in the area to help discourage unwanted behaviors. His department has received and responded to reports from encampment volunteers, employees and members of the public, most regarding disruptive or unsettling but not criminal behavior. The Bellingham Police have been and will continue to be responsive to all calls.

The City has continued its practice of limiting access to City Hall offices due to the threat of COVID-19. We share the Whatcom County Health Department’s concerns about the current rapid spread of COVID-19 in our community and are allowing only essential City business to be conducted inside City Hall. Meanwhile, most City Hall employees are working from remote locations, as they have been since mid-March.

We have asked those who are camping and volunteers to take steps to reduce the risk of COVID-19, to keep unwanted behaviors in check, and to take other steps to protect their own and others’ safety.

We have expressed our expectations of organizers, as has the Whatcom County Health Department; some expectations are being met and some are not. That is why we are actively engaged in finding solutions to the real challenges raised by people who are living unsheltered and their advocates, including identifying a qualified operator for managed emergency winter shelter and a more suitable location.

Statement above provided to The Bellingham Herald

December 2 & 6, 2020: Health Department offers COVID-19 testing

Whatcom County Health Department provided walk-up COVID-19 testing for campers and volunteers at Bellingham City Hall on December 2 and 6. (See image top of page, photo by City of Bellingham)

November 30, 2020: Health Department guidance

Whatcom County Health Department professionals visited the City Hall encampment on November 25 and 29 and provided guidance to encampment volunteers and the City. Health Department officials are particularly concerned for the health and well-being of people living unsheltered who may also have substance use disorder or other behavioral health disorders, or other underlying health conditions, that put them at increased risk for severe illness. They offered broad and specific guidance, to share with camp residents,
volunteers and organizers, for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and protecting campers
vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness.

Health and safety guidance, recommendations and requirements for City Hall encampment (pdf)

Winter emergency shelter options

November 24: Health Department statement about encampment

Health Department posts statement about encampment.

November 23, 2020: Mayor’s report to Bellingham City Council

Advocates for those experiencing homelessness set up camp at City Hall to bring attention to the needs of those who are unsheltered. The initial group soon grew. Since it started on Veterans Day, many experiencing homelessness have joined. This past weekend, the camp spread out to the library lawn.

I made it known that we will make available a public site for emergency winter shelter. We are determining where and under what circumstances we can make a site available.

We have had multiple very good meetings with camp organizers and residents, and these discussions continue. We hear their concerns and have learned a great deal through these negotiations.

I expect we will hear tonight during public comment period from some of those we have been meeting with. I thank them for their commitment to members of our community who are in need.  

We’re actively working on this. I look forward to announcing proposed solutions.

A key part of this discussion is occurring with Whatcom County officials. We are determining if and when pallet shelters might be a useful purchase in our collaborative efforts to provide emergency shelter, in the short- and long-term.

Video of November 24 Bellingham City Council meeting, Mayor’s report early in meeting.

November 13, 2020: City statement

Advocates for those experiencing homelessness and others have set up camp at City Hall to bring attention to the needs of those who are unsheltered. The City is continually working, along with Whatcom County and other partners, on short- and long-term solutions to providing safe shelter for those experiencing homelessness.

On Thursday evening, November 12, Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood made it known that he will make available, as soon as possible, a public site for emergency camping. Though we have more details to work out, and conditions must be met to ensure the safety of both campers and community members, Mayor Fleetwood and his team spent much of Thursday determining where and under what circumstances we can make a site available as soon as possible.

With cold weather upon us, Base Camp regularly being at or close to capacity earlier than anticipated, and our community feeling the financial strains of COVID-19, these are necessary actions to make sure options are available for those who need shelter this winter. We look forward to further discussion about the details of making these short-term solutions available as soon as possible.

Post containing November 13 statement