NEWS BRIEF: Protests and calls for action as large numbers remain without shelter
Groups of protestors block camp displacement; small number enter city hall
Bellingham’s City Hall became the center of heated demonstration Friday, January 22, as varying groups of protestors spent the day gathered around the site protesting the city’s planned removal of a large tent encampment known as Camp 210.
Protesters arrived early in the morning and blocked the entrance to the space around Bellingham City Hall after the city ordered residents of the tent encampment to vacate a 25-foot space around the building by 9 a.m. The order, posted by the City of Bellingham Tuesday, Jan. 19, indicated that the sweep was intended to clear the area for fire safety. Calls to action on social media referred to the forced removal as an act of violence and called on people to stand in support of the camp residents who would be displaced from their homes.
The protest began around 8 a.m. and occupied the perimeter around City Hall and its parking lot, extending into the lawn of the public library across the street. Protesters parked cars in front of the parking lot’s entrances on North Commercial Street and Grand Avenue.
Beginning at 9:30 a.m., city vehicles drove past the scene but did not attempt to enter due to protesters and cars forming a barricade. The crowd began to thin around 10 a.m.
Doug Gufstason, board of directors chairman for the housing nonprofit HomesNow! and regular volunteer at the camp, said in a video online that he was accosted by several protesters who tried to stop him from filming the event.
Denver Pratt, a reporter with the Bellingham Herald, said on Twitter that she and a colleague were also confronted by several protestors and had to leave the area for safety after protesters dumped water on their camera. Press were asked not to film or take pictures to protect the privacy of protestors and Camp 210 residents.
Later in the day, after a number of people had left, several protesters broke into the locked city hall building, forcing mayor Seth Fleetwood to evacuate, KIRO 7 reported. The mayor’s office was unable to be reached for comment by phone on Saturday, January 23.
Camp 210, a tent village, was established November 2020 on the lawns of City Hall and the Bellingham Public Library as an occupied protest to bring attention to the lack of shelter options for people dealing with homelessness.
Many community volunteers have been providing resources including food and medical care for the camp since November. Many of the food drop-offs and community assistance have been organized by local mutual aid and activist groups.
“I wanted to show my support for them and for the shelter they need,” said a protestor who works in the healthcare field and wished to remain anonymous out of privacy concerns surrounding her job.
She helps the residents of Camp 210 by stopping by once a week for a foot clinic, and is concerned the City Council is using social-distance policy as a reason for the sweep.
“COVID[-19] is not the issue here at the camp,” she said. “The city and the mayor need to deliver on the promise of dry shelter for these people.”
Councilmember Hannah Stone was one of the few council members present at the City Hall protest before 11 a.m.
“There needs to be better communication between and among all parties involved,” she said after talking with different groups.
Stone said that when she returned to City Hall at 2 p.m, the building had been evacuated and the doors had been chained shut from the inside.
The Whatcom County Health Department has been coordinating with camp organizers. Due to COVID-19, the Center for Disease Control currently advises against the forced displacement of unhoused people.
Flip Breskin, a local musician and advocate for the camp who coordinates volunteers and food service, was deeply upset with the City Council for not investing in more tiny homes for the homeless. Breskin added that she is saddened by the developments and knows that extra funding is hard to come by.
“HomesNOW.org has offered to create more managed tiny home villages. They have a record of success on the ground,” Breskin said. “It’s long past time for the city and county to sign with them and let them get to work.”
At 1:30 p.m., the Homeless Strategies Workgroup, established by City Council to identify solutions to homelessness in Whatcom County, held a remote meeting. The group, which was formed in 2017, does not have the power to make policy decisions, but instead operates as an advisory committee.
During the meeting, Markis Stidham, an organizer with HomesNow!, made a motion for the workgroup to recommend that the county order 50 tiny homes for emergency winter shelter use. A Whatcom County point-in-time count from Jan. 23, 2020, found 707 unsheltered people, 103 of whom were under 18.
The 50 tiny homes would be in addition to 25 that have already been ordered by the county and are awaiting a site where they can be put to use. Another 25 homes were purchased in December and used to establish Swift Haven, an emergency winter shelter in Bellingham which now provides shelter to 25 previously unhoused people.
Some members of the working group were hesitant to support Stidham’s motion because the city and county are still seeking sites and staff to manage sites.
“Just buying the tiny homes — when there is broad agreement amongst people that work on these issues in the county and the city that an operator is a necessary component — doesn’t get you anywhere,” the mayor said to the workgroup.
Several members of the group, including Fleetwood, abstained from the vote, citing a need for more information. With eight votes for, two against and six abstentions, the motion failed to pass.
In a statement released after the protest, Fleetwood urged everyone involved in the protest to encourage unsheltered people to seek services at Base Camp, a shelter run by Lighthouse Mission in the former Public Market building downtown. Base Camp does have the capacity for additional people, but during the meeting, Stidham said Base Camp isn’t an option for some campers because of past experiences with assault, the Lighthouse Mission’s religious affiliation and rules that some people see as restrictive.
“We’ve met hundreds of them in the past who would not go there and would rather freeze,” Stidham said during the meeting.
When asked about emergency shelter for Bellingham’s homeless residents in the cold, Stone said the lack of available operators to manage emergency shelters is a significant limitation. Stone also mentioned people residing at the camp can also seek shelter at places like Base Camp, the YMCA and Swift Haven.
During the meeting’s public comment period, a number of people expressed frustration and rage at the workgroup’s failure to pass the motion and what they described as a lack of overall progress. Some directly called on the mayor to visit the camp and promise the residents that there will be no future sweeps.
The statement released by Fleetwood after the protests does not contain any information on plans for future sweeps.
In the statement, Fleetwood said the city will, “continue our collaboration with Whatcom County officials and service providers on short and long-term solutions to providing safe shelter for those experiencing homelessness.”
Activist groups involved in the protest have indicated online that they will continue to show up at the camp and protest any future attempts to remove the campers.