Sunday, February 3rd, Whatcom County was blasted by a severe winter storm that iced roads and pelted the ground with over 2 feet of snow. This stormy weather continued for over three days exacerbating winter temperatures. The local shelter struggles to organize and meet the capacity of individuals who are stranded without housing options each winter, and this winter has been no exception. Meanwhile, community members continue to reach out with blankets, hand and toe warmers, winter gear, and transportation to and from shelters carpooling in their own vehicles to locate those in need and offer assistance.
It is evident that colder temperatures in Bellingham make it difficult to manage safe conditions for health and human survival. After six months of running a local shower truck to offset human needs of those who are experiencing homelessness, Homes NOW volunteers became concerned when members of our community using their shower service showed up reporting they had frostbite from sleeping in the cold.
In response to these reports and winter conditions, two local students collected over 150 plastic bottles from residential recycling bins to fill with hot water and distribute across the Bellingham downtown area. Community witnessing this effort stepped up to assist by donating money to offer hotel options and funding for those stranded outdoors with nowhere to go when the storm hit. Local campsites were impacted by fallen trees and severe snow and ice. Winter Haven camp behind City Hall that was relocated to hotels for the duration of the storm have now returned to their site. The cold temperatures at night are excruciating.
Homes NOW funded 2 vans to assist a group of individuals who independently collaborated with a local church to provide additional shelter options during the stormy weather that impacted the city. It is evident that local shelter options and effort to publicize these locations is difficult to announce. No public announcement of storm or weather hazard was made by County or City beyond online web pages which often is not accessible to those living outdoors. No storm protocol from County was made to alert Cities to provide satisfactory response. Local church efforts remain obscure to protect private interests. A conflict arises when public government relies on church outreach to supply the only public center for shelter, yet it is local churches that continue to be the default to satisfy this need due to lack of City and County response.
Local community volunteers print and distribute flyers to those on the street to alert them to shelter options. Volunteers who witness the needs on the street continue to communicate a need for city and county responsiveness. Public outcry and dire weather resulted in the temporary opening of Maritime Heritage Center and the County Civic Center by City and County officials. It was staffed by council members, BPD, Sheriff’s department, and countless volunteers to offset lack of needed shelter during inclement weather. The City Maritime location remained open for less than one week of the storm. The County Civic Center remained open over a week and discontinued as of March 1st. Cold weather still impacts the many lives without shelter who must endure below freezing temperatures at night if they cannot find shelter at the Mission.
A local business Hohl Feed and Seed was severely impacted by devastating fire, sadly caused by an unhoused individual in the community who utilizes many public services to support himself who was likely seeking shelter and warmth. It has become a point of contention with local leadership between City and County councils as to whom is responsible for provisions that would support the unhoused population during winter months. It is clear that lives are at risk to both the housed and unhoused community for lack of this provision.
No satisfactory public warming center(s) are provided during winter months to offset public risk and both the housed and unhoused stranded outdoors have alerted city and county officials of this lack. No warming center has been established beyond emergency response measures enacted after public outcry from the local community two weeks after the onslaught of this 2019 winter storm. Tragically, a tent was found behind a local Haggen occupied by a deceased resident who did not survive the storm. It is unknown the number of injured or deceased as winter months continue to impact the lives of those living outdoors.
Local residents both housed and unhoused continue to provide as much outreach as possible to their neighbors despite the City and County inaction and ongoing debate of liability and cost. Local activists are mobilizing to ensure homelessness rights are made evident to clarify legal interpretation of constitutional law in municipal coding that may wrongfully criminalize an unhoused person for what is considered life-sustaining activity, including outdoor survival during winter hazard when local agencies are not made available to sustain local lives.
Donations are still being made to Homes NOW to offset winter outreach costs for food, hotels, transportation, and replacement gear caused by damages from the storm. PayPal firstname.lastname@example.org
Links to VIDEOS of Community – Winter 2019
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