Standing in front of the north entrance of the Lakeway Fred Meyer in Bellingham, local houseless resident Oh asks for a few dollars to spot him for some antifreeze. Oh needs the antifreeze for his leaky car engine, which he keeps running as much as he can during the winter, to keep him warm. Oh will go through one to two antifreeze bottles a day. Without it, his car engine will die, and he could potentially freeze during a cold winter night in Bellingham.
All of Oh’s life is in this car. The back of the car is closed with the help of bungee cords and one of the handles is held together with duct tape. The brakes don’t work like they should, making long distance travel incredibly difficult.
Despite all of the complications tied to this vehicle, Oh prefers to live in it, parked out front of his damaged trailer, than in a county or locally managed shelter. This is out of fear of theft or damage to the few things left he holds dear.
“I’m lucky my stuff’s here still. I was supposed to be towed on the 12th, gone,” Oh said.
Not keeping pace
Oh is far from being the only person still on the street during the winter. The increase in homelessness this year compared to years prior has made it difficult for the city to keep up with sheltering.
“We aren’t prepared enough,” said Whatcom County Council Member Kaylee Galloway. “What we’re realizing is that even as we ramp up our services and our programs and our housing projects … we’re not able to keep pace with the rising levels of homelessness and of housing insecurity.”
Every year, sometime in January, Whatcom County does a point-in-time census, essentially a rough count of every person experiencing homelessness in the county on a given day. The data provides the county with two things: the first is an estimation of how close to reaching shelter goals they are, and the other is to estimate how much additional aid will be needed that year to address the growing homelessness.
The 2021 Whatcom County Annual Report on Homelessness includes the most recent set of data used to plan for winter months of 2021 into the beginning of 2022. The pandemic made it much harder last January for surveyors to accurately count as compared to previous years.
“I think at the time we had maybe three active members in the field,” said Teri Bryant, director of the Opportunity Council’s Whatcom Homeless Service Center. “We had fewer people counting and we still counted more people, so I feel that it’s probably quite likely that there are even more people experiencing homelessness.”
In the 2021 census, surveyors counted 859 individuals experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County. Of those, 641 people were in a shelter of some kind, like overnight shelters, or temporary housing such as tiny homes. The report does not specify how many people were in overnight shelters versus temporary housing.
The remaining 218 were living in the streets on in their cars.
Overall, these numbers are the highest Whatcom County has seen since the 2008 census, which found 851 people experiencing homelessness. The number has been on a steady rise since 2012 when 493 people were counted.
In the cold
Because of the possible discrepancies in the census, there is a higher chance for shelters to hit capacity early.
“Our winter sheltering is already nearing capacity, so that means that we’re going to need to be able to go even higher when the severe weather event occurs,” said Bellingham City Council member Michael Lilliquist. “I think the simple answer is if it’s no worse than last time, we’re okay. But if it’s worse than last time, we’re not. We barely pulled it through. We maxed out our resources and we could pull it together for a week … if it’s worse than before, then I don’t know.”
Lilliquist’s solution to the yearly winter crisis is better planning beforehand.
“The time to solve the overnight shelter problem is not tonight,” Lilliquist said; the time to solve it would have been a year or two ago by implementing long-term solutions. “I don’t want to have more shelter beds to accommodate all the homeless people. I want to have fewer homeless people, so that there’s enough beds for those who remain.”
Lilliquist isn’t alone is this thinking, with other politicians and homelessness advocates such as Galloway and Bryant agreeing, that Whatcom has an affordable housing problem. However, housing problems cannot be solved overnight, and they were not solved in time for the winter. The long-term solutions for the future don’t help people like Oh who are experiencing homelessness now, in the cold.
The situation is especially pressing at this time of year, when Whatcom County sees its lowest temperatures. From Christmas to a week into the new year, nightly temperatures remained below freezing. Since then, nightly temperatures have danced around the 30-degree mark, sometimes dipping back into the 20s.
Capacity, complicated by COVID
Emergency winter warming centers were deployed by the county as the snow began to fall in December, but those began to fill up fast.
“Those get full really, really, really fast,” Oh said. “And when they do, they will turn you away. If they have nowhere to put you and they just assume there’s another shelter that’s gonna be open and that you can get there, even if you’re on foot, it’s not their problem.”
The warming shelters, Lilliquist explained, are emergency shelters and are only open during winter weather emergencies. They are not open during normal cold weather.
The COVID-19 omicron variant also deeply impacted the houseless community. According to health department director Erika Lautenbach, it’s safe to assume that all communities right now, including the unhoused, are suffering from the COVID-19 surge. Between Christmas and New Year’s over 1,000 new cases had been confirmed by the county. A new isolation facility was opened to address the new cases after the original facility on Byron Avenue reached maximum capacity.
There is not specific data on how many of those cases are from the homeless community.
For Oh, the pandemic’s impact on his community reaches further than just infections.
“The COVID situation basically makes everybody a victim,” Oh said. “The fear of getting [it] is scarier to people than actually having it. The possibility of a situation like that will make people do anything.”
Plan, and build trust
Winter preparedness goes further than having enough space or planning ahead. According to Hans Erchinger-Davis, President and CEO of Lighthouse Mission Ministries, it also involves building a relationship of trust to help people get to those spaces.
However, that trust is hard to build after what housing advocates see as sweeps of local tent communities.
“It’s messed up, because we’re humans and they’re making it illegal basically to be homeless. Like it’s criminal. It’s not our fault. A lot of us have either mental disabilities, physical disabilities, or they have an addiction problem. Addiction doesn’t mean that we’re a bad person,” said Oh. “We have to survive in the woods. In the dead of winter. If they see a tent illegally in a spot they’ll slash it, burn it, they’ll do it all and leave us with nothing.”
Before his current living situation, relying on a car filled to the brim with his life belongings and a trailer that is getting harder to repair, Oh lived in the woods. He had a garden he could grow food in, and a small community where people looked after one another. Now Oh has a hard time getting food and washing his clothes.
“They need to make good on their other housing that they were talking about doing not just shacks and little … sheds,” Oh said. “They were supposed to have some property for us so that we actually have somewhere to be positioned so we’re not losing what we own, not having to run all the time and be scared that we’re going to get tased or beat up by the cops ’cause we’re protecting what we have.”
For Oh, basic amenities would go a long way, like more publicly accessible bathrooms, or more places to wash clothes.
Most of all, Oh wants his own space.
“We know what we need to survive in a stable environment that we can help create. Keep us out of the communities if that’s what they’re worried about or [find space] where they can put us where we can mingle and not have a problem. Even if there’s no heat, we can survive that way,” Oh said.
“I say we need to be able to have a place where we can cook … like basically if they even rented us a camp, where the parks, where they camp out for a while, that will help a lot of us. But again, you’re back to square one with, people being outside, being where the moisture is, getting chronic bronchitis.”
— Reported by Noah Harper
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