Winter is here, with snow and freezing temperatures.
Locally, hundreds of people who are unhoused gather around fires at night in small makeshift encampments behind businesses, huddle in store fronts, shelter in their weathered cars and RVs, or sleep out in the woods.
Why choose to rough it, alone or together? Why not stay at Base Camp, the only homeless shelter in Whatcom County?
Lighthouse Mission Ministries’ Base Camp staff see their work as building relationships and encouraging folks without houses to come to the shelter. They help with mental health and substance abuse services, and provide connections to work, lost families and other services.
Base Camp can house 200 guests in its Cornwall Avenue facility and 40 more at its overflow shelter that opened Dec. 1. The shelter is considered “low barrier,” with a code of conduct forbidding fighting, stealing and possession or use of intoxicants or illegal substances. Bags aren’t routinely checked and intoxication will only get someone kicked out if their behavior is disruptive.
About 832 people in Whatcom County were unhoused according to the county’s annual point-in-time survey in late February. For some among these hundreds of houseless, the shelter’s inability to accommodate everyone, the low barriers, safety and health concerns, the shelter atmosphere and rumors are cause enough to decide that life on their own terms is the best way to go.
‘It’s hard to trust people’
Red sleeps just outside Bellingham’s city center, close enough to reach food and get a helping hand, but secluded and far enough away that he feels moderately safe. He’ll visit encampments only during the day.
“It’s hard to trust people,” said the former Lummi Nation resident in an encampment behind WinCo Foods. “When I first came out here, I tried to keep as much as I could from my old life [with] what I could carry in a cart, but that got stolen so many times that I just shoved my whole cart in the ditch. After that, it was whatever I could carry in a backpack. But now, it’s just whatever I can put in my pockets.”
“When you get people into a big group, everybody reverts down to the lowest common denominator,” said Marcus, another former Lummi Nation resident who didn’t want to share his last name.
Red and Marcus don’t stay at Base Camp, worried about safety and that their belongings would be stolen.
Base Camp president and CEO Hans Erchinger-Davis said Base Camp is safe and provides secure storage for guests’ belongings. They may store whatever they can fit into a locker beneath their assigned bed and access it from 11 a.m. to 11:15 a.m., but they may not store more than what fits.
Erchinger-Davis, who has worked at Base Camp for 16 years, said that most reported thefts are just lost items and that true theft is very rare. The frequency of theft is a misconception, he said, and doesn’t compare to what happens in encampments.
Base Camp has security cameras that can help track theft when it happens, Erchinger-Davis said, but there are no statistics to share about documented thefts, though the mission does track 9-1-1 calls.
Alcohol, drugs, mental illness
Marcus has concerns about the crowd beyond the threat of theft.
“As soon as I walked in, I knew I wouldn’t feel comfortable there,” Marcus said of the night he arrived at Base Camp a week ago, before his tribe found him a motel. “I’m uncomfortable around people who may not be able to control themselves.”
The severe anxiety of being around a lot of people is the top reason why people are afraid to stay at Base Camp, Erchinger-Davis said, but the low-barrier rules are enforced for the security and comfort of guests so they don’t have to deal with the severe intoxication or decompensated mental health of other guests.
Half to 80% of those who stay at Base Camp deal with drug addiction and mental health issues, Erchinger-Davis said, and most are dealing with childhood trauma.
After considering the needs of guests and outside weather conditions, Base Camp staff will “safety-exit” (remove) individuals who are disrupting the shelter community. This may take form in asking a guest to walk off intoxication for a few hours, Erchinger-Davis said, or could result in the guest completing a “safety plan,” which may include seeing a service provider before being re-admitted.
“We tell people this all the time, though they’re not always willing to hear it in the moment, but there’s always a pathway back,” Erchinger-Davis said. “It really depends on the person for how long.”
Life on the streets
Trusting staff to mitigate threatening behavior might be too much for those who’ve learned to trust no one while living on the streets.
Misty Rose lives houseless in downtown Bellingham with her two boys, both young adults, and said she is robbed on the streets almost every week. Rose’s tarp has been torn down by city officials telling her to move and her belongings cleared by Bellingham police. She tried to stay in the woods, but fled back to town after escaping sexual assault. She traverses downtown in a wheelchair after being struck by a car and then a truck on different occasions.
“I’ve watched [Bellingham] change so much and I won’t move because this is home,” said Stephan Graves, a homeless amputee who stays in storefronts downtown. He has seen people overdose in the streets and then get robbed. When he had his legs, Graves said, he was inclined to perform vigilante justice to ward off dangerous individuals downtown.
The houseless weigh their options for shelter, comparing one danger to another, Marcus explained. It’s dangerous to travel alone because of theft and assault and therefore better to stay together in camps, but sometimes anti-homeless people drop bullets in their fires to clear their camps or hit them with cars, Marcus said.
Erchinger-Davis believes low-barrier rules allow Base Camp to serve almost everybody, and maintaining some rules sets the mission apart from no-barrier experiments like Camp 210 where there were reports of stabbings, sexual assaults, illicit drug use and COVID-19 breakouts.
“People like to talk about [no-barrier] because you want to be able to serve everybody, but no-barrier just doesn’t work,” Erchinger-Davis said.
Bur Red sees threats from other homeless folks on the streets, from police wanting to clear encampments, from anti-homeless residents and from other guests in Base Camp.
It’s better to “trust nobody always,” he said; and better to do that out on your own than in Base Camp.
Sleeping and sanitation
Roseanne Lorenz sleeps in a small tent with her mother adjacent to WinCo Foods. Before leaving a tiny home because it was too small to accommodate her belongings and wheelchair, Lorenz tried staying at Base Camp, but wasn’t able to sleep beside her partner.
“We separate the men from the women during the sleeping hours for safety,” Erchinger-Davis said, though they can be together during the day.
But for Lorenz, that was enough to stay away, and she is awaiting help from the mission to get a motel to temporarily stay in.
Some folks on the street like Rose avoid Base Camp for fear of outbreaks.
“For me personally, it’s the headlice and cellulitis,” Rose said. “I can’t stand the headlice — it scares me.” She’s heard of outbreaks of both in Base Camp and that’s enough for her to brave the winter freeze, she said.
Erchinger-Davis said he’s not aware of any outbreaks at Base Camp, besides COVID-19 last year, which also affected encampments. Base Camp has protocols to eliminate lice and bed bugs, weekly medical clinics and a nurse practitioner who can prescribe shampoos and lotions. There are on-site vaccinations, testing and regular sanitizations.
Base Camp’s rules against drug and alcohol use and possession on-site are a deterrent to its services for some people, as use and possession permeate the lives of many of the houseless.
Graves doesn’t stay at Base Camp anymore after a staff member burst into his bathroom stall a month ago, believing he was using drugs. Graves said he did have drugs with him, but he’d been changing soiled clothes at the time.
“I knew something like that would happen, so I didn’t really stay before that,” Graves said, having heard unflattering stories about Base Camp. “That was literally my first night there.”
Whether it’s due to dependency or as a sleep aid, “some people want to be able to use overnight and throughout the night and we don’t let them do that and so they choose to camp out,” Erchinger-Davis said. Though use and possession are not allowed on-site, guests can take a walk where many smoke marijuana.
“When you’re homeless there really isn’t anything except for drugs,” Marcus said. “I was in a clean-and-sober house for like seven months, but when I got out, I was homeless. You feel like you lose your purpose and you end up using.”
Graves became addicted to fentanyl after using it to cope with dialysis and pain from kidney failure. Graves and Marcus are hoping to enter a methadone program soon.
Guests at emergency shelters like the Seymour Street Shelter in Vancouver, British Columbia, can access harm reduction stations with needle exchanges and clean supplies. The city’s Insite program even provides medical supervision for addicts to inject illegal substances.
While Base Camp doesn’t support services to supervise safe drug injection nor have the staff for it with about 200 guests, Erchinger-Davis said, the mission offers a recovery program and partners with Lifeline and substance-use disorder professionals. The recovery program requires sobriety tests and accountability to ensure progress, and it takes about a year and a half depending on the person, he said.
“The hope is that we create an environment that fosters the desire for change,” Erchinger-Davis said. “That’s why Base Camp is low-barrier.”
Recovery and resettlement
Base Camp provides a space for the recovery program to motivate homeless folks far more than an encampment atmosphere would, Erchinger-Davis said. But, he noted, it can take 10 years or no time at all for someone to get motivated. Guests go on to find housing in tiny home villages or apartments via housing services, he said.
The stagnation of the guests who aren’t making it through recovery discourages Rose, who avoids Base Camp since she knows people who’ve been there for years. She has been in and out of the Opportunity Council housing pool for 17 years, often dropping out in defeat when they could not find her accommodations.
“It’s discouraging, the amount of help that we don’t get,” Rose said. “I shouldn’t be out here on the streets like this. They should be able to help me with a motel and being able to be clean, safe.”
“Base Camp is that sort of safety net to catch anybody, at least the vast majority of people,” Erchinger-Davis said. “Our aim with [Base Camp] is to reach the broadest amount of people we can. There’s people on either end of that bell curve that are not going to be able to be served.”
On one side are people who are newly homeless and eager to move on, Erchinger-Davis said. On the other are sex offenders, violent people and those with severe mental health and addiction that makes them difficult to shelter due to their disruptive behavior.
“There’s some folks that are so far gone that come in our doors that they’re probably going to die in homelessness because of the physical breakdown of their bodies and their livers and their brains,” Erchinger-Davis said. “We really try and create a space for those folks to live their best life.”
Ed.: Houseless and homeless folks can pursue housing and other social services through the Opportunity Council, access support and aid through outreach services like HOT and the Mission’s Street Connect, find shelter at Base Camp and its overflow shelter in cold weather conditions and apply to stay in tiny home villages.
—Reported by Kai Uyehara
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