Who will solve the problems of downtown Bellingham? - Salish Current
September 15, 2023
Who will solve the problems of downtown Bellingham?
Matt Benoit

Solutions are needed for the compounded issues of a high rate of mental illness and drug use — particularly fentanyl — and a growing homeless population in downtown Bellingham streets and alleys. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current photo © 2023)

September 15, 2023
Who will solve the problems of downtown Bellingham?
Matt Benoit


Django Bohren recently stepped outside of The Comics Place — the downtown Bellingham comic book store he has co-owned for nearly a decade — to tell a man he couldn’t smoke fentanyl in front of the store. 

The man left, only to soon return holding a large bottle of a liquid and a lighter, threatening to set Bohren on fire. 

“There was a point where the sketchiest part about being downtown at 10:30 at night was some drunk kids were going to rip a tree out of the ground and throw it in the street,” said Bohren, a downtown business owner for nearly 20 years. “It now feels a lot more dangerous than that.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, downtown Bellingham has seen an increase in visibly troubled and often homeless people on its streets, with similar increases in retail theft and out-in-the-open drug use. In a national trend in cities across America, the rise in downtown safety concerns is a hot topic for local business owners, residents and elected officials. 

Comics Place co-owner Jeff Figley said the uptick in people openly struggling with mental issues and substance abuse has left them and their employees feeling unsafe enough to ask once unthinkable questions about their future. 

“We can’t exist downtown comfortably and freely, in the way that we want with our products, knowing that there is a risk of theft or a risk of deviant behavior,” Figley said. “(We’ve) had multiple conversations at this point, of (asking) ‘Is this sustainable? If this continues in this way, can we exist down here?’ And I can’t guarantee that we can.”

The shape of the problems

If it seems that homelessness, visible mental illness and drug abuse have grown worse in recent years, it’s because it has. 

Whatcom County’s 2023 Point in Time Count (PIT) — the local iteration of the federally required one-night annual survey of homelessness — showed a 27% increase in the homeless population between 2022 and 2023, according to the report released in June. 

The total number of homeless individuals on Jan. 26 totaled 1,059 — almost double what it was a decade ago. That’s the largest number of unhoused people since the survey began in 2008, according to the Opportunity Council. 

“While so much of our work is dedicated to preventing and resolving homelessness, the reality is that people are becoming homeless faster than we can get people into homes,” the nonprofit said on its website. 

The report also states that the number of unsheltered homeless — those not in any kind of designated homeless shelter — grew 91% between 2022 and 2023, from 182 to 348 people. The individuals included those sleeping in vehicles, tents, doorways or similar situations. 

The survey also queried 836 individuals who were either unsheltered, staying in emergency shelters or in transitional housing.

Of those, nearly half reported substantial or long-term mental illness, while just over a third reported chronic substance use. Those numbers were up compared to 2022, with the latter category more than doubling. 

Whatcom County dashboard data for overdose emergency department visits provides more sobering evidence. Every month of the current year for which data is available (through July) shows an increase over the previous year, in both number of total drug overdoses and number of opioid overdoses.

Most notable was in May, when 91 total drug overdose visits were recorded — nearly double from the previous May. For those not surviving their overdoses, the trend is just as grim: the county had 43 overdose deaths from January to July 2022. The year’s total overdose deaths numbered 93.

During that same seven-month period in 2023, there were 72 confirmed or probable overdoses, including 21 in March alone. 

Street-level view

Plenty of people are eyewitnesses to what’s happening downtown, including security guards hired by private businesses to protect both people and property. 

Downtown Bellingham’s alleys and other areas have seen an increasing number of drug overdoses and deaths in the past year. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current photo © 2023)

On a recent weekday afternoon in the alleyway between Holly and Chestnut Streets, one guard walked slowly past the dumpsters, a handgun tucked into his hip holster.

“All the other guards quit,” said the guard, who preferred to remain anonymous due to an employer-based gag order. “People are afraid to get out of their car here.”

Working for a private security firm on behalf of a local bank, the guard is an older man who commutes from Marysville. He’s two weeks into being allowed to carry a firearm. 

Eleven people have died in the area he patrols, he claimed, since he was hired in mid-May. Two expired next to a dumpster, he said, along with another two next to the Horseshoe Café. A guy named Don died in his car in a nearby parking garage spot, and a man named Pedro died sitting on a nearby transformer.

“They’re dying all over,” he said, adding that a nearby ATM kiosk is now closed because someone recently died in it. 

The guard said he has seen people openly smoking fentanyl and collapsing from overdose; he was able to save one of them, he said, by dialing 911. 

Besides abundant visible drug use, violent outbursts have put downtown on edge: a nearby snowboard shop is closed due to safety concerns, and the guard said he has seen people take wine bottles from dumpsters and throw them at people walking through the alley. At the Commercial Street parking garage (patrolled by another security firm), he said people have taken wall-mounted fire extinguishers and thrown them at pedestrians below.

While the guard said he has yet to draw his handgun or feel the need to do so, he questions if hiring old men is the best solution to public safety in a clearly troubled “war on drugs.”

“Is this the best thing we can do?” he asked. “I’m just out here pretending to be a security guard. I’m really not supposed to touch anybody. I’m not supposed to chase anybody. I’m just here.” 

Finding fixes

Bellingham mayor Seth Fleetwood admits there has been an intensification of social problems downtown. 

Fleetwood has spoken with business owners who’ve told him of possible relocation if conditions don’t improve, and the topic has been a major conversation in candidate forums for the November election, when Fleetwood will face challenger Kim Lund. 

“I take the effort to respond to challenges downtown very seriously,” said Fleetwood in an email. “It is a top priority of my administration, a topic of daily discussions, and we have taken many deliberate actions to help improve conditions.”

Collaborative efforts with the Downtown Bellingham Partnership (DBP) include a graffiti abatement program, safety ambassador program and security patrols, all paid for with a mixture of public and private funds. 

Jenny Hagemann, marketing and communications manager for DBP, said that without the programs, things would likely be worse. The graffiti abatement program has been particularly successful, she noted: over 3,000 tags have been removed, 280 charges filed and four prominent arrests made since the program’s launch. 

The downtown safety ambassador program, launched in April 2022, puts teams of unarmed personnel trained in de-escalation on the street during daytime hours to deter crime, assist people and support other downtown service providers like the Homeless Outreach Team, which operates through the Opportunity Council. The two-year pilot program is funded by $400,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds. 

It joins the city’s private security patrols, which began in January 2022. That program sees the city contract with Risk Solutions Unlimited (RSU) to provide uniformed, unarmed patrol members in the downtown core. This program is funded by $380,000 of the city’s general fund. 

Janice Keller, City of Bellingham’s communications director, said regular downtown patrols are during 6 p.m. and 8 a.m., with daytime patrols focused in and around City facilities and other downtown areas of concern. RSU patrols are generally one guard per shift.

In addition, Fleetwood said the city has implemented an Alternate Response Team that allows 911 to direct certain calls previously sent to police to behavioral health groups for those in mental health crisis. The city has also supported increased resources to programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) and Whatcom Ground-level Response and Coordinated Engagement (GRACE).

In April, the Bellingham City Council passed an ordinance declaring public drug use a misdemeanor, with a maximum sentence of 30 days in jail. Although those found in violation of the new law continue to not be booked into the Whatcom County Jail due to overcrowding and the nonviolent nature of their crimes, Bohren and Figley said they think the ordinance — as well as the additional of downtown beat cops working overtime shifts — has had some effect.

“I don’t think that it’s fixed anything, but I think it’s pushed things around in a way that’s benefited us,” Bohren said. “There was literally two or three months where, at some point every single day, our store smelled like fentanyl being smoked.”

security guard
“They’re dying all over,” said a security guard, who knows of nearly a dozen overdose deaths since beginning his job in mid-May. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current photo © 2023)

Figley said they’re now seeing less public drug use around their store, and when they tell someone with drugs to move away from their entryway, the person is more likely to listen. Still, Figley added that the ordinance seems to have just condensed the drug use to lesser-trafficked but still public areas.

The Bellingham Police Department also continues to be understaffed, and response times can be slow. Bohren said that, six or seven months ago during an after-hours staff meeting, the entryway to their business seemed unsafe enough to necessitate exiting into the alleyway instead. They called police, waited 30 minutes, and then left without ever seeing them. 

In these instances, Figley added, reporting an issue to police doesn’t really help him — or his employees — feel much better. 

“The perceived safety of employees working downtown, to me is maybe the biggest thing,” he said. “If people don’t feel safe working in downtown, that’s such a huge thing. It’s the heart of this city.”

Bellingham Police Department spokesperson Claudia Murphy did not respond by publication time to Salish Currentto answer questions regarding staff recruitment, hiring and vacancies.

Seeking a brighter future

A community-wide sign-on letter for additional public safety solutions, drafted by the DBP and the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, has attracted more than 1,300 signatures from local businesses and individuals. 

Hagemann said the letter calls for a comprehensive declaration and plan to prioritize safety in the downtown core.

“We want the public to know the city is committed to preserving not only commercial viability, but a clean and safe city center for residents and visitors,” she said. “While there is acknowledgement of the issue and some notable programs … have been initiated, we remain hopeful that a more broad public plan can be adopted soon.”

Two rounds of signatures and testimonials were delivered to the mayor’s office and city council between May and June, and walking tours were also arranged for council members and city officials to view the city’s most problematic areas, Hagemann said. 

The issues plaguing downtown are complex, and will require comprehensive solutions.

Heather Flaherty, executive director for the nonprofit Chuckanut Health Foundation, said that the county is still woefully under-resourced when it comes to behavioral health, mental health, and substance use disorder treatment options. 

If drugs are a major driver of crime, she said, compassionate and robust treatment options are critical.

“Jail will not solve this, and for many, will only make it worse,” she said. “Our community might be ‘safer’ for the short time someone is in jail, but over 95% of the people in our jail will get out and back into our community. We should be asking: Are they less likely to commit another offense because they spent time in jail? Did we address the circumstances that lead to their offense in the first place? Is the community actually safer because they spent time in jail? Or did time in jail push them deeper into poverty?”

The establishment of a municipal-level therapeutic drug court, Fleetwood said, is one solution planned. Currently, drug court exists only at the Superior Court level in Whatcom County. In addition, relocation of the Base Camp homeless shelter back to F and Holly Streets is being considered, he added. 

Fleetwood said the city is creating a new sanitation division in public works to expedite the rate at which the city engages in cleanup, including monthly “deep cleans” downtown. He also is creating a Mayor’s Downtown Solutions Work Group, to help downtown residents and workers better interface with city leaders and staff in charge of downtown improvements. 

Lund, Fleetwood’s mayoral opponent, said she would “fast-track a collaborative, community-centered activation plan” to identify short-term goals for downtown, including accelerating police hiring and retention efforts to bring back specialty patrols like the bicycle and narcotics units. 

Bohren and Figley said they believe that Bellingham can be a model for better handling these challenging circumstances. Whether potential solutions help 1% or 50% of a population, they added, the solutions must be taken equally seriously for the sake of everyone involved. 

“It’s literally lives that you’re talking about,” Bohren said. “I don’t know that there is a limit to how much help we should be giving those people to get to a more stable place. I think that every dollar that you invest in helping that saves a lot of dollars down the road.”

Guy Occhiogrosso, Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, points out that struggling groups are not always one and the same. 

“Not every person experiencing homelessness is a criminal, and not every criminal is experiencing homelessness,” he said. “They’re unique populations of folks, with a bit of a Venn diagram.”

Occhiogrosso hopes for adequate police staffing and more treatment options for those in crisis, but said housing is also an essential part of the equation.

A failure to adequately address these issues sooner than later, he said, could lead to more businesses relocating or closing, further reducing tax revenues used to pay for expansions of the very programs needed to help.

Whether you consider businesses leaving downtown to be worse than people dying in the street might be a matter of opinion, Occhiogrosso added. But neither, he said, looks like a healthy community. 

“Downtown is our core, our center,” he said. “If we’re not willing to take care of downtown, (then maybe) we’re not willing to take care of anywhere else, either.”

— Reported by Matt Benoit

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