A noticeable difference in downtown Bellingham - Salish Current

Employees of Downtown businesses say they already are seeing some results from the City of Bellingham’s recently launched actions to improve public safety in the neighborhood. Tiffany (Fanny) Geaudreau, manager of WinkWink — adjacent to the new Downtown Public Safety Office — gets the shop ready to open for the day.  (Amy Nelson / Salish Current © 2024)

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Andrea Lawson began hearing noises from the vacant space next to her downtown Bellingham business about a week after Mayor Kim Lund’s Feb. 20 executive order to address the fentanyl crisis. 

Several weeks later, the former retail spot at 1306 Commercial Street had been transformed into the Downtown Public Safety Office, its door and windows a reflective sheen of one-way glass coating. Inside, the Bellingham Fire Department’s Community Paramedic Program is stationed Monday through Friday, along with members of the Whatcom Ground-Level Response and Coordinated Engagement (GRACE) program. The latter serves those dealing with physical and behavioral health issues including substance use and overdose. Occasionally, police and other local service partners also stop by. 

“We are so happy to have them as neighbors,” said Lawson, who has operated MW Soapworks from a shop along Commercial Street for about three years. 

The new office is the first step in a series of actions listed in the mayor’s declaration to address drug use and safety concerns in Bellingham — problems which have escalated noticeably in Downtown in the last several years.  

In an interview with Salish Current, Lund said the safety office is being approached as a pilot program that is both data- and first-responder-informed.

“We’re really keen on getting a full three months’ worth of data, and then making some programmatic adjustments,” she said. “And then taking a look again at six months, and figuring out if this was a good approach or not.”

Widespread and worsening

There’s no denying the immediate need to get a handle on what is a local, statewide and national drug crisis.  

Washington saw the biggest increase in drug overdose deaths of any state in the nation between 2022 and 2023, up 38.5% according to a February op-ed  by Virginia Mason Franciscan Health CEO Ketul Patel and former governor Christine Gregoire. In Whatcom County, data from WhatcomOverdosePrevention.org shows overdose deaths have gone up every year since 2018, with a 49.5% increase between 2022 and 2023. 

Of 788 calls placed to the county’s 911 dispatch center for suspected overdoses in 2023, 74% were within the City of Bellingham, according to the executive order; and Bellingham’s Fire Department and Emergency Management Services saw a 67% increase — a total of 898 — in overdose-related incidents in its service area year over year.

The negative trend has not eased. Suspected overdose 911 calls within Bellingham doubled from January 2023 to January 2024, and increased 375% in the downtown area over that same time, the executive order stated. 

Janice Keller, the city’s communications director, said that the Bellingham Police Department made 31 arrests for drug violations in Downtown’s central business district and several surrounding blocks between Feb. 20 and March 29, compared to 10 between Jan. 1 and Feb. 20. Additionally, officers contacted six people for sitting and lying down; three were given citations. 

The newly opened Downtown Public Safety Office places Bellingham Fire Department paramedics and physical and behavioral health team members of the Whatcom Ground-Level Response and Coordinated Engagement (GRACE) program in the center of Downtown — close at hand to deal with issues such as substance use and overdose. (Amy Nelson / Salish Current © 2024)

BPD is now regularly conducting emphasis patrols downtown, Keller said. During these, all officers not responding to priority calls are focused downtown, both on foot and in vehicles. Recent patrols have paired officers with behavioral health specialists from Whatcom County’s Alternative Response Team (ART), she added. 

The ART — a law enforcement diversion program managed by the county’s Health and Community Services Department — has responded to more than 800 emergency calls since it began operating last July. The program is funded through $2.2 million allocated by the state legislature. 

Other organizations are also chipping in to help. Last month, all 10 Whatcom County Library System branches began offering free overdose-reversing naloxone kits through a Washington State Department of Health partnership. 

Lund said conversations with the county’s health and community services department are also ongoing regarding the ability to provide medicated alternative treatments following an overdose. 

“(It would) have our EMS team be able to provide suboxone or methadone or another alternative,” she said. “We currently don’t do (that).”

Lund herself has done ride-alongs with the city’s fire and EMS units, she said, seeing firsthand the number of overdose responses being requested. Even with all the efforts to combat a drug epidemic, Lund said there is still only so much they can do. 

“We have no control over the potency of the drugs that are on our streets on any given day,” she said. “We continue to see that … the potency continues to be more lethal.”

Noticing change

A little more than a month after the executive order, some downtown business owners and employees say they are noticing at least some difference: fewer unhoused people along sidewalks, cleaner streets and brighter alleys, and more frequent police patrols. 

Across the street from the new safety office, two parking spots no longer have parking meters. They’ve been replaced with two tall signs reading “Emergency Vehicles Only,” for the two vans that paramedics are using to respond to incidents. 

The change is so new, in fact, that many people hunting for parking spots don’t seem to realize, or care, what the spaces now are for, and park there anyway, Lawson said. Paramedics return to find they have no place to park, and the offenders are ticketed, she added.  

Lawson said having closer emergency response teams is a win for the community, saving potentially valuable time for those in distress.

Keller echoed that sentiment. 

“While the number of overdoses continues to be high, our EMS responders are able arrive much more quickly when already downtown,” she said. “Lives are saved and health outcomes more positive as the result of responders arriving more quickly.”

On the other side of the safety office is WinkWink, the women-owned, inclusive sex shop where windows broken with rocks by vandals in August 2022.   

Daija Heyward, a 25-year-old employee who has worked there for two-and-half-years, said she’s recently noticed downtown streets looking a little cleaner and less populated by the unhoused. 

“It feels safer,” she said. “But I don’t know if I equate safety with the cleaning of streets. I never really felt unsafe when we had a lot of unhoused people.”

As a person of color, Heyward said that increasing amounts of police make her feel less safe — something Lawson said was a worry of some people when it came to who would populate the safety office. Although officers do occasionally stop in, she and others are happy the space is being used primarily for health-based first responders. 

Across the street at The Great Northern Bottle Shop and Lounge, Stephanie Fulmer agrees that things have gotten better since the office opened. 

The 35-year-old front-of-house manager said the shop’s employees, who park across the street in the Commercial Street Garage, previously contended with some sketchy situations.  Not long ago, tents and tarps commonly cluttered the bike rack area near the garage’s elevator exit onto Commercial.

As elsewhere downtown, the alley behind the Commercial Street Garage (the tall gray structure at left) is empty of tents these days, as the City of Bellingham and neighborhood businesses have stepped up efforts to improve safety. (Amy Nelson / Salish Current © 2024)

“It was an eyesore,” she said, “but it’s gone now.”

Similarly, the alley behind the bottle shop frequently hosted people in tents, and employees often found needles and spent naloxone cartridges.  They’re no longer seeing that. 

“It definitely seems better,” Fulmer said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what else improves.”

Local property owners are also happy about the changes.

Lund said she’s heard directly from Daylight Properties — one of downtown’s largest property owners. The organization’s contract modifications for additional private security, she said, are reportedly saving Daylight about $10,000 a month. 

Bright lights are also eliminating dark spots in alleys, installed by local property owners and businesses. Lund said the city’s fire and police chiefs have been working with downtown partnerships, discussing crime prevention through environmental design.

Where have they gone?

Some of Downtown’s most problematic areas have also been some of the busiest and most visible. 

At the corner of Railroad Avenue and Holly Street, Seth Snapp said he is noticing more police patrols and fewer unhoused folks in alcoves and other spaces that are part of local businesses. As the bar manager of Matthew’s Honest Cocktails, Snapp has a good view of the street through large windows as he opens the bar each afternoon. 

“I see a noticeable difference,” he said of downtown since Lund became mayor. Snapp is, however, unsure where some of those unhoused folks have gone. 

Braden Breniser, a longtime employee of the nearby Comics Place shop inside the Bellingham National Bank building, shares that concern.

“It definitely feels like there’s less people out and about, hanging around in the general area,” he said. “I definitely worry a little bit about where these people are going. People don’t just disappear. So I hope they’re finding good shelter. I would hope the city invests more in helping those people.”

Snapp, who said his wife works for the nonprofit Opportunity Council, also notes that some of the most visible members of the unhoused community are sometimes also the ones who don’t always want or are willing to accept help. 

Lawson echoes that sentiment, noting that — as a whole — the city seems to be doing the best it can to make downtown a place where those who need help can find it, and that those who don’t can walk streets where they feel safe.

“It’s a delicate balance of finding ways to compromise,” she said. “I think that — in general — the city is doing a good job of making programs available and making resources available for people who want help. But … that is the missing piece sometimes: that the people need to want to accept that help, and that’s not an element that’s always there.”

More to come

In the coming months, Keller said, the city will establish more strategies listed in the executive order, including work to be done by the city’s new strategic planning team, which formed shortly after the order and is now meeting weekly.

Lund said the order’s aim was to establish an initial set of stabilization actions, with more comprehensive planning of benchmarks of two to three years out, and longer-term.

That planning will include not only the public well-being the order recent addresses, but the best paths forward for public housing, community development, and legislative tools needed to do so, she said.

A year from now, Lund said, she hopes downtown can be a busier, more welcoming environment during the day especially. Strategists are exploring creative ways to bring people back, including a potential closure of part of Railroad Avenue during Farmers Market Saturdays.

“(As a candidate), I had a lot of conversations with people who’ve been here a long time, saying they just don’t go downtown anymore,” she said. “I want to make an explicit invitation for the community to come back, and for families to come back.”

By Matt Benoit

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