Editor’s Note: This story is part of an occasional series covering the impact of homelessness in Whatcom County.
Shuffling tents and belongings from alleyway to alleyway is a common routine for downtown Bellingham’s homeless people.
They’re asked to move frequently by the city, which received thousands of complaints to the Public Works Department in the past year about “encampment activity” and litter.
But often, there’s nowhere for them to go due to the lack of sufficient housing and shelter spaces being at capacity. The lack of public bathrooms also creates unsanitary conditions in areas where people pitch their tents, leaving some homeless people living near trash and human waste.
City officials say the process requires balancing compassion with public safety and cleanliness. The cleanup efforts, once tasked to police and now a public works responsibility, are done by trained city workers with the intent to minimize harm.
But one homeless woman said she and other family members felt city workers were not respectful to them.
In early January, the family alleged city workers threw away items that included medical supplies: a wheelchair, a back brace and medication, after receiving a notice that they would have to move from an area between Railroad and Cornwall avenues, where they had camped for two weeks.
A member of that family, Peachz Lorenz, has a curved back and it hurts often, due to wear and tear on the body and an old injury, she said. She told CDN that she needed the brace and her medication to keep her back feeling okay. “What kills it is the co-pays,” she said. “Especially when the city throws your medication away.”
Lorenz said she was in the alley sorting through their belongings when public works staff began throwing away some of their possessions.
Eric Johnston, the city’s public works director, said the public works team would not dispose of medications or medical devices “intentionally or with purpose.” But he said that if items are covered in human waste or within a pile of belongings covered in waste, city staff might throw them away.
The city’s work order report, obtained by CDN, said the family was “encroaching into the pathway of the alley,” preventing delivery trucks from getting by safely. The document states the public works staff had visited the family three times in seven hours that day, and the last time, stayed with them until their tent was down. Human waste was reported around the camp.
Johnston said these camp cleanups exist in a “complex regulatory environment” which comprises City of Bellingham code, state law, court decisions and their own best practices. The city’s own procedures have been vetted by the city attorney’s office, he said, and emphasized that they aim to be “compassionate.”
How the city’s cleanup process works
In 2023, the city received 2,767 service requests on encampment activity, and performed 970 work orders for encampment cleanup and 98 work orders restoring areas where camps had been along greenways. Documents show public complaints made through the See/Click/Fix online portal reported litter, human waste, drug use and people digging through trash and blocking doorways and alleys.
Public works removed 301 tons of solid waste in encampment cleanups last year, according to numbers provided by Melissa Morin, assistant communications director at the city.
The cleanup process begins when they receive a complaint about a specific camp or tent, Johnston said.
The public works team will then post a notice at the location with the specific violations and a time the city expects the site to be cleared by. Johnston said at that point, they also notify the Opportunity Council’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT).
HOT lead Marisa Schoeppach confirmed this and said they aim to build trusting relationships with and offer services to those staying in encampments.
When city workers return at the specified time, Johnston said, the camps are often abandoned, and workers clean up the area. When asked what an interaction would look like when people had not left the area after a notice, Johnston said there was no “blanket response.”
“In the very rare cases where somebody has established a camp, for lack of a better term, and they have not chosen to leave, at some point, we will encourage that to occur with more frequent and kind encouragement to move along.”
Johnston said the public works team can provide bags for people to put trash in and helps to find ways to move their personal belongings, but said often, “our help is not desired and not wanted.”
Public works has protocols around preserving belongings, but they will not store or keep materials that are soiled, Johnston said.
“The stuff that we’re cleaning up is almost entirely soiled or wet or dirty or covered with something that we cannot deal with. Fentanyl wrappers, drug needles,” he said. “… It’s not safe for people to be going through a pile of things looking for something that might need to be preserved at the risk of getting exposed to something that’s harmful to them.”
Ace Lorenz, Peachz’s brother, said that in the last few months, he and his mother experienced having tents cut by public workers. Johnston said they would not cut a tent if someone were inside it.
“Once they have left, we will take that structure down,” he said. “If it is soiled and not salvageable, we’re not going to store it. It will go in a trash receptacle.”
The public works department wasn’t always tasked with this role. Before 2022, police were responsible for parking enforcement, code enforcement and litter control, until the city council and former Mayor Seth Fleetwood assigned these tasks to public works, freeing up police to do criminal law enforcement.
Riley Grant, public works communications and outreach manager, said the work transferred to public works aligned with city council’s goals of cleanups having a “non criminal” focus. She said staff can request support from police, but most interactions with homeless people are by department staff and outreach teams.
Markis Dee, a homeless advocate and director at Serenity Outreach Services Bellingham, said he’s concerned with public works employees doing this work, fearing it results in a lack of oversight of the interactions.
“They’re not wearing body cameras and they’re coming into contact with a very compromised and complicated group of community members,” he said.
Grant said staff assigned to this work have “attended several trainings in deescalation techniques, emotional intelligence and communications.”
Where do they tell people to go?
Johnston acknowledged that they’re often moving people without a clear place for them to go next. Especially in recent months, shelters have been mostly full, and shelters are not an option for some.
Lorenz and fiancée Mark Arnold, who are waiting for housing through the Opportunity Council, said they generally stay away from shelters because they want to stay together and be able to keep all their belongings. Base Camp splits up men and women and has limited storage.
Johnston said this creates a “complex dynamic.”
“We’re not interested in forcing people to leave unnecessarily but we do need things to be cleaned up and things moving along at the appropriate point in time,” he said. On the city’s website, it states that camps would be removed when there’s limited shelter availability, when there are “serious public health and safety concerns,” construction projects or damage is being done to “environmentally sensitive areas.”
Dee said the consequence of these cleanups is they push homeless people further into the shadows, making it more difficult for outreach teams to try to support people living on the street.
“They push them off every public thoroughfare where outreach individuals like myself might be able to find them, where some people could take the trash away from them and help bring them supplies, and push them further into the woods,” he said.
Johnston acknowledged that being told to move would be a “tough place” for someone to be in, but that they need to maintain sanitation in the city.
“Our intent is not to do people harm,” he said. “Our intent is to make sure that they have access, and they can get to the services where they can most be beneficial from that.”
Solutions coming for public bathrooms in summer
By this summer, three portable, stand-alone, outdoor bathrooms will be installed in the city to allow nearly 24/7 access to restrooms. Dubbed “Portland Loos,” one will be at Waypoint Park, Johnston said, and the other two will be in the downtown core.
Lorenz said in November, when her family was living in the alley between Railroad Avenue and State Street, the lack of public washrooms created real issues for her family and all homeless people who live downtown.
“At night and during the day when we have to use the bathroom, it’s bad. They really need to figure out something,” she said. “Where are we supposed to go at night? They’re mad if we go in a bucket, they get mad if we go in the street.”
Charlotte Alden is CDN’s general assignment/enterprise reporter; reach her at email@example.com; 360-922-3090 ext. 123.