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Worried homeless campers behind Bellingham Walmart face cloudy future after city action

Clearing the 20-acre property is likely to take months

Josh Thomas feeds his dog Kyra outside his "mobile dog house" — a hand-built shelter on wheels — on Friday, Feb. 16 on East Stuart Road at the entrance to a homeless camp near Bellingham's Walmart. Thomas, who goes by "Shakespeare," criticized the city's decision to clear the encampment. "Every time they decide they don't want to look at us, they're throwing out essentially everything we have," he said. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ralph Schwartz Local Government Reporter

Houseless people who have been camping on a wooded lot near Bellingham’s Walmart — some of them for years — say their future is uncertain after city officials decided on Feb. 12 to take legal action to clean out the camp. 

“I don’t have no other place to go,” Rachel Cooper, 70, said Friday, Feb. 16 outside the camp entrance at the corner of East Stuart and Deemer roads. “That’s why we’re here.”

Rachel Cooper, 70, carries a blanket into the camp near Walmart. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

At 70 years old, Cooper said she might be the oldest resident of “the Walmart woods,” as the people who live there call it. Her three children, all in their 30s, live at the camp, too, she said.

If she and her children are forced out, she added, “it would be nice if they could get us in somewhere where it’s warm.” Cooper said she has lived there three years.

The city council voted unanimously Feb. 12 to file a “nuisance abatement action” against the undeveloped 20-acre lot at 298 E. Stuart Road. City attorneys will file the case in Whatcom County Superior Court “in the coming weeks,” city Communications Director Janice Keller said in an emailed statement.

“A city team has been involved for some time in addressing the illegal encampment on the 20-acre property at the corner of E. Stuart and Deemer Road,” the statement said. “Various steps have been taken to compel the property owner to clean up and bring the property into compliance, most recent being city council’s approval on Feb. 12 to file an action in court.”

The mayor’s office declined further comment on the pending legal case.

Any resolution of the “Walmart woods” camp would take several months. City officials said they tried unsuccessfully to take steps with the property owner to clear the lot near Walmart. County property records list the owner as Li-Ching Fang, with an address in Taiwan.

Shelli Tench, a resident of Tullwood Apartments immediately west of the camp, said in an interview Monday, Feb. 19 the city’s action won’t go far enough. For months, Tench has been a vocal critic of what she describes as the city’s slow response to regular criminal activity in and around the camp, including alleged theft, drug dealing and gunfire.

To be effective, Tench said, the city needs to take action against additional property owners near Walmart, instead of singling out the one 20-acre parcel. She said the camp sprawls over 60 acres and several properties.

“They’re going to shift [to another property]. That’s all they’re going to do,” Tench said, referring to unhoused people who may be forced to relocate in the coming months. “It’s not going to solve the problem at all, period.”

Tents, tarps, shopping carts, furniture and garbage cover the property visible on the edge of the camp. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

While city officials declined to comment on what the cleanup of 298 E. Stuart Road would look like, they took a similar action on another homeless encampment less than a year ago. The much smaller camp, at 4049 Deemer Road near WinCo Foods, was cleared in May 2023 after the city filed a lawsuit against that property’s owner in November 2022.

When the WinCo camp was cleared, the city worked with Lummi Nation, the Nooksack Indian Tribe, the county health department and the nonprofit Opportunity Council to direct camp residents to services.

Michael Stump has lived at the camp near Walmart for nearly eight years. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Even regular residents at the encampment find it difficult to estimate how many people live there. Michael Stump claims he has lived at the site “going on eight years” — longer than anyone except a resident he called “Hawaii.” He said Feb. 16 the camp had maybe 30 full-time residents, with several more transient people filtering in and out.

Once the camp is cleared, Stump said some people might find housing, while others could end up in jail or treatment. 

Others won’t have any particular place to go, he said.

“That’s a lot of people coming out onto the streets,” Stump said. “That’s just going to piss people off.”

A previous version of this story misspelled the owner of the Walmart-camp property, Li Ching Fang. The story was updated with the correct spelling at 4:52 p.m. Feb. 29. Cascadia Daily News regrets the error.

Ralph Schwartz is CDN’s local government reporter; reach him at; 360-922-3090 ext. 107.

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