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Navigating the night: Reflections on severe-weather sheltering and homelessness

Health director's up-close view of Whatcom winter survival

The Whatcom County Health and Community Services operated a severe weather shelter during the January cold snap in a space on State Street. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Erika Lautenbach Guest Writer

It was cold this month. Really cold. The kind of cold that makes your face numb as you talk, the kind that finds any exposed skin and reminds you what needs to be zipped or buttoned, and the kind that can kill a person if they’re out too long. Or all night.

Our department (Whatcom County Health and Community Services — WCHCS) opened a severe weather shelter for nine nights and five days in January with the most pressing goal: keep people alive.

We activated a cold weather sheltering plan alongside other entities including the City of Bellingham, Lummi Nation and Nooksack Tribe, Road2Home and Ferndale Community Services. This is in addition to the year-round sheltering provided in buildings and motel rooms across Whatcom County — funded by government, philanthropy and private donations — and operated by Lighthouse Mission Ministries (LMM), Opportunity Council, Northwest Youth Services, Lydia Place, DVSAS, Interfaith Coalition, Sun Community Service and YWCA. What our staff does during the severe weather, these agencies do all year round — day in and day out.

The people who came to our WCHCS shelter have been unsheltered for years, burned bridges with family and friends, struggle with mental illness and/or substance use disorder, and have been failed by systems their whole life, starting with when they were children. You probably have a picture in your mind of the people I’m talking about, and maybe you have had a first-hand experience with our most chronically homeless.

I talked to a woman who, when asked how long she’d been living outside, she said she’d lost track. I talked to a man with a wicked sense of humor and seemingly endless supply of one-liners, between his self-created conspiracy theories of alternate universes. I talked to a man who sometimes sleeps in his sister’s shed and a woman who had a bag of most of her possessions stolen the week prior. I talked to a woman who cried when I told her we were closing because she didn’t know where she was going to go and it all felt too overwhelming.

We may talk about homeless behaviors that seem peculiar or deviant, but we rarely discuss the daily indignities of not being seen, not having people to talk to, not knowing when you’ll eat, where you’ll sleep, how to get to appointments or move freely.

Amid our own fear or perceptions, we sometimes fail to see the beauty in the human experience of connection. At our shelter, I saw laughter as a wobbly snowman was erected behind the building; rummaged for a broom for guests who wanted to sweep their area each day; watched my nurse colleagues dress long-deferred foot and leg wounds, order antibiotics and make follow-up visits; witnessed the way my behavioral health colleagues nudged guests into detox or on a list for housing. Yes, we kept our guests alive for those nine nights but there was so much more to the experience — for all of us.

I share these experiences because many of us will never know the people behind the figures we see on the street, or sit in the complexity and sometimes hopelessness that homelessness brings to every community in this country.

Homelessness is our nation’s challenge, largely left to 50 states, 3,143 counties, and 19,502 cities to piecemeal together imperfect and potentially budget-breaking fixes. There is no federal entitlement program for housing, like we have for food assistance or health care. There are important funding streams, and both our state legislators and federal delegation have provided great support, but the system is still inadequately funded, never keeping pace and now losing ground.  

Yet, our community is generous and pushes for more solutions. There are projects coming this year, and they will make a meaningful difference. LMM is building a larger shelter to replace Basecamp. PeaceHealth, Opportunity Council, Unity Care NW and WCHCS are collaborating on the Way Station, with respite beds, hygiene services, connection to behavioral health and medical services, and case management. 

Ferndale Community Services stretches and grows to meet needs and innovate around north Whatcom County. We are convening system and institutional partners to develop shared priorities for how we use our limited dollars, and solutions to some of the issues that currently elude us. We will continue to make incremental improvements in our systems of support.

In Whatcom County, we end homelessness every day — for those we can serve — but ending homelessness at a systemic level will take a federal partnership far beyond what’s currently available. If you, too, are frustrated by how it feels like we’re moving in the wrong direction on homelessness, please consider sharing your experience with our state and federal delegation. Join community meetings. Encourage your organization to become involved in efforts to help. We can make progress together, as a strong and connected community.

Erika Lautenbach, MPH, has served as the director of Whatcom County Health and Community Services since March 2020.

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