Climate change makes it harder to serve the homeless in Whatcom
Melissa Gragg Wisener was scared when she logged onto Facebook on November 16, following record rainfall and flooding in Whatcom County.
But the executive director of Bellingham’s Serenity Outreach Services was not worried about herself. She worried about homeless community members who were left homeless. Many of them live along streams in wooded areas – while this might be a good place to avoid law enforcement clearing out encampments, it’s not safe during a flood.
“Most of the camps have disappeared. I don’t know if everyone is okay yet,” Gragg Wisener said in the social media video, choking. “And I won’t for a while because they’re not counted correctly and there’s no way to track them properly.”
In 2021, Whatcom County experienced scorching heat waves, suffocating wildfire smoke, and intense rainfall that brought destructive flooding. In a frigid finale to the year, snow dumped across the county and arctic winds brought wind chill factors of -14 degrees.
Extreme weather is weighing on the homeless homeless community and the organizations that serve them, resource providers Whatcom told the Bellingham Herald. Suppliers recount a year in which the unforgiving conditions piled an additional burden on what they describe as their sometimes understaffed and underfunded teams. As these workers look to the future, some are wondering how to keep pace with climate change, which will bring hotter, smokier summer days and heavy rains in the winter.
“Our funders ask so much of the people doing this work. They always ask people to go above and beyond,” said Teri Bryant, director of the Opportunity Council’s Whatcom Homeless Service Center. “It’s hard to do when you’re already at 110 per cent.”
Bryant is expected to lead a team of 14, but two employees are currently furloughed and there are three vacancies. She worries about filling these positions — it’s increasingly difficult to find and retain staff during the pandemic without the ability to offer a higher salary.
Homelessness in Whatcom reached its highest level in more than a decade last year, according to the annual tally, taken on January 28, 2021. The 859 people counted is likely an underestimate, said Markis Dee Stidham , director of civic engagement at Serenity Local Services. He brings the figure closer to 1,500.
Whatcom County typically responds to extreme weather events as they occur, urgently reaching out to local churches and sometimes setting up weather shelters within hours, Ann Beck said. social services supervisor for the county health department housing program. But during the pandemic, the county found it could no longer rely on volunteers and churches to meet that need, she said.
That’s why the county plans to work with Bellingham to establish winter warming shelters at Bellingham Public Library and Depot Market Square through the end of this winter. These shelters, mostly run by volunteers, would operate in exceptionally cold weather.
Governments at all levels are still forced to react to extreme weather, rather than anticipate them and establish preventative measures, said Sean Kidd, chief of the psychology division at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health at the Ontario in Canada. He has researched global health work involving climate change and homelessness.
“Running around to hand out water bottles isn’t enough,” Kidd said. “We need to be more serious about this and see it as a problem that will get worse.”
When the November floods started in parts of Bellingham, volunteers from Serenity Outreach Services stepped in to monitor the homeless community.
It quickly became clear that the conditions were unsafe, but unpaid community members still scattered across town to check on residents living outside.
“Outreach workers are risking their lives to figure it out,” Stidham said. “They go into the woods, to the bed of the streams.”
Most of us get extreme weather warnings online, but if someone on the street doesn’t have a phone, has mental health issues, or isn’t on the right network, it could be he is not aware of the dangerous conditions until it is too late. , he said.
About 80% of the homeless community served by Serenity Outreach Services was immediately displaced by the November floods, Stidham estimated.
This damages the relationships that service providers have established with people who previously lived in an established outdoor location. The flooding was a “very destabilizing event,” said Bryant of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center.
“People don’t sit still there for very long, especially when they’re in need,” Stidham said. “Someone without shoes, you tell them to stand still for 10 minutes so you can bring them some, but they leave because their feet are cold.”
The health effects of extreme weather – lung and heart problems triggered by smoke inhalation, heatstroke, frostbite – can be particularly debilitating for people living on the streets. This community typically has health issues seen in populations about 10 years older than them, said Bridget Reeves, associate executive director at Lighthouse Mission Ministries. However, even when people are going through a medical crisis, they may refuse the offer to call an ambulance for fear that their belongings will be stolen while they are away, Stidham said.
As resource providers struggle to meet the needs of people who are already homeless, some fear that extreme weather conditions will increase this population. Floods in November destroyed many homes and as time goes on Whatcom could see an increase in homelessness, Bryant said.
“People used every last resort they had and exhausted them,” she said. “That’s when people affected by the floods will become homeless. We won’t see it yet.
Shelter or lodging?
The predicted increase in heat waves, wildfire smoke and intense rainfall has some local resource providers wondering if it’s time to invest in more summer cooling centers and planning flooding in addition to winter warming shelters.
This need presents a dilemma for advocates working with the homeless community: are we investing precious, limited funds in affordable housing or emergency shelters?
“Even before these conditions, there was always a tension between shelter and housing,” Bryant said.
That’s on the minds of leaders: In October, Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood proposed spending $5 million on electric cooling and ventilation systems in city buildings, which could then serve as places where community members can escape wildfire smoke and high temperatures.
There are several shelters available for the homeless community in Whatcom and Bellingham, including Lighthouse Mission Ministries base camp and overflow, which combined have 240 beds. There is also the Young Adult Winter Shelter, operated by Northwest Youth Services, and the Ferndale Severe Weather Shelter. The YWCA and some motels are available to Opportunity Council referrals.
When the June heatwave hit, Bellingham High School served as an air-conditioned space with water for community members for three days, Bellingham communications director Janice Keller said. Additional winter warming centers were provided in February and December 2021. No additional emergency shelter was opened in Bellingham during the November floods (although efforts were made to provide shelter to displaced families in Sumas , Everson and other regions).
But those resources aren’t perfect, especially in a pandemic, providers acknowledged. Homeless people may be wary of group shelters — they might have a conflict or feel threatened by someone else staying at base camp, Bryant said. Perhaps they are worried about catching COVID-19, a very real worry illustrated by an outbreak at base camp in January.
Stidham says the answer is to create more small villages in Bellingham. They provide remoteness during the pandemic, foster community and are relatively cheap to run, he said — it costs about $1,600 a month to run 20 tiny homes in Unity Village. There are two other small villages in Bellingham: Swift Haven near the Civic Athletic Complex and Gardenview Village at Lakeway Drive and Woburn Street.
Stidham wants to create 100 more tiny houses in Bellingham.
Until Serenity Outreach Services achieves its goal of ending homelessness – first here, then across the country – Stidham continues to drive around Bellingham to provide services to people living on the streets.
On the night of November 14, he and his wife did just that, he said in a Facebook Live video on November 15. They came across a woman standing on Holly Street, drenched and clearly in pain and distress, Stidham said. It was difficult for the woman to communicate, and Stidham guessed that they were the first people to talk to her in days.
The woman asked him to help her take off her gloves.
“Oh my god you guys,” Stidham said in the video. “His hands looked like a corpse you find on the beach.”
In the morning, Stidham passed by the same place, his jacket still damp from the previous night. They ended up calling the woman an EMT.
“There is no sign that she ever existed there,” he said.