Bellingham City Council approved an emergency ordinance establishing interim zoning regulations for temporary homeless encampments at its Monday Jan. 22 meeting. Mayor Kelli Linville presented the emergency ordinance to council on Monday, and it was approved 6-1.
Temporary homeless encampments, sometimes called tent cities, are often used to provide shelter for homeless individuals. These encampments usually rotate between various host properties and often have managers and a code of conduct for residents.
State law RCW 35A.21.360 authorizes religious organizations in Washington to host temporary homeless encampments on property they own or lease. The statute prohibits local governments from enacting regulations that impose conditions on a religious organization's hosting of these temporary encampments, except those conditions necessary to protect public health and safety that are not overly burdensome to the religious organization.
Many local jurisdictions have enacted ordinances to regulate temporary homeless encampments in a manner consistent with state law. Bellingham's emergency ordinance creates the process and standards for reviewing potential public health and safety impacts of proposed temporary homeless encampments. A public hearing on the emergency ordinance will be held within the next 60 days.
Several local religious organizations have expressed interest in exploring a homeless camp site, and Mayor Linville said she is concerned that without an emergency ordinance, it could take up to six months to permit a temporary camp due to the usually long process of adopting zoning regulations. This emergency ordinance allows any temporary encampments established this winter to have the adequate standards to protect public health and safety.
"I want to thank the community members who have come forward to support this vulnerable population," Mayor Linville said on Monday. "We've been investing millions of dollars and countless hours of staff time for a long time, but it's not enough. This emergency ordinance allows us to have some rules for temporary encampments, so if we have a proposal we are ready."
Homelessness continues to be a local, regional and national challenge due to many social and economic factors. At least 742 people in Whatcom County are homeless on any given night, and finding solutions to homelessness has been a top priority for both the Mayor and City Council. The City provides $4.9 million annually for housing and services for low-income and homeless residents.
Tent encampments have become a temporary mechanism for providing shelter for homeless individuals and families, and several council members spoke in support of this emergency ordinance as well as current and past efforts to address this critical issue.
"I think we need to do this. When we have a partner, I want us to be able to respond," Councilmember Michael Lilliquist said. "I don't think tent encampments are a good long-term solution, but they may be important in the short term."
Councilmember Terry Bornemann said he believes Bellingham and Whatcom County are in crisis and an emergency ordinance is appropriate.
"I think we fall into an emergency because we have possible providers who want to help but they need assurances," Bornemann said. "If we wait, we lose that opportunity. I don't want to wait six months for someone who might be willing to step forward now."
Councilmember Pinky Vargas agreed.
"I think tonight we saw a lot of passion around people who are homeless and living in the cold, and they've asked for action and we are responding," Vargas said. "This is not our typical way, but this provides solutions immediately, which is what is being asked of us."
For more information, you can read the ordinance on the City Council's affordable housing issues page. For more info on the City's efforts on homelessness, visit www.cob.org/homelessness. For current statistics on housing and homelessness, visit www.cob.org/stateofhousing.