by Lynnette Allen
I interviewed Markis Dee and JC Mansfield, who helped find and transport homeless people to shelter in Bellingham during the weeks of freezing weather in February, and going into March of 2019.
So many were escorted to shelter by the HomesNOW vans and the volunteers — who helped to rent more vans, provide lots of supplies, and finally provide vouchers for hotel and motel rooms. This included people on the streets, people in their own camps or under bridges or even at the hospital where they found themselves out in the cold again after treatment for illnesses, frostbite, and, in one case, a fracture.
Many of the Winter Haven tent community residents participated in this rescue, and they themselves were given vouchers for motel rooms by HomesNow during the weeks of freezing weather. Four residents have been helped to find housing so far, and more residents have arrived.
The Fountain Community Church and the Bellingham Public Library offered shelter to women who made application through the Lighthouse Mission and were approved. And a church in the county did a great job of providing shelter during the coldest week. HomesNow volunteers asked for this help and also transported the homeless still out in the cold to the church in the evening and back to town each morning.
After much outcry from the public, there were finally two emergency warm-up centers opened for men only, one by the city at the Maritime Heritage Park building and one by the county at the Garden Room at 322 N. Commercial Street. Each stayed open for only a few days. This short relief was appreciated by everyone involved. But was started too late and shut down too soon to really address the need for shelter.
JC Mansfield is continually urging the city and county to action: “Not establishing adequate public resources for every demographic of unhoused persons means choosing to let people risk their health and lives. This lack of responsiveness has devastating repercussions. Inaction in past years has resulted in a terrible death count of lives lost. We have a devastating record of allowing people to freeze to death or cause harm to themselves and/or others when using unsafe means attempting to stay warm.”
Often women, couples, and families, many of whom are working, or have been working for years here fall through the cracks of the system as it now functions — and that is documented by the many who have been speaking up at recent City and County Council meetings.
The Interfaith Coalition, which now includes 41 churches and the Peace Health Clinic, is developing a growing “Family Promise” program that is helping families stay together by offering sanctuary, meals and mentoring.
The families that apply and are approved for the program can stay several weeks — moving each week to a sanctuary offered by participating churches. Volunteers from these churches help them make choices and apply to agencies offering help.
A Bellingham resident, a volunteer working with Homes Now, Not Later’s one-on-one program, has finally helped find housing for one family. She reported (in early March), “It was snowing tonight, again. People are out on the street and it is cold. Somehow, our collective consciousness has managed to keep one family off of the street since February 3, 2019. We have spent so much money housing them in a hotel; can you not see how we could have spent that on a real home to move into? Now we know, when there is a serious intention, we can create miracles.”
The sacrifice of health, energy, funds, and, most of all, the heartbreak experienced by so many volunteers in Bellingham, is the untold story that needs to be honored. They have demonstrated a better way to care for the homeless in freezing weather.
It looks like it will take a lot of getting together — volunteers of nonprofits, churches and local government agencies — to prepare adequately for emergencies in the future. I believe it is possible.
Lynnette Allen went to the University of Iowa and then to Mills College. Lynnette taught physical education and modern dance and specialized in movement therapy. Later, she studied nonviolent communication. Lynnette loves to teach and write — and her favorite subject is consciousness. She’s a dedicated human rights activist, and recently she’s enjoyed volunteering with HomesNOW!.