By Sandy Robson
February 24, 2019
Bellingham, Washington, known for its unofficial nickname, “The City of Subdued Excitement,” is also known for its fairly subdued winter weather — not too cold, not much snow, but with a pretty steady stream of rain. Sunday, February 3, 2019, brought unusually frigid temperatures to Bellingham and its surrounding county. Those below freezing temperatures were accompanied by several inches of snow that fell on that Super Bowl Sunday, along with power outages which impacted thousands of Whatcom County residents. Local schools were closed the following day due to the snow.
While that weather may have caused some people across the county to lose power for several hours and to miss parts of the Super Bowl game, those inconveniences were minor when compared to the real life and death consequences of how the bitter cold temperatures and snow would impact unhoused people who were outside with no place to go.
The cold snap lasted through the workweek, and by Friday, February 8, Washington’s Governor, Jay Inslee, had declared a statewide state of emergency in preparation for another winter storm that was expected to move through the Pacific Northwest later that day and throughout the weekend. That proclamation by the governor is expected to remain until February 26.
Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws declared a Proclamation of Emergency for Whatcom County on February 8, 2019, due to the severe winter weather. On Monday, February 11, 2019, Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, would declare a City of Bellingham Proclamation of Emergency due to the severe winter weather. As of the publication date of this article, both (Whatcom County and the city of Bellingham) proclamations remain in place.
The cold temperatures and snow continued with most places around Whatcom County getting approximately one foot or more of snow which caused local schools to be closed from midday on February 8, through the entire February 11 school week.
Not enough shelter options for Whatcom’s unhoused people
During this period of severe winter weather conditions the only options already in place in Whatcom County for the indoor sheltering of unhoused people in the area were the Lighthouse Mission Ministries (LMM) Drop-In Center, and the Fountain Community Church, both of which are located in Bellingham. The Fountain Community Church accepts only women for whom the church provides indoor shelter (only overnight as they must leave the church during daytime hours).
According to a February 14, 2019, post on the Whatcom County Government Facebook page, County Executive Jack Louws’ 2-page February 14 “Update on Sheltering Homeless,” the LMM Drop-In Center and the Fountain Community Church have a combined total capacity for sheltering approximately 210 individuals overnight.
In order to stay overnight at the Fountain Community Church there is a screening process. That screening process is conducted through the Lighthouse Mission, and part of that screening process is that the person would have to have first stayed 3 overnights at LMM. After that, LMM is the arbiter of whether the person passes the screening based on their behavior over those three nights. If LMM approves them and wants to send them to the Fountain Community Church, then the church would accept them and would bus them over to its church. This protocol was explained by a Fountain Community Church staff person during a February 4th phone call.
During the last two plus weeks of below freezing temperature lows and snow Whatcom County has been enduring, the LMM Drop-In Center has been near capacity, but with some space still available, according to its executive director, Hans Erchinger-Davis.
However, two Whatcom County Council members were told by LMM staff on the night of February 7, 2019, that there was no space available at the LMM Drop-In Center as it was completely full. One of those council members, Rud Browne, was told by LMM staff that some people had been turned away. This was according to a comment made by Council member Browne on Facebook, in which he also stated, “it’s clear we [Whatcom County] need additional capacity/options somewhere.” The temperature low on February 7 was 18 degrees.
Making things more complicated in terms of LMM’s ability to provide shelter for unhoused people during the extreme cold, was the fact that, according to its executive director Hans Erchinger-Davis, LMM’s Drop-In Center was without running water for a week and a half during the extreme cold weather due to a broken sewer main. It took until late afternoon on February 14 for the repairs to be completed and to have water and sewer back in service and functioning as normal.
Outreach efforts by HomesNow! results in getting 100+ people sheltered during cold snap
This difficult winter storm has brought forth compassion and empathy from numerous community members for their unhoused neighbors. There have been donation drives organized by HomesNow! Not Later for warm coats, sleeping bags, blankets, hats and gloves, warm socks and shoes, and other needed items, along with donation drives for money to be used for their organization to secure motel rooms for individuals without shelter from the elements.
HomesNow! is a Bellingham-based non-profit comprised of volunteers working together to provide homes and shelter for homeless people in Bellingham and Whatcom County. The organization is funded solely by private donations.
According to HomesNow! president Jim Peterson, his organization’s significant outreach and fundraising drive efforts during the 2+ weeks of the below freezing temperature lows and snow, resulted in HomesNow! putting a total of 95 unhoused people in local motels and out of the severe winter weather. Additionally, HomesNow! was able to put-up 25 unhoused people a night in the Bellingham Seventh-day Adventist Church, which provided overnight shelter for a number of nights.
The efforts of HomesNow! to place people without shelter in motel rooms was necessary because, while LMM executive director Hans Erchinger-Davis, Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, and City of Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville continue to repeat the mantra that there is some shelter space still available at the LMM’s Drop-In Center, they ignore the reality that some unhoused people needing shelter will not go to that facility.
A religious-based shelter is problematic for some unhoused people
Instead, some unhoused people are willing to face the extreme cold and snowy elements rather than go to LMM’s Drop-In Center due to various factors such as having sensitivity to crowds and/or cramped space and noise, negative experiences some have had there, or because they have suffered some religious-based trauma and therefore cannot stay at the Drop-In Center. LMM is a religious-based organization.
LMM’s website states its vision is: “To be a consistent friend to those in homelessness that they become God-dependent healthy members of society, with such impact that our community points to Jesus Christ.” Its mission, according to LMM’s website, is: “Healing homelessness with Christ’s power and love.” Also, the stated purpose of LMM’s Drop-In Center is, “to stabilize incoming guests, introduce them to a lifesaving relationship with Jesus Christ, offer services, and provide a motivational environment that encourages life-change.”
The LMM’s executive director has stated that there is no requirement for anyone seeking shelter at LMM to be of Christian faith. LMM has provided its Drop-In Center and various services to people in need in the local community for many years, and it has been able to do that based completely on community members’ generous donations.
Along with the efforts of organizations referenced above, numerous individual community members have been stepping-up to volunteer to help unhoused people secure warm clothing and to help them secure, and get transported to, safe shelter indoors.
Kimco Realty’s unwelcoming signs at Sunset Square
A realty company with business in our community appears, however, to have recently taken a tack that is, at the least, concerning, if not harmful, when thinking about people who do not presently have the means to keep themselves warm, sheltered and safe during dangerously cold weather.
On Friday, February 8, 2019, there was a video posted on the “Hearts & Homes Bellingham” Facebook group page. According to its Facebook page, “Hearts & Home Bellingham” aims to confront the negativity surrounding homelessness, mental illness, and it “represents those who are seeking workable solutions, discussions, and actions to challenge dated stereotypes that penalize persons who are suffering from loss: loss of job, housing, money, sobriety, sanity, and support.”
The live-streamed video posted featured a local woman who is an active advocate for unhoused people and who also volunteers with HomesNow!, who was doing outreach to people without homes who were outside in the cold. She was handing out items such as gloves, etc., and trying to help them get sheltered during the extreme cold. In the video clip, she interviewed a man who described himself as homeless, and was standing on the public sidewalk right next to Kimco Realty’s Sunset Square shopping center property. Sunset Square encompasses approximately 40 retail stores and businesses.
According to its website, “Kimco Realty Corp. (NYSE: KIM) is a real estate investment trust (REIT) headquartered in New Hyde Park, N.Y., that is one of North America’s largest publicly traded owners and operators of open-air shopping centers.” The website touts that as of December 31, 2018, “the company owned interests in 437 U.S. shopping centers comprising 76 million square feet of leasable space primarily concentrated in the top major metropolitan markets.”
During the live-streamed video interview, the self-described homeless man was asked about a “Say No To Panhandling” sign shown in the video near where he was standing that he said was recently placed at that location. The sign is placed on the grounds of Kimco’s Sunset Square property. The sign reads:
“SAY NO TO PANHANDLING. CONTRIBUTE TO THE SOLUTION. GIVE TO LOCAL CHARITIES.”
The man had a sign he carried that was strapped to his backpack containing his belongings that read: “Just homeles [sic] anything will help, have a good day.”
Searchlight Review sent a February 8 email inquiry about that “Say No To Panhandling” sign to Kimco Realty’s corporate communications director, Jennifer Maisch, and Ccd Kimco Realty’s Western Region president, Carmen Decker. In that inquiry, Searchlight Review summarized the video, described the below freezing temperatures and limited emergency shelters available for unhoused people in Bellingham, and explained that for some of those unhoused people, their only option to get warm may be by using any money they might obtain from what the sign calls “panhandling.” Searchlight Review asked Maisch the following question:
“I’m gathering information for a report/article I’m working on, and I want to verify with you whether Kimco Realty placed that sign there at its Sunset Square property, and if so, what prompted your company to do that, and whether your company plans to continue to leave that sign in place?”
Maisch sent a February 8 email reply which said, “Thanks for reaching out, but at this point we’ll decline to comment.”
Searchlight Review visited Sunset Square shopping center on February 16 to check for the “Say No To Panhandling” sign that had been shown in the video. In surveying the shopping center, Searchlight Review found four of those signs which were placed in various locations around the Sunset Square property.
Lighthouse Mission advises people not to give money to ‘panhandlers’
Meanwhile, the messaging on those signs was similar to the messaging contained in a post entitled, “Panhandlers – How to Help?” that was published last year on Lighthouse Mission Ministries’ website. The post discouraged giving money to people who were described as “panhandlers” who were homeless. One excerpt read:
“Panhandling is unhealthy for the panhandler, and it is unhealthy for the community. We suggest that in place of money, you hand out bottles of water along with a Drop-In Center Referral Card. This will meet an immediate need while giving them information about the life-changing services that are offered here at Lighthouse Mission Ministries!”
On the LMM webpage featuring the so-called panhandling story, there is a “donate” button soliciting monetary contributions at the top, and toward the bottom, of that page. Seeming not unlike the idea of so-called panhandling, ironically, there are numerous “donate” buttons placed throughout LMM’s website. Also ironic, is the fact that retail businesses located at Sunset Square shopping center often solicit, through advertising, people’s patronage and spending at their establishments.
While the benefits of giving money to unhoused people who are outside around town asking passers-by for money may be debatable, it seems unnecessary, and potentially damaging, to label them as “panhandlers” which, by definition, attaches some degree of negativity to the activity.
Merriam-Webster.com defines the word “panhandle” when used as a transitive verb as: “to accost on the street and beg from.” It also defines the word “panhandle” when used as an intransitive verb as: “to stop people on the street and ask for food or money : BEG.”
Thefreedictionary.com defines the word “panhandling,” when used as an intransitive verb, as: “to accost passers-by on the street and beg from them.” It also defines the word “panhandling” when used as a transitive verb as: “to accost and beg from,” or “to obtain by accosting and begging from someone.”
The word “accost” also brings with it negative connotations. The definition of the word “accost” when used as a transitive verb, according to Merriam-Webster.com, is: “to approach and speak to (someone) often in a challenging or aggressive way.”
Cambridge Dictionary online defines the word “accost” when used as a transitive verb as: “to go up to or stop and speak to someone in a threatening way.”
In a phone interview last week with LMM’s executive director, Hans Erchinger-Davis, Searchlight Review asked him about his organization’s use of the word, “panhandler” in the post titled, “Panhandlers — How to Help,” published on LMM’s website, and asked about his recent use of the term “panhandler” during his public testimony he gave to the Whatcom County Council during the Special Council meeting held on Friday, February 15, 2019.
Erchinger-Davis said he was unaware that the word “panhandler” or “panhandling” had any negative connotations. He added that he thinks it’s just “normal nomenclature.” Searchlight Review pointed Erchinger-Davis to the dictionary definitions associated with both of those words that he and LMM use.
In our society there already exists a negative stigma unfairly attached to homeless people which many organizations and individuals are trying to change by better informing and educating people about homelessness, and about the individuals who experience it. Additionally, people who are homeless experience societal and legal discrimination, and in some cities this has even manifested in the criminalization of homelessness by enacting laws which essentially criminalize the act of being homeless in public.
For example, an August 2018 article published in the online version of The Dispatch/The Rock Island Argus, reported that the ACLU of Illinois, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty urged the city of Moline to repeal a section of its city code that prohibited certain people from soliciting money, saying it is unconstitutional.
According to the article, “The city’s ordinance prohibits a person from standing on or in the proximity of a roadway ‘for the purpose of soliciting contributions unless such a person is acting on behalf of a sponsoring agency’ that has obtained a permit from the city and meets certain requirements.” Those requirements included having to be registered as a charitable organization, to be engaged in statewide fundraising activity, and to assume liability in the event of an injury.
At that time, The Dispatch reported that the city of Moline was one of 15 cities in the state which were sent letters criticizing “panhandling ordinances.” The ACLU, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty stated in their letter to the city that its ordinance violates freedom of speech protections in both the U.S. and Illinois constitutions because it “draws distinctions based on the content or viewpoint of a person’s speech.”
The article also quoted Diane O’Connor, a community lawyer at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, who said, “Panhandling laws are used to unfairly criminalize people experiencing homelessness for exercising their First Amendment rights. Every person has the right to ask for help.”
According to The Dispatch’s August 2018 article, “The organization [ACLU] said the letters were part of a campaign seeking repeal of ordinances in 240 communities in 12 states.”
While Kimco Realty’s “Say No to Panhandling” signs placed throughout its Sunset Square shopping center property do not represent an official law or ordinance, that tactic appears to reinforce the negative perceptions of, and responses to, individuals who are out asking for help. It is up to each person how they spend or give their money and/or other resources based on their personal perceptions and interactions. How can we embrace corporations and government institutions which engage in the practice of abusing their considerable powers to influence opinions against the most vulnerable members of their own community?