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Bellingham homeless camp protest clouded by COVID-19 concerns

A homeless camp outside Bellingham City Hall has been growing for three weeks as the coronavirus pandemic surges.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — An impromptu homeless encampment stretches into its third week, spilling from the front steps of Bellingham City Hall across the street to the public library.

About 100 people are occupying the grounds. They're protesting the lack of winter shelter sites in the city.

Now, coronavirus and all of its side effects are compounding concerns.

"The substance abuse, the increased mental health health concerns that have come about because of COVID-19, I anticipate a lot more people experiencing homelessness," said Hans Erchinger-Davis, who runs homeless services provider Base Camp.

The organization houses close to 200 homeless people in Bellingham every night.

Dozens of them have migrated to the City Hall site where they can protest. But unlike at Base Camp, they can also drink and do drugs.

The city is allowing the protesters to stay — temporarily — even paying for dumpsters and portable bathrooms.

But the impacts of the camp are being felt by the general public.

Bellingham Police report calls of people being harassed as they walk by the camp.

Outreach workers have been handing out masks and sanitizer, but there appears to be little social distancing or mask wearing.

The camp concerns Whatcom County Health Director Erika Lautenbach .

"We worry about the safety of the people who are living here," she said.

KING 5 asked Lautenbach if it is safer to have the homeless camping at City Hall than dispersed throughout the community.

"Not necessarily," she said. "By not wearing a mask or social distancing it's much more challenging when you're in a space like this than when you're by yourself in a tent."

There are no confirmed COVID-19 cases at the camp but there is also no testing.

There have been a few reports of infections in the general homeless community.

For now, protesters spread their message, but they also risk spreading the virus.

As the pandemic plays on, Mayor Seth Fleetwood is securing about 70 additional shelter spots throughout the city, while a site is currently being built for permanent housing.

"We could have done absolutely nothing and let it be," Fleetwood said. "We could have removed them. What we've proposed is something in the center which is trying to increase capacity and make this as safe a place as we can in the interim."

Fleetwood says the additional shelter spots likely won't be available for at least two more weeks.

Until then, the camp remains.