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Community Sweeps Homeless Camps from Sports Fields

Paul Steinbach

Even as the City of Burlington, Wash., was clearing an encampment of homeless individuals from an athletic field Tuesday, another was popping up in a park less than two miles away.

As reported by Seattle NBC affiliate KINGcrews broke down the camp that had existed at Civic Athletic Complex since February, but then dozens of people experiencing homelessness pitched tents at Laurel Park — a neighborhood playfield bordering Western Washington University.

Earlier this month a large fire broke out at the camp and an 11-year-old girl was groped by one of the homeless as she made the short walk to her waiting mother after finishing a gymnastics class.

"We just feel like the criminal element has hidden out here to cause problems," Kent Charette, owner of the gymnastics academy, told KING. "For the safety of our families and our kids we feel good that it's finally moving."

The camp has moved from City Hall to Civic Athletic Complex to Laurel Park. 

David McGarrity, who lives near near the park, said he isn't thrilled with the new neighbors.

"The camps are dangerous," he said. "They had trouble at City Hall then over at the baseball field. Now they're coming here. They just keep pushing the problem down the road and we're spending money to do it."

Bellingham mayor Seth Fleetwood said people at the new camp have been told to leave Laurel Park by this Friday or face another sweep.

The city has put about a dozen campers into treatment over the past week, and housing for about 40 more people is on the way in a couple months.

Demonstrators have been demanding better housing for the homeless, but according to Fleetwood offers of 25 new tiny homes, additional shelter and access to social workers to give campers access to mental health and addiction treatment were all rejected.

"They've moved to another site and we're gonna deal with that," Fleetwood said. "We're gonna continue doing the hard work of standing up permitted sites. It's not gonna happen overnight. Unfortunately, that's the reality of it."

The repeated sweeps present their own dangers, according to the advocacy group Serenity Outreach Services, which posted a Facebook message condemning the latest. "The sweep goes against recent CDC guidelines (for coronavirus), Whatcom County Health Department Guidance and the recent 9th Circuit Superior Court ruling," the post read. "Continuing to sweep campers during the pandemic, and also in winter weather without providing adequate shelter is dangerous, traumatizing and technically illegal."

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