Bellingham mother demands action on safety around homeless camps after man gropes her 11-year-old daughter

A Bellingham mother is demanding action regarding safety around homeless encampments in her neighborhood after a man groped her 11-year-old daughter while she waited for a ride home from gymnastics practice.

"I was driving our van to come pick her up and I saw a man clearly inebriated walking down the street slowly. So I tried to pull in front of him to get my daughter in the van as quickly as possible … but he got to her first," said the mother.

The woman did not want to be identified for the sake of her young daughter’s privacy.

Bellingham police told Q13 News they arrested the 39-year-old man, who told officers he lives at a homeless encampment in the parking lot of the Frank Geri softball fields.

Investigators say he allegedly slapped or grabbed the girl on the backside Tuesday evening, as she was about to get into her mother’s car.

People who live and work in the area say safety is an ongoing concern surrounding the homeless encampment, which formed shortly after a large encampment was cleared from the grounds of city hall in late January.

RELATED: At least one person injured in explosion at Bellingham homeless camp

 "The encampment that is here has already shown and the mayor and city council have already said they are unsafe. They cannot maintain a safe encampment, but you let them relocate across the street from schools from youth facilities," said Bekah Robitaille-Charette, a local gym owner.

Investigators say the man denied grabbing the young girl, but police booked him on suspicion of fourth-degree assault because of the nature of the alleged crime. Officers are asking the Whatcom County prosecutor’s office to file the charge with sexual motivation.

RELATED: 4 arrested as Bellingham began clearing homeless camp at City Hall

The man was arrested earlier in the day for an assault against a Bellingham police officer, Lt. Claudia Murphy says. He injured himself while fighting with the officers and had to go to the hospital for treatment. It's unclear why he wasn't booked into jail. 

"Just the fact that we are expected to live and work and play in a neighborhood that is completely unsafe. We have seen the detoriation of safety from the moment the homeless encampment moved in. Our park and our trails are rendered completely unsafe and useless to us. It's very frustrating," said the mother.

The mother told Q13 News she did speak with the Bellingham mayor regarding the incident with her daughter and about general safety around these encampments. Q13 News reached out to the mayor's office for comment, but have yet to hear back. 

The city website addresses the encampments saying in part:

"The situation is complex, challenging, and dynamic. Safety for all -- people living unsheltered, volunteers, City employees, and members of the public -- remains our primary concern. We remain actively engaged in efforts to create additional shelter options and connect people with services. In collaboration with multiple partners and advocates for those living unsheltered." 

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