Opponents of Mayor Kelli Linville’s proposal to open a homeless shelter on Roeder Avenue want the Port of Bellingham to buy the roughly 1-acre waterfront property to prevent the shelter from going into that location.
The City of Bellingham owns the property, which is between C and F streets, but the port has an option to buy it, for $775,000. That agreement came through a previous land swap between the two entities.
Linville has proposed putting a 24/7 emergency shelter for up to 200 homeless women and men. It would be done in partnership with Lighthouse Mission Ministries, which would raise $1.5 million to renovate the largest building on the site to turn it into what is being called an “easy-access shelter.”
The proposed location is at 801 and 807 Roeder Ave., which is now leased to five businesses working in marine trades. The city also is working with the Port of Bellingham to retain those businesses and find new locations for them.
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On Tuesday, the Working Waterfront Coalition of Whatcom County – made up of 120 local businesses in the maritime industry – asked the Port Commission to buy the land, even as Linville asked the commissioners to relinquish the option to buy the property so financing for the proposed shelter could move forward.
The commissioners didn’t give up the port’s option.
“I’m not about giving up port property – period,” Commissioner Bobby Briscoe said. “I will never be about putting the shelter there.”
Commissioners instead asked Linville and Rob Fix, executive director for the Port of Bellingham, to look for another location.
“Our next action is to work closely with the city to see if we can’t find a suitable alternate site that’s not within the marine trades area, or at least doesn’t displace the existing businesses,” port spokesman Mike Hogan said Friday.
Business owners and the Port Commission thanked the mayor for her efforts and those of the city, agreeing that people who are homeless need help. Some praised the efforts by Lighthouse Mission Ministries, while others acknowledged the challenge in finding a suitable site for an emergency shelter.
But the Roeder Avenue property was the wrong place, they all said as they raised a host of concerns.
“This is a short-sighted and short-term solution to an issue that will continue to be there,” Matt Hardin, owner of NW Diesel Power, told the Port Commission on Tuesday.
Hardin’s company is among the five that would be displaced. He also is president of the Working Waterfront Coalition.
They feared the shelter would inhibit waterfront redevelopment and growth – at a time when millions of dollars are being spent and people are finally seeing some action – and the harm that could be done to good-paying jobs in marine trades, which also support other maritime industries such as fishing and charter services.
The property is unique because of its proximity to a boat yard, Squalicum Harbor and waterfront access, they said.
“It would be disappointing to see the use of that change,” said Jason Reid, co-owner of Pacific Marine Electric, one of the businesses that would have to move to make way for the proposed shelter. “There’s only so many places where you can work on a boat close to the water.”
Reid acknowledged there is a homeless problem. He sees it first-hand; at his business, they routinely clean up waste and camping debris, they post ads to help people recover stolen bicycles and bike parts left on the property, and boats they store in the boat yard are rummaged through.
“I don’t have a solution to this complex issue. I just want to make sure that it is thought through thoroughly and everyone realizes the impacts a decision like this has on our community as a whole,” he said in an interview. “We need to work to avoid solving one problem without creating deeper ones elsewhere in our community.”
Linville, whose father had a fishing company, said she understood people’s concerns.
“We actually think having the shelter will help the businesses down there,” she said. “There will be some place for some people who will be unsheltered to go and get services. If the shelter doesn’t get built, then we’ll have more people on the streets.”
Under the proposal, the city would contribute $180,000 a year for 12 years, for a total of nearly $2.2 million, to help pay for the shelter’s night-time operations. The money would come from city property that has been sold as well as a reworked Bellingham Housing Levy when it goes back before voters.
Bellingham voters approved a property tax increase in November 2012 to help people who were low-income and homeless get into affordable housing. The levy was expected to raise about $3 million a year for seven years.
Under the proposal – it must still go before the City Council for consideration – the city would lease the land to Lighthouse Mission for $1 a year for 75 years and sell buildings on the site to the organization for $1 each.
The affected businesses would have through May 2018 to find new locations.
It’s part of the city’s effort to provide short-term help for a growing number of people who are homeless, a trend that is being seen throughout Western Washington.
Lighthouse Mission Ministries has been operating a smaller, easy-access shelter on a temporary basis in Old Town.
Also known as a low-barrier shelter, it’s one with minimum requirements, so people aren’t tested for drug or alcohol use before being allowed entry, although they can’t drink or use drugs once inside. Fighting isn’t allowed either.
The goal is to get people through the door, give staff a chance to connect with them, and build trust so those who are homeless are willing to get services.
The emphasis is on having people come in so they can be stabilized, assessed and moved into recovery, allowing them to address their homelessness and get out of it.
Linville said she and city staff have been searching for more than a year to find the right location – away from residential neighborhoods and retail business districts and preferably in an industrial area – for a long-term shelter, which would operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week to offer people a place to stay and sleep instead of the city’s streets, trails and doorways.
The proposed shelter also would be near Lighthouse Mission’s existing buildings. The city said that proximity was an important factor, adding its property on Roeder was the only suitable location that was identified.
Detailing difficulties in finding a site, Linville said property owners weren’t interested when they heard the city wanted to open a shelter or there were other roadblocks. A possible location near the airport was nixed by the Federal Aviation Administration, and the idea of the old Georgia-Pacific West lignin plant was a no-go because it was too close to future residential and commercial developments, the mayor said.
When asked at the Port Commission meeting about putting a shelter on the city-owned old Sash & Door property in the 600 block of West Holly Street along Whatcom Creek, Linville said the city has a plan for Old Town that includes putting residences on that site, which is now an empty lot.
And while the city continues to consider the Roeder Avenue location because it’s the one that meets all the requirements, the mayor also said she would consider other sites.
“ If somebody has a better idea,” Linville said, “ I’m all ears.”
Shelter at a glance
Here is what the City of Bellingham and Lighthouse Mission Ministries are proposing for a new shelter on Roeder Avenue that could help up to 200 people.
▪ A 24-hour day center and emergency night shelter for men and women 18 years and older. It could open as soon as a year after funding and agency contracts are approved.
▪ During the day, the center would provide meals, bathrooms and showers, hygiene supplies, space for socializing, storage for belongings, accommodations for pets, and access to clinics and service providers other than the Lighthouse Mission.
▪ At night, it would provide a place to sleep. It would be free of explicitly religious activities from night check-in to morning check-out.
▪ No one would be discriminated against because of religious preference, sexual orientation or gender identity. There would be no religious requirements or prerequisites to gain services.
▪ Drug or alcohol testing won’t be required for shelter entry, but people must behave respectfully.
▪ No weapons, substance abuse or other illegal activity would be allowed.
▪ People don’t have to show identification prior to their stay. But each person would be encouraged to obtain an ID, and helped in doing so, soon after coming to the shelter.
Source: City of Bellingham