The Port of Bellingham is buying 1 acre on Roeder Avenue where the City of Bellingham wants to put an emergency homeless shelter for 200 men and women.
The Port Commission voted 2-1 Tuesday to exercise its option to buy the property at 801/807 Roeder Ave. for $765,000. Money for repayment of that purchase price will come from rental revenue on port property over the next six to eight years.
The City of Bellingham wanted to put a low-barrier shelter, also known as an easy-access shelter, at that location in a partnership with Lighthouse Mission Ministries.
The city owns the Roeder Avenue property after a 2012 land swap with the Port of Bellingham. But the port kept the option to buy the site in case the city decided to allow something there other than marine trades.
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Part of the 240-acre Waterfront District, the property also is leased to five tenants in the marine trades who would’ve had to move.
Commissioners Dan Robbins and Bobby Briscoe said they didn’t want to lose land set aside for marine trades, adding they wanted to move forward with the port’s development plans. They acknowledged the need for a homeless shelter, but said the site wasn’t the only viable option.
Commissioner Michael McAuley voted against buying the property because he said the port had other needed projects in Blaine and Bellingham – at a cost of $15 million – for which it didn’t have money.
“Please don’t think I’m abandoning marine trades. I’m not, at all,” McAuley said. “It comes down to money.”
Mayor Kelli Linville said she was “disappointed” by the port’s decision.
“The Port Commission is elected to represent the interests of the entire county, and addressing the homelessness crisis will take all of us working together,” she said in a message on her Facebook page.
The city will continue to search for a site for a shelter, Linville said, but added that finding another site “will likely take much longer to develop, will be more expensive, may affect a greater number of residents, and may have additional challenges for our operations partner, the Lighthouse Mission.”
In March, opponents of the city’s proposal asked the Port Commission to buy the parcel to keep the shelter out. They said those who are homeless should be helped, but not in that location. They feared that harm would be done to area businesses and waterfront redevelopment efforts.
Linville 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 such a 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, doorways and parks.
City officials have said the property was the only feasible location, though opponents of the proposed locations don’t believe it is.
The proposed emergency shelter is part of the city’s effort to provide short-term help for a growing number of people who are homeless, a trend that is occurring throughout Western Washington and others parts of the West Coast.
Low-barrier shelters have minimum requirements for entry, so people aren’t tested for drug or alcohol use before being allowed in, 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.
Most of the people who spoke to the Port Commission on Tuesday before members voted supported the need for a shelter and services to help the homeless.
Greg Winter, executive director of the Opportunity Council, said that while a number of issues can cause homelessness, the primary problem is not having affordable housing.
“It’s the lack of housing that they can afford that lies at the heart of this problem,” Winter said. “We are facing a public health emergency where people are literally dying on our streets. There’s nowhere for them to get immediate shelter and access to services.”
The Opportunity Council helps people with housing and homeless issues.