A low-barrier shelter for the homeless will be built in Bellingham but where and how many people it will serve are in question after the Port of Bellingham decided to buy the Roeder Avenue property that was the city’s original proposed site.
“We’re not stopping. We can’t stop. Businesses and residents and unsheltered people are depending on us,” Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said Wednesday.
The city owned the 1 acre site on Roeder Avenue as a result of a 2012 land swap with the Port of Bellingham. But the port kept the option to buy the property in case the city decided to allow something there other than marine trades.
The Port Commission voted 2-1 Tuesday to exercise that option, and pay $765,000 for the property at 801/807 Roeder Ave.
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The city had wanted to put what also is known as an easy-access shelter for 200 men and women at that location in a partnership with Lighthouse Mission Ministries.
Linville said she was “disappointed” by the port’s decision, adding it was a “setback in our ability to solve a crisis.”
“It will take much longer to develop and be more expensive,” the mayor said of finding another location, “because we don’t already own it.”
The Port Commission said it wanted to work with the city on a new site, and Linville said she’d take them at their word.
“If the port wants to partner with us to solve the problem for the community and themselves, we’re happy to do that,” Linville said.
Part of the 240-acre Waterfront District, the Roeder Avenue property also is leased to five tenants in the marine trades.
The city said it would work with the port to retain those businesses and find new locations for them, had the shelter gone in there. One owner was relieved he won’t have to go elsewhere.
“I’m happy. I feel like we can get back to work and move forward with our jobs,” said Jason Reid, co-owner of Pacific Marine Electric. “Because this is the busiest time of the year, and I feel like we’ve been going to as many meetings as we can to find out if we’re moving, what’s happening to us.”
Reid said he wanted to remain involved in efforts to help the homeless and find a location for a shelter.
Before landing on the Roeder Avenue site, Linville and city staff searched for more than a year to find the right property – 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, business doorways and parks.
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.
Homelessness has been increasing in Whatcom County in recent years. About 719 people are without homes – a 10 percent increase over the previous year, according to a 2016 report that provided an overview of homelessness.
That number is expected to rise by another 3 percent this year, according to preliminary results of the annual census of the homeless.
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.
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.
Since Oct. 17, Lighthouse Mission has been operating a smaller, low-barrier shelter on a temporary basis on its property in Old Town while waiting for the city to find a permanent spot.
Located at the mission’s Drop-In Center, 1013 W. Holly St., the shelter – for which the Lighthouse Mission gets no city funding – keeps another 80 people off the streets at night.
Finding a location for a permanent shelter with the Lighthouse Mission remains the city’s focus, although Linville said she doesn’t know what it will look like.
But the shelter shouldn’t be Bellingham’s responsibility alone, she added.
“The people that we are trying to help are not all residents of Bellingham. They come from all over the county,” she said. “To me that means we need a county solution.”
A low-barrier shelter will provide services and a place for people to go until they can get into permanent housing, the mayor said.