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Bellingham starts search for emergency homeless shelter for 200 people – again

People camp out for Peace Out against homelessness in Bellingham

Organizers of the second annual Peace Out encampment discuss why they've pitched their tents outside Bellingham City Hall.
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Organizers of the second annual Peace Out encampment discuss why they've pitched their tents outside Bellingham City Hall.

As the city starts another search for a place to put a homeless shelter for 200 men and women, a requirement that it be no more than a 10-minute walk from Lighthouse Mission Ministries on Holly Street is raising concerns it could be too restrictive.

“I’m just thinking that may be the one that hamstrings us the most,” City Council member Michael Lilliquist said after the council received an update earlier this week from Bellingham staff.

Lilliquist said properties that had been suggested to him – on Lakeway Drive, up on the north part of Bennett Drive, over on Cornwall Avenue – would be outside the proposed walking radius.

He wanted to start another list of possible sites in case the city couldn’t find one based on the current criteria.

The Lighthouse Mission has offered to run an easy-access, or low-barrier, shelter in partnership with the City of Bellingham. A site on Roeder Avenue had been selected, but it depended on the Port of Bellingham giving up its option to buy the property .

The Port Commission didn’t, deciding in May to buy the land at 801/807 Roeder Ave. for $765,000.

We have a project. We have a partner. We don’t have a location. And if any of those things change, they’ll probably all change to some degree.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville

Here are the current criteria for a shelter location, based on the needs of the Lighthouse Mission and the city:

▪ It should be a five- to 10-minute walk from the Lighthouse Mission, which is a requirement of the mission.

The short distance is needed by the mission’s volunteers, which includes those who have gone through the organization’s programs. It also would keep down costs for Lighthouse’s operations, in part because it wouldn’t have to build additional laundry and kitchen facilities.

▪ It should be within walking distance of the downtown core, to provide easy access to other social services and to be close to where most people who are homeless gather.

Council member Terry Bornemann questioned this requirement.

He said some services were in the downtown core, but others were on James and Ohio streets as well as in the Cordata area.

And those who are homeless aren’t necessarily downtown, Bornemann added.

“A lot of our homeless population, they’re not the ones you see down on the street corners,” Bornemann said, adding that maps of homeless camps show “they’re scattered out at different places.”

▪ It needs to be away from residential areas. The preference is that it be in an area zoned light industrial or commercial, which city policy allows.

▪ Zoning rules already must allow it to prevent further delay in opening the shelter.

▪ It must be near a bus line.

▪ A site must be available, meaning there must a willing seller or property under public ownership.

Since October, the Lighthouse Mission has been operating a temporary easy-access shelter at its Drop-In Center, 1013 W. Holly St. – for which it gets no city funding – to keep 80 people off the streets at night. That’s in addition to the emergency shelter for up to 40 people it has operated in its chapel for a number of years.

Easy-access 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.

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.

The criteria are based on existing plans, according to Mayor Kelli Linville.

“We have a project. We have a partner. We don’t have a location,” Linville said. “And if any of those things change, they’ll probably all change to some degree.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

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