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Winter’s coming. What are Whatcom County, Bellingham doing about a homeless shelter?

Carlos Abitia, left, greets Bellingham Fire Capt. Jeff Brubaker in September near a vacant lot where Abitia, who's homeless and living outdoors, often sleeps. The Whatcom County Council has formed an 11-member Homeless Strategies Workgroup made up of representatives from city and county government, social service groups that help the homeless, and organizations that represent businesses.
Carlos Abitia, left, greets Bellingham Fire Capt. Jeff Brubaker in September near a vacant lot where Abitia, who's homeless and living outdoors, often sleeps. The Whatcom County Council has formed an 11-member Homeless Strategies Workgroup made up of representatives from city and county government, social service groups that help the homeless, and organizations that represent businesses. rmittendorf@bhamherald.com

Responding to the city’s appeal for help as it struggled to find a suitable site for a homeless shelter, the County Council has formed a task force to tackle what it calls an acute crisis.

The Bellingham City Council’s request comes at a time when the most recent census of the homeless in Whatcom County showed a nearly 3.2 percent increase – climbing from 719 people last year to 742 this year.

The task force will be made up representatives from city and county government, social service groups that help the homeless, and organizations that represent businesses.

In August, Bellingham officials said they were evaluating property – city owned, up for sale, vacant but not listed for sale – that fit the needs laid out by the city and Lighthouse Mission Ministries, who are working together to open a new homeless shelter for up to 200 people. But nothing has met the criteria.

So the city is turning to the county, which has property within the area Bellingham has been studying for a possible site for a low-barrier shelter.

The County Council didn’t specify finding property when it formed the 11-member Homeless Strategies Workgroup on Tuesday.

But its resolution did note that the group’s purpose was to identify two to three “alternative solutions to living unsheltered in Whatcom County, with priority given to solutions that can be initiated to prevent people from having no other option than to sleep outside as the weather gets cold.”

No timeline has been given for the group to come up with solutions, but county and city representatives said the sooner the better.

“Addressing our immediate shelter needs is critical, and I also support the broader strategic framework proposed by the County Council. We need both,” said Michael Lilliquist, president of the Bellingham City Council.

Finding a location for a permanent homeless shelter has been an ongoing effort by the city.

Bellingham officials thought they had found one but the Port of Bellingham decided in May to buy the property the city had wanted for a shelter at 801/807 Roeder Ave.

As the search continues for a shelter space, the Lighthouse Mission has – since October 2016 and on its own – been operating a temporary low-barrier shelter that’s open 24 hours a day at its Drop-In Center at 1013 W. Holly St.

Drop-In Center
The Lighthouse Mission’s Drop-In Center on West Holly Street in Bellingham on March 1, 2017. The center has been operating as a temporary 24-7 low-barrier shelter for the homeless since October 2016. Philip A. Dwyer pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Such shelters, also known as easy-access, have minimum requirements for entry in order to get people through the door with the hope of getting them into services.

Lighthouse Mission is part of the task force and its leader supported the group’s formation even though it would delay a new shelter’s opening.

“It’s wise for them to consider all the options, especially if county-owned property is under consideration for the shelter site,” said Hans Erchinger-Davis, Lighthouse Mission’s executive director.

“It takes time to get everyone on the same page, though. So, yes, it will likely delay getting the new shelter off the ground,” he added. “Already in the last few days our Drop-in Center has had to turn away four to five people a night due to current capacity constraints.”

Whatcom County could be in for another cold, harsh winter – and Lighthouse Mission will continue to provide emergency housing to help keep the homeless out of frigid temperatures.

Bellingham Police Officer Eric Osterkamp walks through a homeless man's camp at Whatcom Falls Park before a cleanup by Bellingham Parks and Recreation in 2017 in Bellingham.

It will continue to operate the Drop-In Center, which can house 80.

Lighthouse Mission also is partnering with Fountain Community Church, and volunteers from other churches, beginning Dec. 1 to shelter women from the Drop-In Center overnight. That will then free up space in the Mission’s chapel area for another 40 men.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

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