Saying they wanted to be able to quickly work with churches that may allow temporary homeless encampments on their properties, the City Council on Monday approved an emergency measure that would make it possible to do so.
Mayor Kelli Linville brought the emergency ordinance before the council, citing her concern for a “vulnerable population” and her desire to “set ourselves up for quick action and not reasons why we can’t do it later.”
The council approved it by a vote of 6-1. Roxanne Murphy voted no, saying she supported what the city was trying to do but didn’t like the way the measure was brought forward and the impact on public process.
The measure must have a public hearing within the next 60 days.
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State law allows religious organizations to house homeless encampments on property that they lease or own. Cities can’t forbid them from doing so.
“In this case, we don’t want to,” said Rick Sepler, Planning and Community Development director for Bellingham.
The temporary measure provides a road map should one offer its property for such an encampment.
“We’ve had some inquiries. They’re not far enough along the road to be solid,” Sepler said. “There’s a potential, and the worst place for us to be is absent rules if something did come forward.”
The temporary measure allows the city to create health and safety rules for such encampments, which could be tents or tiny homes, for a total of 100 men and women – a number that Sepler said should match the anticipated need.
The encampments could be spread throughout the city.
Encampments would be allowed on a property for 90 days at a time, up to six months.
‘We are responding’
Bellingham officials said the emergency ordinance was a place holder, one that will allow the city to immediately start working with the interested religious organizations. Going through the usual rule-making process would take at least six months.
Council members who voted for the measure said they didn’t want to wait, after hearing repeated concerns about those living outside and in the cold.
“They’re asking us for action and we are responding,” Council member Pinky Vargas said.
Council member Terry Bornemann added: “I don’t want to wait six months for somebody who might be willing to step forward now ... and maybe lose that opportunity.”
The temporary measure will last for 12 months.
A temporary tent city was one of the primary requests made by homeless protesters who camped out in front of Bellingham City Hall for 18 days in December.
At that time, city officials told the campers they couldn’t legally designate such a campsite without changing city ordinance, a lengthy process. Instead, the city reached out to 45 religious organizations and asked if they would house such an encampment.
The city would then partner with that organization to provide garbage pick up and portable toilets.
Bellingham officials have been trying for months to open a permanent emergency shelter for those who are homeless.
Most recently, it has been working with Whatcom County to find a site for a homeless shelter for up to 200 people. Lighthouse Mission Ministries, the city’s partner in the endeavor to open a permanent shelter for the homeless, continues to operate a temporary emergency shelter at its Drop-In Center at 1013 W. Holly St.