The search for a place to put a permanent homeless shelter is focused on two spots — one owned by the City of Bellingham, the other by Whatcom County government.
Both sites are in Bellingham, across the street from each other, one block east of the Bellingham Police Department.
One is the current Whatcom County Health Department at 509 Girard St. The other is the westerly half of the city-owned parking lot bound by A and B streets as well as Halleck and Girard streets.
"We are making progress on the shelter," said Rick Sepler, Planning and Community Development director for Bellingham. "We anticipate the results of the initial staff analysis of these sites to be available in the next three to four weeks."
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Finding a location for a low-barrier shelter for up to 200 people has been an ongoing effort by the city, as the number of those who are homeless continues to grow.
The most recent census of the homeless in Whatcom County showed a nearly 3.2 percent increase – climbing from 719 people in 2016 to 742 last year.
Bellingham officials thought they had found a spot but the Port of Bellingham decided last May to buy the property the city had wanted for a shelter at 801/807 Roeder Ave.
Lighthouse Mission Ministries has been a partner in the effort to find and operate a permanent shelter.
Several needs are being considered during the search, including a site within a 10-minute walk of the Mission’s existing facilities on West Holly Street; away from residential areas but within walking distance of the downtown core and near a bus line; and a location with a willing seller or property under public ownership.
The city and county have been working together since Bellingham asked for help in September because it couldn't find a suitable site. They formed a Homeless Strategies Workgroup.
Sepler said the two pieces of land being considered generally fit the location criteria, but each has drawbacks that could affect whether it could provide shelter to 200 people.
"Both these sites, because of limitations, may not be able to accommodate that number," Sepler said. "We need to do the assessment to find out. As you mine down, we understand more about limitations."
One question is whether the county would be able to move up its timeline for relocating the health department, which had been in its five-year plan, Sepler said. There also would need to be a partial demolition of the building.
As for the other property, the Halleck Street side of the city-owned parking lot fronts onto a residential area, which is why the shelter would be limited to the western half away from residences.
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.
Meanwhile, the owner of a commercial office building near the Drop-In Center has appealed a City of Bellingham decision that allowed the center to be turned into an overnight and year-round emergency shelter for the homeless.
Brent Belsher of Conteslin LLC filed the appeal March 12 with the Office of the Hearing Examiner, arguing that the city's interpretation of zoning was incorrect and that the shelter wasn't allowed in an area that was zoned commercial.
Belsher's building is at 1111 W. Holly St. The Drop-In Center is at 1013 W. Holly St.
"There is a sense of urgency," Sepler said.