After 3 years of debate, this is where Bellingham is on a site for a homeless shelter

The current location of the Whatcom County Health Department, 509 Girard St. in Bellingham, was being considered for a low-barrier shelter for up to 200-people.
The current location of the Whatcom County Health Department, 509 Girard St. in Bellingham, was being considered for a low-barrier shelter for up to 200-people. evan.abell@bellinghamherald.com

If a permanent homeless shelter for 200 people is going to be built in Bellingham, it's not going to be on two properties in the downtown that were most recently being considered.

It's not going to be elsewhere in the city's core. And it likely won't be operated by Lighthouse Mission Ministries, as had been proposed.

That's the latest on a years-long effort that hit yet another bump after Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws said he didn't support using the Whatcom County Health Department at 509 Girard St. for the shelter. The property, owned by Whatcom County government, was one of two recent possibilities and, apparently, the top contender.

In response, Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville wrote to the Homeless Strategies Workgroup, saying she was "disheartened by this development."

The group, which Louws is part of, is a city-county coalition weighing possible shelter locations.

"After nearly three years of searching for a location, I have come to the realization that locating a 200-bed shelter in the city center will not be feasible. It has proven difficult to find partners, to find a site that meets our criteria, and to overcome the opposition around this controversial land use," Linville wrote.

"I still believe that a shelter is necessary, but no one agency can do this alone, and we have been unable to find a location that all involved agencies can agree on," the mayor added.

The Homeless Strategies Workgroup was formed after the city asked the county for help in September. It meets again next Thursday.

Two sites

The Girard Street site is now occupied by the Whatcom County Health Department.

The other location that was being considered for the shelter was the westerly half of the city-owned parking lot bound by A and B streets as well as Halleck and Girard streets.

The sites were across the street from each other, one block east of the Bellingham Police Department.

Girard Street seemed to have been the preferred location.

The parking lot site "is closer to schools and residences," City Council member Michael Lilliquist said. "They are the buffers around the Girard Street site, and have no buffers of their own."

"No site will be without drawbacks, and so our job is a balancing act of weighing the positives and negatives," added Lilliquist, who is on the Homeless Strategies Workgroup. "I would not rule out the possibility that another site may be found that satisfies the balancing test. The search has not ended."

Neighbors near the proposed shelter locations were concerned, saying both spots were too close to residences and a school.

Louws raised those issues when he said the Girard Street location wasn't the most appropriate spot for the shelter.

"It's not the right location. It's going to disrupt an existing neighborhood. It's too close to Whatcom Middle School and it's going to disrupt the area in and surrounding where our senior center is," Louws said.

Search history

Finding a location for a low-barrier shelter for up to 200 people has been an ongoing effort by the city.

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.

The Lighthouse Mission has been a partner in the effort to find and operate a permanent shelter.

The criteria for a shelter site, based on the needs of the city and Lighthouse Mission, had been:

A spot within a 10-minute walk of the mission’s existing facilities on West Holly Street. The short distance was needed by the mission’s volunteers, which include those who have gone through the organization’s programs. It also would keep down costs for the mission's operations, in part because it wouldn’t have to build additional laundry and kitchen facilities.

Property that was away from residential areas but near a bus line and 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.

A site with a willing seller, or property under public ownership.

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

City officials have been unable to find a site under those requirements and that, in turn, could affect how many people a permanent shelter might house and what organization may operate it.

"We've exhausted our choices," said Rick Sepler, Planning and Community Development director for Bellingham. "It's become apparent that we have just not been able to find a good fit."

Linville said the existing temporary shelter operated by the Lighthouse Mission will stay open for the next three years.

"We are still committed to serving this population and to finding solutions to homelessness," the mayor said.

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. The city is expected to submit a motion to dismiss the appeal next week, and the hearing examiner should rule on that by May 25. If the hearing goes forward, then it will be on June 13.

Belsher's building is at 1111 W. Holly St. The Drop-In Center is at 1013 W. Holly St.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea
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