The director of Lighthouse Mission Ministries said the organization will continue looking for a place to put a homeless shelter in Bellingham, regardless of the recent impasse between the city and the county.
That's because the shelter has always been a Lighthouse Mission project — no matter that it's been working with the city of Bellingham and, more recently, a coalition that included Whatcom County government, to find a site, Executive Director Hans Erchinger-Davis said.
The mission is "still desiring to do an appropriate-sized shelter for the population that is currently existing. We're searching. We just don't have the city searching for us. We're not out of the game by any means," Erchinger-Davis said.
There's been a nearly three-year effort to find a location for a low-barrier shelter for 200 homeless men and women, using criteria that included a place that was within a 10- to 15-minute walk of the mission's existing operations on West Holly Street.
"I take it very seriously," Erchinger-Davis said. "We're going to work hard to try and find a spot, because our people that we're serving are too important to be left languishing."
Last week, Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said that building a permanent homeless shelter of that size near the Lighthouse Mission, essentially, wasn't going to be possible.
"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 to the Homeless Strategies Workgroup.
"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 workgroup is made up of officials from Bellingham and Whatcom County government, business organizations, and those who help the homeless, including Erchinger-Davis.
Linville wrote to the group, which next meets on Thursday, after County Executive Jack Louws said the Whatcom County Health Department at 509 Girard St., which was the most recent top contender for a shelter site, wasn't suitable.
"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 has said.
As the search continues 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.
Low-barrier 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 city allowed the center to be temporarily used as a shelter site, and that allowance will continue for another 3-1/2 years, although the decision is being appealed to the hearing examiner by a neighboring business owner.
It will continue to serve that function while the Lighthouse Mission continues its search for a permanent location, preferably within walking distance of the downtown core.
"But if there really is nothing possible," Erchinger-Davis said, "we'll consider our options."
He said that an advantage of working with the city was that the city took the heat from people who were opposed to having a homeless shelter near them.
"Now, we'll be taking the heat," Erchinger-Davis said.