Bellingham police officer walks through homeless camp before cleanup begins
When Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws said that a building now occupied by the Health Department shouldn't be turned into a emergency shelter for up to 200 homeless people, he did offer up what he thought was the best location.
That's on land next to the Drop-In Center on West Holly Street, he said, which already has been functioning as a temporary low-barrier shelter during the search for a permanent location.
The disagreement over the merits of converting the county Health Department at 509 Girard St. into an overnight shelter — an idea supported by Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville — is just the latest roadblock in a search that has lasted nearly three years. It prompted a frustrated Linville to say that she didn't think that finding land for a 200-bed shelter in the city center was feasible.
The search for shelter property continues despite the differences between the top leaders in the county and Bellingham. But the list of places it won't be grows. Read on for a breakdown of the sites.
In the meantime, Lighthouse Mission Ministries, which runs the Drop-In Center, also has promised to keep looking for a site. Ditto for a city-county coalition called the Homeless Strategies Workgroup. Neither the City Council nor the County Council have thrown in the towel, and Louws has said that he wouldn't stand in the way if both councils say they want the health department site.
But Girard Street seems to be off the table, at least for a 200-bed shelter.
On Thursday, the Homeless Strategies Workgroup discussed other options, including housing needs that fall along a continuum — from an immediate urgent shelter, through supportive services and case management, and ultimately to stable housing options, said Michael Lilliquist, a Bellingham City Council member who is part of the group.
The workgroup also looked at more modest-sized shelter options.
"We talked about perhaps building several shelter facilities that each address particular populations, rather than building one large shelter to handle the full extent of the need," Lilliquist said. "Perhaps we can address homelessness with a widened range of programs and shelter types."
He said that could include using the Girard Street building or other locations for smaller shelters or for shelters to serve those with common needs or similar demographics.
"For example, could we put a 60- to 80-bed facility for single parents with kids on that very site, or for emergency housing for families with children?" Lilliquist asked. "Girard Street may not be the best spot for a 200-bed low-barrier shelter, but it could play a powerful role in providing us with more living spaces."
As discussions and debate continue, here are the pros and cons of the property that Louws said was better suited for a 200-bed shelter and a look at other sites community members have suggested.
First, a reminder about the kind of property wanted for a shelter.
The city has been working with Lighthouse Mission Ministries to find a place to put a low-barrier shelter to provide a place for homeless men and women to sleep overnight.
Lighthouse Mission owns the Drop-In Center at 1013 W. Holly St., which the city has allowed to operate as a temporary and smaller shelter for the homeless since October 2016.
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.
- That was a five- to 10-minute walk from the Lighthouse Mission, which was a requirement of the mission. That walking distance was later increased to 15 minutes to broaden the search. The short distance was needed by the mission's volunteers, which included 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.
- Within walking distance of the downtown core, to provide easy access to other social services and to be close to where many people who are homeless gather.
- That was away from residential areas.
- The preference was that it be in an area zoned light industrial or commercial, where such a shelter would be allowed in order to prevent further delay.
- Near a bus line.
- That was available, meaning there must a willing seller or property that was under public ownership.
So, what about that land next to the Drop-In Center in Old Town?
Louws' idea is to have Lighthouse Mission acquire two empty lots — one of which is owned by the city — that are adjacent to the Drop-In Center and construct a three-story building. Next, demolish the Drop-In Center and then convert that space into a courtyard for those staying at the new homeless shelter.
Neighbors have complained about people at the Drop-In Center spill outside the temporary shelter and continually cross busy Holly Street. Louws would have the courtyard below street level to reduce the number of people on the street.
Louws said his recommendation was based on the Lighthouse Mission having a long history and a large presence in the area.
"The Lighthouse Mission is going to stay there" regardless of other shelters opening elsewhere, Louws said.
The Lighthouse Mission started in Bellingham in 1924, according to its website.
There are issues with Louws' proposal.
One, the area's zoning doesn't allow for it, which is why the city had to give an exemption that allowed the mission to temporarily operate the Drop-In Center as an emergency shelter. That agreement runs for another 3-1/2 years.
And two, the city wants to develop the area as an urban village that includes new residences and one that connects to a waterfront that is undergoing redevelopment.
As a result, the city has made it clear that it won't allow Lighthouse Mission to expand its footprint in Old Town, said Hans Erchinger-Davis, the organization's executive director.
Putting a permanent shelter where it is now would be ideal, Erchinger-Davis said, because people are used to its programs and its presence.
"You're not going to a fresh neighborhood with fresh angst," he said.
In order for the city to develop Old Town as an urban village, Northwest Recycling needs to relocate. The city has been in long-term discussions with the Parberry family about moving its business, which has been operating in Old Town since the 1980s.
The family owns the equivalent of six city blocks on both sides of Holly Street, according to Kevin Moore, CEO of Northwest Recycling.
Moore said the company is willing to move, provided the land is developed as an urban village.
"We are open to the possibility of relocating our business to accommodate this vision but only if it makes economic sense to redevelop the property," Moore said. "This will only be possible if the people that would choose to live and work in this area feel safe to enjoy their neighborhood and take their families to the various amenities like Maritime Heritage Park or the waterfront."
Moore acknowledged the city has a big challenge in providing services to the homeless, adding that he supported the core programs of the Lighthouse Mission, which he said has been a good neighbor over the years.
But there was concern specific to a low-barrier shelter, he said, adding that it "serves a segment of the homeless population that is particularly challenging and may require a different approach entirely."
"It is hard to overlook the negative impact that the low-barrier shelter has on our neighborhood," Moore said. "It has gotten progressively worse in the last year."
"There are more and more camps being erected on and around our property. There are drug dealers and prostitution on our street corners, and there is human waste, garbage and needles being left everywhere. We are in contact with the police every day to report new camps or trespassing," Moore said.
What about continuing to use the Drop-In Center as an emergency shelter?
Beyond the location, the building is too old — it's 100 years old — and too small, which is one of the reasons why people who are homeless congregate outside. They have to go outside while the space inside is cleaned up after meals and in preparation for bedtime, according to Erchinger-Davis.
"The reality is that building is insufficient," Erchinger-Davis said. "It doesn't have very good outdoor space and people just don't want to sit inside all day."
The Drop-In Center can sleep 80 people.
Lighthouse Mission can provide emergency, overnight shelter to a maximum of 150 men and women between the center, its chapel and its dining hall in Old Town. In winter, it has worked with Fountain Community Church on Broadway to temporarily shelter another 40 people.
The Drop-In Center was always meant to be a stop-gap measure, not the solution.
"My feeling is that people don't understand how serious it is that another site is found," Erchinger-Davis said. "If another site is not found, you will have 150 people descend on downtown Bellingham. That's when I feel the uproar will happen. By then, it's too late."
Whatever happened to the idea of using Roeder Avenue property for a shelter?
Last year, the City of Bellingham preferred a roughly 1-acre parcel at 801/807 Roeder Ave. because it fit the criteria for a shelter location.
Part of the 240-acre Waterfront District, the property also had five tenants in the marine trades that would've had to move. They and other area businesses opposed the proposal.
The city owned the Roeder Avenue property after a 2012 land swap with the Port of Bellingham. But the port kept the option to buy the site in case the city decided to allow something there other than marine trades.
In May 2017, the Port Commission decided to buy the land, and the search continued for a place to put the shelter.
What about the old Sash & Door site?
The City of Bellingham owns what is now an empty lot at 600 W. Holly St., formerly the site of Sash & Door, a lumberyard and home improvement store .
Port Commissioners and others thought that would be a better place to put an emergency shelter.
But the city has plans for Old Town that include putting residences on the former Sash & Door property along Whatcom Creek.
"The city has a development proposal from a small local group for the site, and the Parberry family is considering moving the waste recovery business and redeveloping their property," City Council member Lilliquist said.
Whether that "will amount to anything" is difficult to say at this point, Lilliquist acknowledged.
"One thing is for sure, a permanent homeless shelter would change things, and may drive away interest. So we have another balancing act, between urban village redevelopment and economic investment, on the one hand, and the need to address housing of the homeless community. These two considerations come into conflict at the 600 W. Holly site," Lilliquist explained.
Has PeaceHealth's South Campus on East Chestnut Street been considered?
This is one we've heard a number of times from readers, who often refer to it as the old St. Luke's.
In 2013, PeaceHealth said it would in the coming years close its outdated South Campus and demolish the building at 809 E. Chestnut St., the old St. Luke's General Hospital before it was bought in a deal that closed in 1989.
The old hospital was built in 1927 and renovated or expanded over the years, including in 1957, 1967 and into the 1990s.
"Over the last several years the mayor has contacted PeaceHealth several times about the use of all or a portion of the St. Luke's campus," said Rick Sepler, Planning and Community Development director for Bellingham. "They have not been interested."
It remains unused.
Has the city looked at the old Regal Sehome 3 movie theater building?
The property is at 3300 Fielding Ave., near the Sehome Village shopping center.
Regal closed Sehome when it opened its Barkley theater in 2012, and sold the property to Church Holdings Northwest @ Sehome LLC in Lynden that same year, according to the Whatcom County Assessor and Treasurer's website.
The City of Bellingham inquired about putting a shelter on the property.
"Similarly, the old movie theater located in Sehome, now owned by a church in Lynden, has been approached and is not interested in selling or leasing," Sepler said.
For now, it sits empty.