As homelessness grows, Bellingham mulls rules for these types of temporary shelters

As many as 600 men and women could live in temporary homeless shelters spread around Bellingham under new rules being considered by the City Council.

The matter goes before the council Sept. 24, when there will be a public hearing.

The rules lay out public health and safety requirements for nonprofits, religious groups or government entities that want to create emergency overnight shelters.

They focus on temporary shelters that are in buildings, tent cities, tiny homes and parking areas. Each type would be allowed to operate for different lengths of time, from 90 days up to five years.

The city also will decide where in Bellingham such shelters can go. However, zoning requirements wouldn’t apply to religious organizations that open such shelters on land that they own or manage.

That’s because state law allows religious organizations to house homeless encampments on property that they lease or own. Local government can’t prevent them from doing so, although they can set conditions for health and safety for residents of the encampments and surrounding neighbors.

“The preemption doesn’t say you just get to do it. It says you have to follow the rules, and our rules have to be very narrowed to public health and safety,” Rick Sepler, the city’s Planning and Community Development director said to the Planning Commission in August.

The commission has sent the rules to the City Council, recommending approval.


The proposed rules would allow the city’s planning director to increase the maximum number of people allowed in these shelters at any one time, if a census of Whatcom County’s homeless indicate that’s needed.

Compared to last year, the number of people who are homeless in the county has increased by nearly 10 percent to 815, according to the annual census conducted in January. The Point In Time Count, as it’s known, provides a snapshot and advocates have said that the actual number of homeless is higher.

The number of homeless people has dropped by 4 percent compared to 2008, when there were 851.

However, the number of homeless has spiked by 47 percent in the past five years — climbing from 553 in 2014, according to the count.

The rules going before the City Council are separate from those for long-term shelters, which still must be crafted.

Here’s a look at the proposed rules for different types of temporary homeless shelters. If approved, they would replace the rules on temporary shelters the City Council approved in January.

Safe parking areas

These would be set aside for a group of people living in cars or light trucks. RVs wouldn’t be allowed.

Bellingham is drawing from other cities’ failures and successes for its measure. Seattle’s parking spots for the homeless had problems because the city allowed RVs, Sepler said.

San Diego’s were working, in part, because they didn’t allow RVs, he added.

RVs allow multiple people to gather, Sepler explained, and it’s difficult to monitor what’s going on inside them.

Such encampments would be capped at 100 people citywide.

They may help ease some of the concerns and frustrations Bellingham residents and businesses have expressed about people living in their vehicles and parking on streets and in neighborhoods.


Tent encampments

This is for a group of people living in tents or other temporary structures.

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.

Such encampments would be capped at 100 people citywide.

Tiny homes

These would be 100-to-300 square feet and made to be easily moved.

Such encampments would be capped at 100 people citywide.

Tiny houses for the homeless is an idea that’s caught on nationwide. In the Pacific Northwest, they can be found in Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia and Portland.


A total of 300 people citywide would get emergency overnight shelter in these sorts of temporary shelters.

A maximum of four buildings could be used at one time.

These could include low-barrier shelters. Also known as easy-access, these 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 Lighthouse Mission’s Drop-In Center on West Holly Street in Bellingham has been operating as a temporary, 24/7 low-barrier center since October 2016. Staff The Bellingham Herald file
Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Shelter hearing

The Bellingham City Council will consider rules for temporary homeless shelters at its Sept. 24 meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall, 210 Lottie St.

Find the proposed rules by going online to cob.org and typing “ordinances for temporary shelters and interim housing for the homeless” into the search window.