These residents’ concerns slow Bellingham decision on homeless shelter policies

Here are four types of homeless shelters Bellingham may allow

City officials are considering an ordinance that would outline which types of shelters are allowed to provide temporary housing for the homeless. Bellingham City Council plans a public hearing on the matter Sept. 24.
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City officials are considering an ordinance that would outline which types of shelters are allowed to provide temporary housing for the homeless. Bellingham City Council plans a public hearing on the matter Sept. 24.

New rules on temporary homeless shelters for up to 600 men and women in the city will wait a bit longer.

After a public hearing last week, the City Council decided to take more time and answer questions raised by residents about the proposed rules. The matter is expected to come back before the council on Oct. 8, and they may vote on it then.

If approved, the temporary shelters would be allowed in buildings, tent cities, tiny homes and parking areas. Each type would operate for different lengths of time, from 90 days up to five years.

They could be spread around Bellingham.

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

Rick Sepler, Bellingham Planning and Community Development director, said no one has yet applied to the city to create such a shelter, despite rumors circulating in the community.

If approved, the new measures replace the rules on temporary shelters the City Council approved in January.

At the public hearing, Jim Peterson, president of the nonprofit HomesNOW!, urged the council to approve the rules that night.

“Before November, please get something in place for safe parking and safe camping,” Peterson said.

Peterson said HomesNOW! planned to apply to use an upper parking lot at Civic Field to give the homeless a safe place to park during winter. He said the parking lot, near a baseball field, isn’t used in winter.

HomesNOW! is working with Whatcom County government to build tiny homes for the homeless in the county.

It also organized a campout in front of City Hall that lasted 18 days last December. He said the campout will return this year.

“This isn’t a threat. This is a promise. We don’t have something in place by November, we’ll be back on City Hall,” he said.

Downtown resident Mark Gale said that while the city’s efforts were “commendable,” he opposed the proposed rules.

He wanted more neighborhood input built in, requirements for drug and alcohol counseling as well as services for medical and mental health.

Other speakers wanted to make sure a large group didn’t end up in encampments in one place or one neighborhood.

Under the proposed rules, the city will decide where in Bellingham such shelters can go. However, zoning requirements won’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 city proposal comes amid increasing homelessness in Whatcom County.

Compared to last year, the number of people who are homeless here 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.

Here’s a look at the proposed rules for different types of temporary homeless shelters:

  • Safe parking areas for a group of people living in cars or light trucks. RVs wouldn’t be allowed. Such encampments would be capped at 100 people citywide.
  • Tent encampments for people living in tents or other temporary structures. They would be capped at 100 people citywide.
  • Tiny homes, which would be 100- to 300-square feet and made to be easily moved. These encampments would be capped at 100 people citywide.
  • Buildings, which would be for a total of 300 people citywide. 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.
Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea