The downtown Bellingham Public Library could be a warm place for up to 50 homeless women to go during bitterly cold days this winter.
Homeless women staying at Fountain Community Church’s emergency winter shelter must leave the church at 7 a.m. On days when the weather is harsh and the Lighthouse Mission’s Drop-In Center on West Holly Street is full, a meeting room in the basement of the library, 210 Central Ave., would be used as a day shelter.
The church’s emergency winter shelter is now open nightly through March 1.
“On the coldest days of the year, we all need to come together to help our most vulnerable neighbors,” library Director Rebecca Judd said in an interview.
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The winter shelter opens amid increasing homelessness in Whatcom County.
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.
Fountain Community Church, located on Broadway Street in Bellingham, expects to provide emergency overnight shelter for an average of 45 to 50 women each night over three months. That’s up from an average of 30 to 35 women a night last year.
The Lighthouse Mission and Fountain Community Church, keeping an eye on such things as wind and temperatures in the forecast, will determine when the women need to go to the library’s room for the day, Rick Sepler, Planning and Community Development director for Bellingham, said in an interview.
How often might the library’s room be used as a day shelter for the women?
That could depend, in part, on winds blowing south from the Fraser River Valley in British Columbia. They’re known for bringing frigid temperatures to Whatcom County.
“I’m hopeful we won’t have to use it,” Sepler said of the library. “But, then again, I’m always hopeful we won’t have harsh weather.”
But, the city wanted to have a contingency just in case.
“We would be imprudent, going into winter, not having a fallback, especially being alerted that our existing shelter might be full,” Sepler said.
Judd said using the library’s room as a daytime shelter — marking the first time the library would be used in such a capacity — was part of a larger effort by numerous departments.
“As a department of the city, we look for ways to align our work with city priorities,” she said.
If the room is unavailable, the women may be shifted to other parts of the library.
And, if absolutely necessary, City Hall could be used to shelter the women during the day, Sepler said.
It’s not the first time the library has tried to help the homeless.
“Over the past year, the library has made it a priority to expand our learning around the complex issues of homelessness,” Judd said.
“Many of our staff considered it to be the best training they had ever taken,” Judd said.