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Coalition plans to open resource center on Bellingham’s Samish Way for people in need

Members of a coalition working to help needy people living along Samish Way hope to open a resource center in the coming weeks — an effort given more urgency as the city of Bellingham moves to condemn a motel there because of its history as a hub for crime and drug use.

Pastor Rick Qualls, coordinator of the Samish Way Coalition, plans to sign a letter of intent this week to rent space at 113 Samish Way to serve as the resource center. Details are being fleshed out, but the idea is to help Samish Way residents tap into services provided by agencies and nonprofits, such as housing and health care, as well as after-school tutoring for elementary school children.

“We’re not going to turn anybody away,” Qualls said, adding that he felt compelled to help because of the hopelessness he’s seen among the area’s residents.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville announced Sept. 22 the city’s intent to condemn the Aloha Motel, located at 301 and 315 N. Samish Way, because of illegal activity there.

Linville said the effort was part of a broader plan to clean up Samish Way. Bellingham Police Chief Cliff Cook said several other motels in the area also have crime and drug issues.

Some of the Samish Way lodgings are home for adults and children who are a step away from homelessness or have something in their background that prevents them from getting past a landlord’s screening process.

“Sometimes these motels are housing of last resort to prevent them from living out on the street,” said Greg Winter, director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center through the Opportunity Council.

The coalition brings together five churches, government agencies, police, nonprofits, social services, businesses, and neighborhood associations trying to stop illegal activity and help those in need. Linville has said she especially wanted children and families living in the motels to get assistance.

Efforts to get some people into more stable housing already has started. At least 15 rooms in the Aloha and the Villa Inn, another Samish Way motel that is a trouble spot, have tested positive for methamphetamine contamination. That means the rooms can’t be rented out until they’ve been cleaned to a certain threshold.

Meth is a highly toxic and addictive drug that can be injected, snorted, smoked or ingested. It’s the toxic residue left behind — on surfaces like walls, carpets, curtains and countertops — when someone smokes meth that contaminates a property and poses a health risk to occupants. Dizziness, nausea, headaches, throat irritation and weight loss are among the symptoms people might experience if they’re in a contaminated space.

The Whatcom Homeless Service Center is helping a handful of residents who were displaced because they were staying in contaminated rooms at the Aloha or Villa Inn, according to Winter. But it’s not the first time the center has tried to find stable housing for someone living in motels on Samish Way.

“This isn’t anything new,” said Winter, who is part of the coalition. “It’s just we’re asking for an increased level of activity along Samish Way given what we know now, that some of these places are contaminated.”

“I SAW A LOT OF HURT”

The Samish Way Coalition has as its genesis some time spent at the Villa Inn by Pastor Ted Swinburne. Early this year, the volunteer community support officer was called there because a woman, who had been homeless off and on for many years, had died. He was there to help those who knew her and were grieving her death.

“I just saw a lot of the hurt that was there in that Samish Way community,” Swinburne said. “It impacted me enough that I thought pretty deeply about it.”

In the time he was there, he talked to or saw people in their 50s or 60s who were at the edge of homelessness, young families with children doing their best to make it, and those for whom substance abuse was part of life.

Swinburne prays with a group of pastors that include Qualls. He told them about his experience and soon they were trying to figure out how to help.

“The thing that’s overwhelming to me is the hopelessness that exists,” Qualls said. “It’s almost generational in some of these places as we get to know folks better.”

They held a community meeting March 24 and about 40 people showed up. A second community meeting was held June 30, when about 80 people attended, including Linville. They had a block party July 14.

“I tried to toss the rock as far as I could in the pond to see who would be interested,” Qualls said, adding that he was excited by the response.

The coalition became a rallying cry of sorts, Qualls said: “We can do this better if we do this together. The partnership piece is huge to me.”

FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCE

Organizers said it soon became clear they needed first-hand accounts if they wanted to identify people who needed help and to learn how to best help them. So members of CTK Southside, one of the churches in the coalition, rented two rooms in the Aloha Motel from July 6-13. They stayed there in groups starting at 4 p.m. each day. CTK Southside’s church is on Samish Way.

“It’s our home. If there are problems, we want to be part of the solution,” said Ray Deck III, director of operations at CTK Southside.

CTK members staying at the Aloha drew people by offering a barbecue dinner on the front lawn of the Aloha, but the food was available to residents of other motels in the area who were walking by.

“It’s amazing how sitting down over a burger, a sandwich or a salad, whatever was for dinner, how people were willing to open up and tell us their story,” Deck said.

By offering free dinners over seven nights, coalition members were able to learn who was living along Samish Way, whether they wanted to be there, and what they needed. They started to see patterns.

“A number of people who we met on Samish Way are there because they are isolated,” Deck said. “Either they don’t have any family in the area or they’re estranged from the family they do have.” Deck said.

They also saw children and families.

“It’s hard to imagine. It was hard to see. It was hard to watch,” Deck said.

Swinburne is pastor of Northside Community Church, while Qualls is pastor of Fountain Community Church. The other two churches in the coalition are Hillcrest and Envision Ministries.

The outreach they provided will be used to help as coalition members work to open the resource center and to provide services.

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