Op-Ed

City close to solution, shelter for the homeless

A group of people who have experienced or were currently experiencing homelessness camp in front of Bellingham City Hall to call for housing for all May 2, 2016.
A group of people who have experienced or were currently experiencing homelessness camp in front of Bellingham City Hall to call for housing for all May 2, 2016. SWohlfeil@bhamherald.com

As many of you know, providing solutions for homelessness in our community has been a top priority in the past several years. This complex issue requires strong partnerships with social services, housing advocates, residents, neighborhoods and other government agencies. While we are working toward a multitude of solutions, one need that we have continuously struggled with is to provide a low-barrier shelter for our community. I am hopeful that we may have found a solution.

A low-barrier shelter offers safe housing where a minimum number of expectations are placed on people who wish to stay there, allowing more people access to shelter and services. We still have many details to work out on how such a shelter would work in our community, but here is what we have so far.

This is a community-wide problem that needs a community-wide solution, and it’s my goal that when we clean up camps in our city, or when we find people sleeping in doorways or parks, we have a safe place for them to go 24 hours a day.

We have been in discussions with the Lighthouse Mission to run this new shelter, and we’ve identified a few potential sites. Siting a low-barrier shelter has not been easy, and the city has been searching for a location that meets the following criteria: approximately 5,000 to 10,000 square feet, on a bus route, and in an area compatible with existing land-use zoning that would not be disruptive.

The goal is to provide a facility that would be open 24 hours per day, 365 days a year. Up to 200 shelter clients could be served at any given time, including chronic and vulnerable homeless people as well as homeless men and women aged 18 and over. No one would be discriminated against based on religious preference, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Defining a ‘low-barrier shelter’

The Lighthouse Mission currently provides 40 low-barrier shelter beds in its building at 910 W. Holly St. in Old Town and is the most experienced agency in our area at providing emergency shelter. The term “low-barrier shelter” can be used to describe a variety of things, so it is important to define what it means in this situation. Operating a low-barrier shelter here will mean that:

▪  While guests accessing the services at the shelter will need to follow basic behavioral expectations, they will not be required to undergo drug or alcohol testing prior to admission.

▪  There will be no religious requirements for someone to receive shelter services.

▪  Accommodation will be made for pets consistent with service animal behavioral protocols and owner responsibility.

▪  Guests will not be prohibited from re-entering the shelter if they choose to leave for a period of nights or weeks.

A shelter like this would have clear behavioral expectations upon entry, with the goal of providing a safe space and to ask clients to do their part in keeping it safe.

The shelter and associated services would be provided free of inherently religious activities. While there may be religious opportunities offered in portions of the facility as part of the Lighthouse Mission’s existing religion-based programs, religious requirements and activities would not be a part of or prerequisite to services provided.

Other service providers also will be invited to participate in the shelter, including the Opportunity Council’s Whatcom Homeless Service Center outreach team. Partner agencies would provide referrals to community services that offer transitional and permanent housing, case management, mental health services, legal services, chemical dependency and other related services for people who are homeless.

We acknowledge that even though a low-barrier shelter will be immensely helpful, it is not and should never be, the end goal for someone. In light of this, we want to be actively working alongside shelter guests toward the following ends: transition into more stable housing, becoming aware of and addressing medical and mental health needs, increasing employability, and furthering the process of restoration with family, friends and community.

Solutions require many partners

Make no mistake: This is a huge undertaking by our community, but we are committed to making it happen. This type of facility will take cooperative effort from all of our partners, including Whatcom County and the Port of Bellingham, as well as many volunteers, interns and community members.

But this is a community-wide problem that needs a community-wide solution, and it’s my goal that when we clean up camps in our city, or when we find people sleeping in doorways or parks, we have a safe place for them to go 24 hours a day. Thanks to the city employees and all our partners for stepping up to help make this happen for Bellingham and Whatcom County.

This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville to provide to share updates about city of Bellingham issues and projects. She invites citizens to contact her at 360-778-8100 or mayorsoffice@cob.org.

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