This month’s Downtown Bellingham Partnership Safety & Security Meeting was hosted at Backcountry Essentials with Katie Franks, Development Specialist at the City of Bellingham's Planning & Community Development Department, speaking in response to requests from neighbors for more information about what was being done at the local level to address homelessness.
Franks began by saying that in response to what has become a statewide and national homeless crisis that “nearly every City department is working to address homelessness in Bellingham.”
She referenced a recent Herald article written by Mayor Kelli Linville, that you can read here.
The Point-in-Time count is an annual organized national count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons on a single day in January. Many homeless individuals, couples and families are on a waiting list for permanent housing, but it cannot be built fast enough and so many people remain on the street or in camps.
It is the City’s goal to bring services to more unsheltered people by “meeting them where they are,” and a low-barrier shelter would help to achieve that end. The City is working with the Lighthouse Mission to identify a location for a shelter in which they could expand their current services, but with slightly different criteria than their current facility. Such an emergency shelter could temporarily house up to 200 people and link them to the services in the city that could help them get permanent housing.
Some basic criteria for a low-barrier shelter include:
5,000 to 10,000 square feet building
Light industrial or other compatible zoning that would not be disruptive to neighbors
On a bus line that connects directly to downtown services
Landlord that is willing to lease as a shelter
The audience had questions for Franks about the City’s plans. When asked if the Planning & Community Development Department had researched successful efforts to fight homelessness in other cities, Franks said that yes, current efforts in Seattle, Olympia, San Francisco and Los Angeles provide many examples from which to learn. The City team is looking to these and other cities for models of successful low-barrier shelters, safe camping and safe parking lots, and tiny home villages that serve the homeless can best be operated.
The Executive Director of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, Alice Clark, asked if the City was considering a purpose-built site for the shelter. Franks said that an existing building would be optimal but that they are open to many options at this point in time.
Franks also described a funding challenge. It is a priority of the City to continue to allocate funds toward permanent housing projects. Unfortunately, the amount of time it takes to build permanent housing does not address the immediate need of a growing population who need shelter and services now.
Until a suitable site can be found, the Lighthouse Mission will use their Drop-In Center on Holly Street as a "cold weather shelter" for six months during the colder months. Last year the cold weather shelter was only open on nights that were forecasted to be below 22° Fahrenheit, but this year the Lighthouse Mission plans to keep the shelter open consistently from October through March, 24 hours/day, regardless of the temperature. This shelter will be operated as low-barrier, without religious requirements or sobriety tests. Acceptance to the shelter will be "behavior-based" -- visitors will be expected to follow basic rules of conduct and get along with others.
A new low-barrier shelter would do more than provide a place to sleep for those in emergency need. It would be open 24 hours a day and would help connect people with service providers like Sea Mar Community Health Center, DSHS, the Opportunity Council Homeless Service Center and the Homeless Outreach Team to link people in need with resources to help them find permanent housing.
It has become clear to staff at the Downtown Bellingham Partnership from survey results and conversations with downtown neighbors that residents and business owners would like to begin to identify how they can support those working towards increased Safety & Security downtown. In response, the DBP will be hosting a work group in September and welcome anyone with ideas to improve the Safety & Security of downtown residents and visitors. At this meeting, we hope to identify neighbors and residents who are ready to work for a safer downtown.
If you would like to attend a neighborhood work group meeting next month, please provide us with your email address by visiting our Contact Us page. DBP will be working to secure a location for this meeting and will send out an email once a date is set.
Today's blog post was written by Operations Manager Marissa McGrath.