High Barriers for Low Barriers
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
HIGH BARRIERS FOR LOW BARRIERS: The mayor has encountered headwinds in her long journey to site a homeless shelter near homeless services.
Earlier this month, the City of Bellingham—after years of searching—identified a potential location for a new emergency night shelter to serve those experiencing homelessness. Mayor Kelli Linville had searched for more than four years to site this particular need, and has been working with Lighthouse Mission Ministries (LMM), which has been operating an interim shelter in Old Town since October, to identify a location for a long-term shelter that operates with services 24 hours a day.
It’s not an easy task. These are the hardest of the placements, the people—typically single adult men—who do not fit easily into other housing programs based on need or social services funding. They’re not necessarily free from the ravages of drugs and alcohol abuse, where sobriety is a requirement both of the Mission and of the interim shelter the ministry has been operating. The city estimates there may be some 200-300 chronically unsheltered and homeless individuals in Bellingham, many scattered in doorways, foyers, unsecured public spaces and makeshift creekside camps. Essentially they’re living on someone else’s property and—looking at the issue narrowly through a purely pragmatic lens of enforcement—when they’re told to move along, they need an alternative where they can freely and legally go. In larger scope, the public goal is never to simply warehouse people, but to connect them to the services they need to improve their lives. These homeless individuals need a place; and the place is not easy to find: You can’t site such a facility in a neighborhood, near a school, or in a commercial center; and it is useless to site one far from urban transportation (even sidewalks!) and social services. An industrial zone such as that in Old Town near the marine trades center makes sense, but then you are chewing into the scarce industrial land base and you are foreclosing on some of the city’s most precious high-paying industrial jobs.
The proposed center would serve a maximum of 200 people, and provide meals, bathroom and shower accommodations, hygiene supplies, social space, storage space for belongings, and access to various clinics and service providers. Importantly, no one will be turned away based on religious preference, sexual orientation or gender identity, and there will be no religious requirements or prerequisites to any services provided. Drug or alcohol testing will not be required to stay at the low-barrier shelter, but all guests will be expected to maintain respectful behavior and no alcohol or drugs will be permitted in the facility or grounds. Under the agreement Lighthouse Mission Ministries will provide the day-to-day service in a lease and an operating contract with the City of Bellingham.
Linville outlined the challenges in a presentation to Port of Bellingham commissioners this week, as the agency considers the impacts on its marine trades industrial zone and their clients there. Last week, city staff met with business leaders at a well-attended assembly of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership on safety and security issues in the urban core.
Both meetings can be characterized by a high degree of public sympathy and support for the goal of finding solutions for this last, hardest group in the housing equation, but also great concern for the consequences of siting this facility in the nascent waterfront district adjacent to downtown.
“Out of 240 acres in the waterfront district, a little over one acre of city property has been identified for use as an emergency shelter,” Linville noted, adding that the city is working with the port to find alternative places to retain the current businesses and relocate them.
The acre is part of the city-owned Colony Wharf, with generous access to Whatcom Waterway, and if built the shelter would displace Northwest Diesel Power, Pacific Marine Electric, and three other marine trades businesses. Perhaps more critically, the placement of shelter services could tip a delicate balance and critical mass of a much more extensive fledgling marine trades industry that has begun to flourish west of the Waterway in the years since the closure of the Georgia-Pacific mill.
“The businesses located on this property currently are water-dependent businesses that have to be sited on the waterfront,” the Working Waterfront Coalition noted in remarks to the port commission. The coalition represents more than 100 maritime businesses in Whatcom County. “Preserving properties which provide access to our navigable waterways for water-dependent businesses is essential to maintaining a working waterfront in Bellingham. Displacing the current businesses creates an immediate loss of family-wage marine trades jobs, which may or may not chose to relocate in Bellingham. The location of the proposed shelter also breaks up the core marine trades area, segmenting this industrial activity. In addition, Bellingham is in the very beginning stages of a waterfront redevelopment project. Siting this project at the Roeder Ave. location has the potential for adverse effects on development and future investment in the waterfront corridor.
“Water-dependent businesses cannot be located away from the water, while an emergency shelter can,” the coalition argued.
Marine trades professionals showed up in force at the port meeting and spoke passionately and persuasively on behalf of their industry and the importance of that parcel as a cornerstone for the health of a vital working waterfront. And a blue-collar port commission, while sympathetic to the city’s goals, appeared unwilling to surrender their option to control the future of that parcel without additional dialogue with the city on alternatives. The conversation on siting a shelter is far from over.