The Search Stalls

No perfect site for a homeless shelter

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The protracted search for a site for a permanent easy-access homeless shelter ground to a halt last week, and it will be up to council members to revive the effort.

Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws made it clear in remarks to County Council that he could not support a proposal to site the shelter at the current location of branch offices of the County Health Department at 509 Girard Street. A task force search and review process had identified that site as the best of eight possible locations under public ownership to provide a night shelter for as many as 200 individuals experiencing homelessness. Mayor Kelli Linville, agreeing the site was less than ideal and having been stalled in several efforts to find partners in support of the shelter, admitted it is time for her administration to move on to other solutions.

“The mayor called me to a meeting to discuss the opportunities to partner with making 509 Girard Street the viable option for a homeless shelter,” Louws reported to County Council’s planning committee last week. “I think the best and most appropriate location for the new homeless shelter is on the property just adjacent to the existing Drop-In Center on West Holly Street.

“Although it would be possible for the county to give up the 509 Girard Street building, the space that we have there is quite valuable to us,” he said. “To accommodate a shelter we would need to relocate the existing Health Department staff that is in that building to a new building” and absorb other associated costs, he said.

“I would not stand in the way of Bellingham making a land-use decision that 509 Girard Street was the right location, but I am not going to lock arm-in-arm and be supportive of that plan,” Louws said, expressing concerns about the proximity of the proposed shelter to an existing neighborhood, Whatcom Middle School and senior support services.

Mayor Kelli Linville accepted the opinion of the County Executive.

“After the executive expressed his opinion to me and announced it to his Council, I stepped back and asked whether I could really get behind that proposal without his support,” she said. “This would be a lot higher pressure, more difficult because of the neighbors, and the school—it is not an ideal location. We would not be able to provide adequate buffer between the shelter and the surrounding community.

“If I am going to fight for a location, I want to be committed to it,” Linville admitted.

The fight now falls to the individual councils if they wish to pursue the recommendations of the siting committee.
Bellingham City Council member Michael Lilliquist proposed sending a letter to county counterparts, urging cooperation and partnership in the siting of the shelter.

“Late last year, I was asked by my colleagues to approach the County Council to ask for their leadership on the shelter issue in particular,” Lilliquist explained. “They responded positively, and the task force began a multilateral search-and-review process that identified eight possible locations under public ownership. This is because no private property owner was cooperative or willing seller. We ranked the properties, and the Girard Street property rose to the top.

“The 509 Girard Street property is not perfect,” he admitted. “We will continue to look for other possibilities that could work in the short term and perhaps in the longer term as well. But it is currently our best alternative in terms of cost, location and readiness for repurposing. The exact programming and population to be served can be adjusted and decided as we move ahead, but first we need to agree that the County will make the property available.

“My understanding is that the county has already determined that the property is surplus to future needs, and has decided that the Health Department employees currently in the building are better housed in a different facility. I have been told that the County now has plans to sell the building,” he said.

The city’s search to site a shelter has been onerous. The city announced its interest in providing public shelter to chronically unhoused individuals who did qualify for other housing programs in March of 2017. A plan to site a shelter on city property in the marine trades area near the central waterfront evaporated after the Port of Bellingham foreclosed on its option to purchase the land—another partner backing away from partnership with the city on the issue of homelessness. The port’s action initiated a lengthy search for suitable properties solely within the control and ownership of the City of Bellingham. The results were disappointing; however, the county controls several properties that may be suitable.

“We’re both very good at pointing to each other’s property and saying, ‘You should build it there,’” Linville said. “I am not supportive of the executive’s suggestion to use the West Holly location in Old Town, because that is the planned center of our new downtown.”

For the city administration, the moment has arrived to move on.

“A shelter is, unfortunately, not a project that the administration is going to focus on, although we will clearly continue to respond to the issue of homelessness,” Linville said. “If we can work something out with the port, and there’s a site, great. if the county agrees to a site, great. The problem is, it needs to be in town—because that’s where the people are—and our options for light industrial land are very limited.

“If a site appears, then the city would be receptive to that,” she said. “The Drop-In Center is inadequate, we all knew that going in. There is still a need for a place for people to be, but I am going to focus on solving the problems I can solve.”

“I applaud the mayor’s pragmatic approach to moving on to the next possible solution,” Lilliquist said. “I am not yet ready to move on, hoping that the County Council will be more willing to move ahead rather than concede.

“The Homelessness Strategies Workgroup has developed an impressive list of other actions and ideas to address the needs of people experiencing homelessness,” Lilliquist observed. “Some of these efforts are already underway. In addition, the state legislature has extended and increased funding for housing services. An additional $750,000 will be coming to Whatcom County next year. These funds could be programmed according to recommendations developed by the Workgroup and our many partner agencies. And of course, these funds could also be used to support transitional and emergency shelter services.”

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