Port of Bellingham commissioners have been critical of the city’s proposal to open an emergency low-barrier homeless shelter on waterfront property.
A low-barrier shelter has less requirements for a person to get a bed at night. This would include those who are homeless and not sober, don’t have form of valid ID or have an animal companion.
One of proposed sites for the new Lighthouse Mission shelter is on Roeder Avenue between the C and F blocks, and would encompass approximately 1 acre of the 240 acres of waterfront property.
“There are lots of places you can put a homeless shelter, but very few places you can put marine trades,” Port Commissioner Dan Robbins said. “A homeless shelter does not need waterfront property.”
The proposed shelter would be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with space for up to 200 people. This is more than double the accommodations the mission is currently able to offer.
“The message has been loud and clear since I’ve been involved with the Port of Bellingham, that we should not give up our waterfronts for urban development and hold it for industrial needs.”
Michael McAuley, Port Commissioner
The Lighthouse Mission reaches capacity in their current emergency shelter every night. There are 80 male sleeping mats and 40 female sleeping mats.
For recent Western graduate Adam Schaefer, the issue is personal. During the recession, Schaefer’s father lost his business and had to declare bankruptcy.
“Our house foreclosed, we lost our house and our cars,” Schaefer said.
Schaefer spoke to the commissioners on the need for the low-barrier shelter as a vital tool for addressing homelessness.
“We were able to fall back on family. There are a lot of folks who aren’t able to fall back on family,” Schaefer said. “So [by] having this shelter when it’s December and there are 3 inches of snow, but you just got evicted because you lost your job, you’re not out on the streets.”
The Whatcom Working Waterfront Coalition is made up of 100 maritime businesses in the county and is opposed to the waterfront location for the shelter.
The Port is continuing to look at other locations as a possibility for the emergency shelter. The city has also considered property on West Holly Street in the Old Town district.
Galen Herz, the Associate Student’s local issues coordinator, disagrees with building the shelter on West Holly Street, as he feels the area should be developed into housing.
“If you did that, it would completely disrupt the redevelopment of Old Town and the potential for way more homes and businesses for the community,” Herz said. “I think having that land used for homes is really necessary because one of the root causes of the homelessness crisis is the housing shortage in Bellingham.”
Port Commissioner Michael McAuley and Robbins are in favor of the Old Town location for the shelter.
“The message has been loud and clear since I’ve been involved with the Port of Bellingham, that we should not give up our waterfronts for urban development and hold it for industrial needs,” McAuley said.
Once the city makes final decisions on a location, the Lighthouse Mission will launch a 12-month fundraising effort to build and open the shelter.
According to the Point-In-Time Count, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development survey, there were 720 homeless individuals in Whatcom County in 2016.
“It’s having those services so that if things go wrong, they don’t go irreversibly wrong, where you have this huge drug addiction or mental illness,” Schaefer said. “There could be a transitional shelter where if you have this temporary problem they can help stabilize the situation and then get you towards housing.”
The Port has the option to purchase the waterfront property from the city due to an existing land swap deal. Mayor Kelli Linville has asked the Port not to do so, so that shelter development can occur.
Robbins said any discussion regarding the purchase option would be in the Port meeting agenda and open to the public.
The next Port meeting will be on Tuesday, April 18. On the Wednesday before the next meeting, April 12, the Port will release their agenda.