by Zoe Buchli
Continuing the discussion of shelters following extremely cold temperatures in February, Bellingham City Council members heard summaries from committee meetings regarding a presentation by Western students on how to address homelessness, as well as a summary of a shelter update at the Monday, March 11 meeting.
During the recap of the Planning and Community Development meeting, councilmember April Barker shared information presented by a group of students in Western’s Human Services Department to the committee on March 11.
Barker said the students shared their insights and findings about how to make affordable housing more accessible for the community.
She said the group proposed the idea of writing a homeless bill of rights for Bellingham residents, something other cities have done. The group also advocated for the removal of barriers to shared housing, including the rule of three which prohibits more than three unrelated people from sharing housing together. The student group asked for the number to be increased to six.
The group also asked for incentives for homeowners and others to open up and share their housing, and are currently working to partner people together to help mitigate homelessness, Barker said.
“If you do have a housing situation where you would be open to having someone stay with you, you can contact the Opportunity Council,” Barker said.
According to their website, the Opportunity Council is a local nonprofit helping people experiencing homelessness through education, support and direct assistance.
While recapping the Committee of the Whole meeting from earlier in the day, councilmember Daniel Hammill provided the council with a shelter update. He said the main purpose of the discussion was to identify further information needed regarding programs and plans managed by Whatcom County with a goal of addressing gaps through joint cooperation with the county.
Hammill shared a proposal for a new subcommittee that would focus on creating a countywide plan to respond to the needs of unsheltered people during extreme weather conditions.
He said the subcommittee would be staffed by Whatcom Health Department members as well as ad hoc members that would be appointed to represent the city and county councils and community organizations.
“Another thing we discussed is to ensure that this conversation includes choice,” councilmember Pinky Vargas said. “We’re thankful for the Lighthouse Mission but there are people who have safety or religious concerns and [we want to make] sure that choice is part of the discussion on our shelter.”
Councilmember Michael Lilliquist said this plan discussed in the meeting is about a severe weather shelter, and is not relevant to an ordinary shelter or general housing to avoid homelessness.
“This does solve the one piece that was in high relief recently,” he said.
This city council meeting follows two city council meetings on Feb. 11 and Feb. 25 where Bellingham residents expressed concern over the lack of shelter the city was providing for people experiencing homelessness when temperatures dropped below freezing.