43.1 F
Thursday, December 3, 2020

City Council reviews plans, resources to address homelessness

An artist’s rendering of what the Samish Commons affordable housing complex will look like upon completion. The photo was part of a presentation by the Planning and Community Development committee concerning the development. 
Photo Courtesy of the Bellingham City Council

Increased shelter capacity and new housing development among topics discussed.

By Henry Stewart-Wood

More beds are available for people experiencing homelessness in Bellingham: That was the good news as the Bellingham City Council reviewed resources and plans during last Monday’s meeting.

Councilmembers were less satisfied with the current system for dealing with encampments of people experiencing homelessness, noting that merely cleaning up and removing camps without extending services and housing options has not been effective.

“Oftentimes, we end up cleaning the same sites over and over, repeatedly,” Lt. David Crass of the Bellingham Police Department said. 

The police, along with public works and the parks department, decide which camps are highest priority to be cleaned, said Tara Sundin, Bellingham’s community and economic development manager. 

Several councilmembers brought up the fact that after a cleanup of an encampment, there is no clear place for the displaced people to go. The city does not offer any services beyond the existing intake process or emergency shelters, Sundin said. She said there is no guarantee a bed will be available for people displaced by the city’s cleanups.

“If they can’t be here, where can they be?” Councilmember  Hollie Huthman added. “We can’t just continue moving people and moving people and moving people over and over again. There has to be an end point.” 

Sundin said people displaced by the cleanups are expected to go to the emergency shelters the community provides. 

At the request of the councilmembers, officials from community and economic development, housing and services and the police made a presentation to show all the city is doing to address homelessness as winter nears. 

The Council examined current services for people experiencing homelessness, including increased shelter capacity, plans for severe weather shelters and an affordable-housing development.

“I request that the Council really take a hard look and have these hard discussions about our priorities and policies going forward,” Councilmember Hannah Stone said during the Sept. 28 meeting

Samya Lutz, Bellingham’s housing and services program manager, told the Council on Monday, Oct. 12, that the issue of housing in Bellingham is a continuum, ranging from unsheltered to homeownership. The city funds programs and services for people at every point on the continuum –– from emergency shelters, to nonprofit and public housing to private rentals, Lutz said. 

“Most people seeking assistance are sheltered, but those who are unsheltered are the folks in the community that are most frequently noticed,” Lutz said. 

In 2008, Bellingham and Whatcom County created the Homeless Service Center, a single point of entry for unhoused people, Lutz said. People in need of services go through an intake process to report their needs and vulnerabilities. 

When an opening occurs at a housing service, case management staff at the Homeless Service Center make the referral based on the intake process, Lutz said. 

There are often multiple barriers for finding housing; everything from criminal histories to owing debt to a landlord can prevent folks from finding housing, Lutz said. 

According to City Council documents, in 2019, just under 3,000 people were assisted with housing through the Homeless Service Center. In January roughly 707 people were experiencing homelessness, 218 of whom were unsheltered. Sheltered homelessness includes people who may be staying with friends or relatives, or who stay at one of the city’s drop-in centers.

The city is striving for “functional zero,” the point where the number of intakes is equal to the number of housing referrals. In theory, no one would be unsheltered for more than a few days, Lutz said. 

When it comes to providing emergency shelter, the city has increased the number of beds by 34% –– from 280 last year to 335 this month, Sundin said.

Two hundred of the 335 available beds are at the new base camp facility run by the Lighthouse Mission –– a larger space with more resources and facilities for people to use, Sundin said. 

Hans Erchinger-Davis, director of The Lighthouse Mission Ministries, said the new base camp has laundry, storage, an outside courtyard and overall, more space for people. 

“I think that says it’s not only important to provide space, we need to provide space that people want to be in,” Huthman said. 

The Lighthouse Mission Ministries  and Christ The King Community Church  have an additional 39 beds set up to provide shelter in case of severe weather this year, Sundin said.

Councilmember Lisa Anderson pointed out that those beds are only available when the temperature drops to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the U.K. National Health Service, frostbite can occur at temperatures below 32 F, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hypothermia can occur at temperatures below 50 F. 

Advocates noted that they are not just waiting for people to discover their options. The Homeless Outreach Team, run by the Opportunity Council in partnership with the city and county, reaches out to unsheltered people experiencing homelessnes with the goal of providing services, Sundin said. 

The Homeless Outreach Team does not participate in the city’s process of removing encampments. The city conducts cleanups of encampments deemed unsafe to the community, the people living in them or the environment, Sundin said. Parks employees address smaller encampments based on complaints from other residents, while private contractors are hired for larger projects, according to the City Council agenda

Looking to the future, the city is working on a new mixed-income housing development, the Samish Commons, that would add capacity for people experiencing homelessness, according to the City Council agenda.

In 2015, the city purchased and demolished the Aloha Motel. The Bellingham Housing Authority was selected to redevelop the site into an affordable living apartment complex which is now under way, according to the City Council agenda.

Huthman said the Samish Commons will have 172 units for a range of incomes and situations including 14 units for people who are homeless upon entry. The first units will be available in May 2021. 

“We need more housing at a multitude of levels to help with the problem of people experiencing homelessness,” Huthman said. “That includes everything from temporary emergency shelters, to transitional housing, to permanently supportive housing, to low-income housing. There’s just a whole big spectrum. This project will fulfill quite a few of those brackets.”

Erchinger-Davis said the Samish Commons will help both people who are experiencing homelessness and those who might be on the brink of homelessness. 

“That’s always helpful to have, especially [for] economically fragile folks too, that are on the brink of falling into homelessness, to have opportunities for them to not fall into homelessness is good,” Erchinger-Davis said. 
The full presentation is available here.


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