Work group formed to address downtown challenges

In the past several months, it has become increasingly clear that innovative solutions need to be found to address some of our most pressing community issues, especially downtown. Because of this, I have convened a Community Solutions Workgroup. The purpose of the Community Solutions Workgroup is to convene selected community stakeholders and city staff to … Read more

Oct 31, 2013 - by Mayor Kelli Linville

In the past several months, it has become increasingly clear that
innovative solutions need to be found to address some of our most pressing
community issues, especially downtown. Because of this, I have convened a
Community Solutions Workgroup.

The purpose of the Community Solutions Workgroup is to convene selected
community stakeholders and city staff to provide public health and safety
solutions for various downtown challenges.  Many exciting and positive things happening
in our city center, and the vision of this workgroup is to understand our
challenges and to come up with solutions.

This is the second initiative we’ve taken on this year to provide a
short-term, focused process to produce immediate solutions to social issues
in our community. The first effort was to revisit the Countywide Housing
Affordability Taskforce work from 2008 and to provide short-term solutions
to affordable housing needs. This new citywide CHAT group met four times
over the summer and produced a list of 17 recommendations that we’ve begun
to include in the City’s 2014 work plan. It is this results-oriented
approach that we are taking with this new Community Solutions Workgroup.

The Workgroup members include community stakeholders and city staff who
represent social services, the police department, the parks department, the
city attorney's office, the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, health-care
advocates, property owners, business owners, the Liquor Control Board,
Western Washington University, and the Mayor's office. The task of this
group is to identify key issues that should be addressed, identify
solutions, and produce an action plan by early 2014. Our timeline for this
project is swift, and we have scheduled meetings every two weeks through
December to accomplish the bulk of our work before the end of the year.

Our community is not alone in facing these issues. Seattle, for example,
is also working on its downtown issues, and a recent article in the Seattle
Times headlined “City considers broader strategy to address downtown’s
homeless” outlined a proposal to expand a pilot project that helps divert
low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system and into social
services. In Bellingham, our Workgroup will be examining all options to
address our similar issues.

The Community Solutions Workgroup held its first meeting on Oct. 24, and we
spent two hours outlining the challenges facing downtown. That list included
homelessness, behaviors associated with mental health problems, pan
handling, alcohol/drug consumption, cleanliness/beautification issues, alley
responsibilities, Maritime Heritage Park programming and use, social service
coordination, health-care access, police presence and community
coordination, nuisance laws, street lighting, and business vacancies. As the
group discussed these issues, members identified possible contributing
factors and how, as a community, we could be more successful in breaking
these cycles.

Many initiatives already underway

Even though we have challenges, the community has been moving forward on
many fronts, and we discussed some of the programs and initiatives that are
already underway. We have a Downtown Community Safety Alliance, and a strong
partnership between the Whatcom Homeless Service Center and Whatcom Alliance
for Health Advancement. Both Northwest Youth Services and Whatcom Homeless
Service Center continue to work to identify the number and demographics of
the homeless population, and several organizations have street outreach
programs. These are just a few of the many cooperative initiatives
undertaken by social services in our community.

The City is also taking actions to address many of these issues. The
Bellingham Housing Levy awards are helping to provide funding to address
some of our affordable housing needs. The City continues to support the
Downtown Bellingham Partnership to help with neighborhood organizing, event
planning, marketing and cleanliness and beautification needs. My proposed
2014 budget also includes increased staffing of the police department,
including two additional police officers. We’re also moving some of the
City’s professional services employees to the Federal Building, which will
bring more people downtown to shop and dine.

Besides addressing downtown's needs and what the community is currently
doing to address them, the group also looked more deeply into these nuanced
and complicated issues.  We acknowledged that there are many types of
people under the umbrella of “homeless” – some who want help, and some who
don't.  It is also clear we have to do better to provide help to our
most vulnerable populations, such as homeless children and young people who
need stable housing and services. 

We also acknowledged that sometimes the issue is the perception of
downtown as much as it is the real challenges. Perception is reality, and
even with the success of events like the Bite of Bellingham, which had the
largest turn out ever this summer, downtown businesses have expressed
concern about a perception that downtown is unsafe.

Identifying the gaps

At the end of our first meeting, I asked the group to think about the
gaps in our systems so we can prepare to identify the solutions. We’ve
already identified a need for housing, especially for youth; the need for a
centralized contact number to connect residents, visitors, and businesses
with social services; the desire to create some sort of ambassador program
that can help assist the police in keeping downtown safe and friendly; the
need for education regarding alternatives to giving cash to panhandlers; a
disconnect between prosecutors, judges, and solutions; and a post-hospital
release program or specialized housing for those with mental health
challenges.

The next step for our Workgroup is to get into the hard work of the
issue: Here are our challenges, so what are the solutions? While this task
may not be easy, I am excited to be moving forward with finding solutions to
these pressing issues. The City wants to be proactive in coming up with an
action plan, and although we know that there is no one perfect solution, I’m
heartened that the Workgroup members are committed to dedicate the time in
the next couple of months to work on these very important issues, and I’m
excited to see the results of all this hard work. This is not just a City of
Bellingham solution. It will take a cooperative effort from all of us in the
community to address these challenges, and I welcome your help. Please
contact my office at 778-8100 if you have any ideas or questions.

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