Workgroup proposes actions to address downtown health and safety

Stakeholder workgroup focused on complex problems, strategic solutions

Apr 07, 2014 - by Mayor Kelli Linville

Bellingham is a wonderful community with a great downtown. We regularly
receive “best places” recognition, the most recent by Livability.com,
ranking our downtown the eighth best in the country because of our
investment in local businesses, our walkability, and our support of the
arts.

Our area also was listed in a recent Gallup Poll as the top happiest,
healthiest small community in the nation. And data the City collects says we
all know we live in a great place, with 94% of Bellingham residents ranking
our quality of life as “good” or “excellent.”

We have a lot to be proud of and to celebrate. But like any city,
Bellingham has its share of challenges. The concerns I hear about downtown
include homelessness, pan handling, alcohol and drug consumption, behavioral
and nuisance issues, and business vacancies.

I convened the
Community Solutions Workgroup on Downtown Health and
Safety to focus on these challenges. This short-term, action-oriented group
included business owners, social services and public health representatives,
public safety and liquor control officials, and others. We were charged with
identifying challenges downtown, recommending solutions and producing an
action plan.

The conditions we are concerned about downtown exist in other
neighborhoods as well, so we made sure that many proposed solutions can be
applied to neighborhoods throughout the City.

We also were careful to coordinate recommendations with the
Draft Downtown Plan
and City Center Implementation Strategy
, both currently under review by
the Planning Commission.

Analysis of Challenges

The workgroup met five times to analyze challenges and duplications or
gaps in services, and identify potential resources.

The challenges fell into six general categories: mental health,
homelessness and housing, crime and public safety, clean and safe
environment, alcohol and drug abuse, and public education and perception.

We then identified possible solutions, and organizations and funding
sources to support those solutions. We also considered examples from other
communities to see how other cities have addressed similar challenges.

Priority Needs and Recommendations

We had rich, extensive discussions with many possible solutions
identified, then we narrowed our action plan to the following 14 top
recommendations:

Provide a 24-hour youth drop in center: Northwest Youth
Services currently has limited drop-in hours for homeless youth, but not
enough to meet the need. Last year, NWYS briefly operated a 24-hour youth
drop in center, working with the Bellingham Police to provide a safe,
service-enriched environment for youth, so this has worked in our community
in the past.

Provide supportive housing citywide: More supportive
housing is needed throughout the city. New housing projects are being built,
but more are needed. The workgroup recommended the City take a stronger role
encouraging more supportive housing projects.

Provide increased social service and outreach coordination
between agencies and support intensive case managemen
t: We have
great services and providers in our community, and we need more coordination
among them. Intensive case management was identified as a related need.
Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement is currently taking the lead to
coordinate such a service along with help from other community agencies.

Develop a mental health court: A mental health court is
needed to address crimes committed by people who are mentally ill but not
receiving adequate treatment. City and county officials are partnering in a
potential pilot in the Bellingham Municipal Court.

Create a 24-hour mobile crisis response system:
Vulnerable populations need systems that can help 24-hours a day. Whatcom
Counseling’s Mobile Outreach Team provides targeted services, and the
Whatcom County Behavioral Health Triage Center would be an important
addition to this system.

Provide police training on how to triage mental health and
alcohol issues
: Bellingham police officers often are the first
contact for people in need of mental health or crisis services. Bellingham
Police Chief Cliff Cook has initiated this training, with a goal of all
sworn and direct customer service providers having 40 hours of training by
2018.

Increase police presence in time of need: There is a
perception that there is not a visible police presence at certain times of
day. Providing additional officers would require additional City funding.

Implement Maritime Heritage Park development plan: Plans
for this park include collaborative programs, improving infrastructure,
adding enforcement and installing a playground, lighting and security
cameras.

Adjust municipal codes and staffing to allow intervention and
enforcement of the most common infractions
: Our goal is to connect
people with the services they need, though adjusting some municipal codes
may be appropriate. We recommend re-examining laws about pedestrian
interference, panhandling, open container, and sitting and lying on the
sidewalk.

Market the Bellingham Police Department’s Crime Prevention
through Environmental Design (CPTED) program
: Loitering is
frequently identified as a challenge for downtown business owners and
residents. Examples of CPTED concepts include installing lights and
speakers, utilizing cameras and making physical improvements to downtown
properties. We recommend marketing the CPTED program and providing training
to planning and public works staff.

Support initiatives to approve a business improvement district,
Main Street program or similar tax incentive program
: A business
improvement district is a self-assessment program to raise funds to enhance
vitality of an area. A Main Street or similar program allows the city to
institute a tax incentive for businesses contributing to eligible downtown
projects.

Initiate a Downtown Ambassador Program: Ambassador
programs are found in cities across the state and can help create a more
friendly atmosphere downtown. The Downtown Bellingham Partnership proposed
an ambassador program last year, an idea supported by the workgroup. There
are several ways to do this, including ambassadors serving a public
relations role, helping link people with social services, and providing a
liaison with the Bellingham Police Department.

Create an alcohol impact area downtown: If there is a
demonstrated need, cities are authorized by the state to create alcohol
impact areas to help address problems with chronic inebriation and illegal
activities. We are working with the state Liquor Control Board to provide
more information on this option.

Support the “Homeless in Bellingham” video series: We
recommend addressing the need to communicate the realities of homelessness
in Bellingham by providing additional funding for a video series initiated
by a local filmmaker and the Opportunity Council.

Complex Challenges Need Strategic Solutions

These challenges are complex and multifaceted, and solutions will take a
strategic, City-wide approach. It also will take strong leadership from us
all: City officials, social services providers, neighbors, businesses, our
government partners and others. A full report of this group’s work is posted
on the City website at www.cob.org.

I very much appreciate the time, expertise and care dedicated to this
effort by the members of the
Community Solutions Workgroup on Downtown
Health and Safety, and I look forward to checking back in with them in the
months ahead as we pursue these ideas. I am also launching another Community
Solutions Workgroup, this one exploring ways to strengthen Bellingham’s
business climate, and I will write about this work in the months ahead.
Please contact me at 360-778-8100 or
mayorsoffice@cob.org
if you have questions or comments.

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