The City of Bellingham, in partnership with Whatcom County and Lighthouse Mission Ministries, is working to relocate the Drop-In Center low-barrier emergency shelter facility to a new temporary location from its current temporary location at Bellingham High School.
The Drop-In Center cannot return to its facility in Old Town because it is too small to provide adequate social distancing while COVID-19 remains a threat. That program typically houses about 145 people per night during normal operations. During the COVID-19 emergency, the Drop-In Center at Bellingham High School has typically housed 160 people per night.
The Drop-In Center is expected to vacate Bellingham High School by mid-July, to give the district ample time to prepare Bellingham High School for school to start in the fall.
Plans are being developed to build a permanent shelter on an existing property in Old Town while the operation is temporarily housed elsewhere, Lighthouse Mission Ministries Director Hans Erchinger-Davis said.
Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood said the preferred option under consideration for another temporary site is the vacant building that is the former location of the Bellingham Public Market on Cornwall Avenue. Though no formal agreement has been reached, he said, there is an agreement in principle. “This location best meets the identified needs,” he said. “It is large enough, it is the most cost-effective option, it meets our very urgent timeframe, and we have a property owner who is willing to work with local officials, and the site lends itself best to amenities that will help ease neighborhood concerns.”
Mayor Fleetwood said he anticipates requesting a special City Council meeting be scheduled next week to consider this project.
“We recognize there are strong opinions on the impacts, perceived and real, this will have on adjacent businesses,” Mayor Fleetwood said. “We are committed to helping navigate those issues to ensure negative impacts are minimized.”
“We simply have no choice. We must create healthy living space for people experiencing homelessness during this public health emergency, or they will have no option other than to live unsheltered,” Mayor Fleetwood said. “Protecting the health of people who need shelter services greatly reduces the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak among shelter guests, among staff and volunteers, and throughout the whole community.”
Opportunities for public comment about the proposed shelter at the Bellingham Public Market site will come when the City Council considers lease terms and when Lighthouse Mission Ministries applies for permits required to be in place should the COVID-19 emergency end before a permanent location is available. The anticipated term of the lease is three years with a one-year extension if the permanent facility is under construction, but not completed.
The Whatcom County Council and Bellingham City Council approved a cost-sharing agreement for a new temporary shelter location at their respective June 2 and June 8 meetings.
“We are pleased to partner with the City of Bellingham and Whatcom Unified Command to provide a solution to help address this community-based need,” Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu said. “As we work through the challenges of COVID-19 together, we are mindful that our most vulnerable depend on us for a safe place to shelter with social distancing capability.”
The agencies involved anticipate the next location to be in use for up to four years while Lighthouse Mission Ministries rebuilds at its current location in Bellingham’s Old Town.
Erchinger-Davis said approximately 160 people currently stay at the Drop-In Center each night at Bellingham High School. Since this operation moved to the high school, he said, it has housed more than 475 unique individuals. Through June 8, no Drop-In Center guests have tested positive for COVID-19.
Any facility selected for temporary use must provide enough space to allow guests to sleep with a minimum of six feet between them, said Erika Lautenbach, Director of the Whatcom County Health Department.
“It’s critically important that as a community we do everything we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially for people who are more vulnerable to this virus,” Lautenbach said. “For our neighbors experiencing homelessness, we need a shelter with enough space for physical distancing that will limit the chances of the virus spreading. Protecting those who use the shelter from an outbreak of COVID-19 also protects the health of our entire community.”
The exact timeline for development, production and distribution of a safe and vaccine is unknown. Current estimates suggest that a vaccine, which would minimize the need for social distancing, is unlikely to become available soon, with the most optimistic predictions suggesting that a vaccine could be available in 18 months.