Next steps are underway for use of the former site of the Bellingham Public Market as an emergency shelter facility after Bellingham City Council approval at a special meeting June 16.
The new location will allow adequate social distancing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Council action to approve lease terms was taken after approval from Mayor Seth Fleetwood consistent with Executive Order 2020-02 and Emergency Ordinance 2020-03-008.
The City of Bellingham, in partnership with Whatcom County and Lighthouse Mission Ministries, will be relocating the Drop-In Center low-barrier emergency shelter facility from its current location at Bellingham High School to the new location. The Drop-in Center will remain at its new site for up to four years.
Steps now underway include construction in and around the building to prepare it for use as a shelter. Additionally, a permitting process under the City’s temporary shelter code has been initiated.
Lighthouse Mission Ministries has applied for a permit under the City’s temporary shelter code (BMC 20.15.030) to continue use of the building if the declared emergency ends prior to their lease with the City. Planning and Community Development issued a notice of application on June 19, 2020, which starts a 14-day public comment period. Due to the Independence Day holiday, the comment period has been extended to July 6. An informational meeting about the project is scheduled via webinar on 5:00-6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 24, 2020. Members of the public are encouraged to participate, with meeting sign-on details available in the notice of application.
In addition to making sure the necessary permit is in place when the emergency declaration ends, public feedback during the permit process will help inform what conditions the City will require of Lighthouse Mission Ministries while they occupy the building downtown.
Permit required after emergency ends
Washington State, Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham have all established health emergencies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, measures to ensure that community members are safe can be implemented immediately.
The Mayor and Bellingham City Council approved the use of and lease terms for the building consistent with the emergency requirements after determining that the usual approval process would cause undue delay and put Drop-In Center guests, staff and the public at risk.
The Drop-in Center may remain in the building for the duration of the declared emergency, which at this time is unknown.
To stay in this location beyond the public health emergency, Lighthouse Mission Ministries must have a permit under the City’s temporary shelter code (BMC 20.15.030). The process to obtain this permit includes public input opportunity and an option to appeal, just like any other temporary encampment permit application.
The Lighthouse Mission, City and County engineering and facilities staff, the property owner and local contractors worked quickly to identify improvements needed to support daily operations of the Drop-In Center.
Improvements underway include shower facilities, handwashing stations, laundry facilities, interior walls, cabinets and counters, food service, painting, heating and cooling equipment and exterior courtyard fencing. Prime contractors Colacurcio Brother Construction, Andgar HVAC and Carlson Steel Works developed and executed contracts, mobilized personnel and equipment, secured permits and scheduled work with the City in less than seven days.
These prime contractors and several other local subcontractors, including Blythe Plumbing and Scott Electric, are now preparing to or already working on site, with work scheduled to be completed by July 15, 2020.
“We are very appreciative of the efforts shown by these contractors in recognizing the need and urgency with this unique project moving forward on a very aggressive schedule,” said Eric Johnston, Public Works director.
New shelter location necessary
The Drop-In Center has been temporarily housed at Bellingham High School.
As described to the City Council on June 16, 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.
The Drop-In Center cannot return to its location in Old Town because those facilities are too small to provide adequate social distancing while COVID-19 remains a threat.
Lighthouse Mission Ministries plans 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 Bellingham Public Market location best meets the identified needs. “It is large enough, it is the most cost-effective option, it meets our very urgent timeframe, 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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”