Drop-in Center shelter in pursuit of move; more sheltering solutions needed / Email to the Bellingham City Council and Mayor Fleetwood

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Click the screenshot of a headline, photo of the Public Market building on Cornwall Ave. in Bellingham, and small section of text to access the full June 10, 2020 Press Release on the City of Bellingham website.

June 12, 2020  Dena Jensen

Here’s a summary before I move on to the text of my email to the Bellingham City Council and Mayor Fleetwood.

A couple articles have come out recently – a commentary in Northwest Citizen, and a news story in The Bellingham Heraldabout the potential move of Lighthouse Mission Ministries’ Drop-In Center, from it’s temporary location at Bellingham High School while the school was off session due to COVID-19, to the vacant Public Market building in downtown Bellingham. The relocated Drop-In Center would conceivably remain in that building for a period of up to four years.

I had become aware of the consideration of the use of the former Terra Organica market (formally Terra Organic & Natural Foods) location on Cornwall Ave., from discussion that took place during Whatcom County’s May 29, 2020 Homeless Strategies Workgroup (HSW) meeting. A May 20, 2020 Bellingham Herald article referred to the potential move before that meeting.

In a June 10, press release posted on the City of Bellingham website, Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu had stated, “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,”

At the May 29, HSW meeting, Whatcom County Deputy Executive Tyler Schroeder and Port of Bellingham Commissioner Michael Shepard spoke of properties that were being identified by County and City staff and the Port of Bellingham, to which the Drop-In Center could possibly move in short order. With school staff and students potentially returning to the BHS campus before the end of summer, a new space was considered necessary by local officials and presumably by Lighthouse Mission Ministries.

This move is at least, in part, motivated by the need to allow better social distancing accommodations during the pandemic for up to around 200 people, who may obtain shelter at the Drop-In Center each night, than the Lighthouse Mission’s property on Holly Street, which does not have this capacity.

According to the May 20 Bellingham Herald article, Lighthouse Mission has plans to establish a permanent Drop-In Center location in a few years by way of reconstructing and adding to their former temporary Drop-In Center location.

In response to all of this news, I wrote the following email to Bellingham City Council Members and Mayor Fleetwood yesterday, June 11, 2020.

Sent: Thursday, June 11, 2020, 06:11:11 PM PDT

Subject: We need much more than one sheltering solution and we need those solutions to be facilitated and expedited

Dear Bellingham City Council and Mayor Fleetwood:

I am conflicted about the move of the Drop-In Center from Bellingham High School to the Public Market location for a four year period. I understand that the people that go to the Lighthouse Mission Drop-In center need a safe place to be, especially during the pandemic. But to me, this is a little like a mega-jail situation in some aspects. This new space is expected to be in use for four years, while during that time I understand that the Lighthouse Mission plans to expand their facility. While I don’t necessarily object to it, I find it very difficult to support.  However, I do put the immediate safety of our community members before my frustration with unsheltered people being put in this scrambling and not very advantageous situation.

I don’t feel large congregate shelters are a great solution. They are definitely not a very good solution during a pandemic. There was a good recent article in High Country News that made some comparisons between options with the backdrop of actions happening in Seattle during COVID-19. I feel like we have this sense that we aren’t in a crisis situation yet like Seattle is. But I feel we are. The crisis, and the trauma and injury and illness and death numbers that come with it just hasn’t reached as high a count. Our percentage of tragedy is just somewhat less.

Putting more eggs in the basket of the Drop-in Center at this point – and a lot of public funds will be used for this – is likely not going to leave us much better prepared for physical distancing when the next pandemic comes around. Plus, it’s going to leave us only slightly better prepared for sheltering people right now and when the expanded Drop-In Center facility opens. 

Congregate shelters are one solution and having one of them that isn’t overly huge may be okay for awhile, especially because we have that provider and their dedicated staff and all the relationships they have with social services, donors, etc.

But our government agencies, including your Council, donate a disproportionate amount of attention to this one religious, mission-driven, congregate shelter. For example, no other sheltering service providers have their own guaranteed position on Whatcom County’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup except for Lighthouse Mission, the Opportunity Council, and Northwest Youth Services. 

Then we have the whole issue of dealing with businesses and alarmed downtown folks over 200 people without shelter being concentrated in one new particular area. It’s a big facility and people are more likely to make big noise about it.

Meanwhile, as you know, the process for neighborhood engagement and education, has been really successful for smaller sheltering communities, like Unity Village, Winter Haven, and Safe Haven. If we were to invest some time, effort, (and potentially less funds than for one large facility) into facilitating 10 small villages of 20 people each in different locations around the city/county – this would serve 200 people, lessening the load on the other providers and accommodating more of the 500 or so unsheltered community members that aren’t currently being served at all.

Plus, these would be ideal sheltering solutions for during winter conditions and health emergencies. The City could develop some of their own, plus the last I heard, you have a provider right now who has already indicated they have goals to expand their tiny home communities, and would, if you will help facilitate them in doing so.

There are other smaller sheltering models that could be considered, as well. For over a year I have heard very, very little meaningful discussion about or encouragement of or facilitating of other models, except through the voices of the providers and residents of those other models.

Despite a large amount of effort being expended, we had another huge failure this winter in terms of providing shelter during freezing weather. Again, this was a by-product of having the congregate shelter be placed in an integral role in deciding when emergency shelters would be opened. And sadly, here it is June and to my knowledge, we do not have any additional winter sheltering resources at all that have been identified, let alone any that are preparing for serving unsheltered community members this next cold season during the pandemic. This is infuriating and unacceptable! 

Every single successful sheltering service provider in the County should be being actively sought out – if they aren’t already – be brought into every sheltering conversation, be recognized, encouraged, and facilitated in improving and, potentially, expanding their capabilities to shelter our community members. 

Also, I call on Council Members who are on the Homeless Strategies Workgroup to insist on unsheltered individuals being offered a number of positions on the workgroup.


Dena Jensen

Birch Bay, WA

This email was sent to these addresses:

To: ccmail@cob.org <ccmail@cob.org>; Michael W. Lilliquist <mlilliquist@cob.org>; Daniel C. Hammill <dchammill@cob.org>; Hannah E. Stone <hestone@cob.org>; Hollie A. Huthman <hahuthman@cob.org>; Lisa A. Anderson <laanderson@cob.org>; Pinky T. Vargas <ptmvargas@cob.org>; Gene R. Knutson <gknutson@cob.org>; mayorsoffice@cob.org <mayorsoffice@cob.org>
Cc: council@co.whatcom.wa.us <council@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Satpal Sidhu <ssidhu@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Cathy Halka <chalka@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Health <health@co.whatcom.wa.us>