Proposed homeless shelter on Bellingham waterfront would displace marine trades businesses

By BBJ Staff

We do need a homeless shelter, just not there.

That was the message of more than a dozen people who spoke at a Port of Bellingham commissioner’s meeting last month to object to the city’s plan to put a homeless shelter on what is currently a part of Bellingham’s working waterfront.

On March 3, the city announced its plan to put an easy-access, 24-hour, homeless shelter on about an acre of city-owned property along the waterfront.

The property, 801 and 807 Roeder Ave. between C and F streets, currently has five tenants, which would have to move.

All five are businesses that work in the marine trades.

After more than a year of looking for a spot for the homeless shelter, this was the only suitable property, according to the city’s announcement.

The city and the port will work to find new locations for those businesses.

Under an agreement from a previous land swap between the city and port, the port has the first option to purchase the property.

Mayor Kelli Linville spoke at the March 21 commission meeting to convince the commissioners to pass on its chance to buy the property, so the next phases could move forward. Twenty local people who work on the waterfront also got up to speak, to object to the displacement of the five businesses and the potential loss of the property as an industrial, working area.

“Our main objective is to really impress upon you how unique this property is,” Matt Hardin, president of Northwest Diesel Power and president of the Working Waterfront Coalition of Whatcom County said at the meeting. “It’s not about where the homeless shelter is in general. But it’s about not losing our ability to perform a unique and specialized industry in this area.”

Most of the speakers acknowledged the need for a new homeless shelter, but objected to using the proposed property.

After the public comment period, Linville got up.

“There’s not one person I disagree with on the importance of the marine trades industry,” she said. She stressed that this was the beginning of an 18-24-month process — no one is being evicted immediately.

“I have to put my social services hat on and I have to put my economic development hat on,” she said. “This has been difficult for all of us.”

Under the proposal, the city would partner with Lighthouse Mission Ministries, which would actually operate the shelter.

The mission would have to raise $1.5 million to renovate the buildings.

The city would contribute $180,000 per year to run nighttime services, and the mission would pay the rest of the operating costs.

Part of what makes this property suitable is its proximity to the missions existing operations at Holly and F streets.

The shelter would serve up to 200 men and women. It would address short-term needs, and be a first step to connect people with services. People would be able to bring their pets, and while there would be no using of drugs or alcohol permitted on the premises, there would be no drug or alcohol testing as a requisite to seek serves at the shelter.

“It’s very low-key,” Linville said commissioner’s meeting. “There are going to be cots on the floor at night.”

The commissioners didn’t vote on whether they were going to take their option to purchase the property. However, none of the commissioners expressed support for the city’s proposal.

Commissioner Dan Robbins said it was not a “not in my backyard” issue.

He didn’t mind it in the area, he said. “I really don’t like displacing five good marine trades businesses.”

Commissioner Bobby Briscoe suggested that between the port and the city, there had to be some other option.

“I think we can find a better solution than the one we have at hand,” he said.

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