By Max Brunt
— An estimated 715 residents of Whatcom County are experiencing homelessness, noted Lighthouse Mission Ministries Executive Director Hans Erchinger-Davis in a recent Bellingham City Council meeting. As other county residents have spent the last few months indoors complying with stay-at-home orders, staying six feet from others and venturing out only for essentials, that figure has amplified concerns about the ability of those without homes to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The City of Bellingham, Whatcom County and Lighthouse Mission Ministries are working to meet a July 15 deadline for refurbishing the former Public Market building at 1530 Cornwall Avenue into a “Base Camp” facility that can provide adequate care for area residents needing housing that enables following social distancing guidelines.
The Base Camp provides up to 200 individual adult guests with meals, beds, showers, laundry facilities and resources for reentering society. Currently housed at Bellingham High School, the Base Camp is the outgrowth of the former drop-in center on Holly Street in Old Town. The increased space provided at the high school has resulted in no new cases of COVID-19 among the guests, according to Erchinger-Davis.
Since the high school hopes to resume in-person classes in the fall, the city, county and mission had to act quickly to find a suitable replacement site. The Base Camp’s Old Town location also will remain open in a reduced capacity and house approximately 100 guests, said Erchinger-Davis.
Urgent need, urgent timing
“The Public Market was flagged as a site that met the time, urgency and cost issues,” Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood told the city council.
The selection process for the site also had to be done quickly. Several other potential sites were considered including empty university dormitory halls and various vacant waterfront properties. “The costs to bring (the Public Market) facility up and running are significantly lower,” said Public Works Director Eric Johnston. “Tentative improvements are fairly straightforward … water, sewer and power are already to the site.”
Though the schedule is very tight, physical work should be the same as with any other project like this, Johnston said in an interview. “We were able to execute contracts in a much more streamlined process.” A price was determined by drawing comparisons with similar projects, rather than the typical competitive bidding process.
This, along with “a little bit of creativity,” should allow the project to be completed without changing any conventional construction techniques, he said. Johnston credits the contractors, Colacurcio Brothers Construction, Andgar HVAC and Carlson Steel Works, with recognizing the importance of the emergency and mobilizing quickly.
Installations underway include bathroom facilities, handwashing stations and a kitchen, among several more, detailed in a press release from the city.
Despite the urgency, some are opposed to the move. An op-ed in Northwest Citizen articulated some of the complaints made by residents during a discussion before city council in early June. The article asserts that small-business owners downtown are being “sacrificed” for the new center.
Council President Gene Knutson optimistically addressed some of the public’s concerns during the June 16 meeting. He said that the cooperation of the city, county and mission will allow this project to function within Bellingham. “I fully understand people’s concerns, but there’s more concern if we do nothing,” said Knutson. “I know a lot of people who have been (at the Lighthouse Mission), I volunteered at the food bank… I know this whole story and I know we just can’t sit back and miss this opportunity.”
Public comment on the project was accepted by the city council through July 6. “In the permit decision, we … respond to the issues, questions, and/or concerns that have been raised in the public comment period,” city planner Anya Gedrath explained. “Comments are carefully considered when drafting appropriate mitigating conditions for a project.”
While the county and city are paying for the construction costs, operating costs will still be covered by the mission. Erchinger-Davis says that the previously reported amount of $1.5 million is based on their current estimated annual operating cost of $500,000 being projected to three years, the current window for the lease.
Since the lease has the option to be renewed for an additional year, and there may be further costs associated with the move, it’s possible that more than $1.5 million will ultimately be necessary to operate the facility at its full extent. Erchinger-Davis is confident that the funds will be there, though the mission is a private institution funded by donations from individuals and partner organizations. “It’s important for readers to understand that we are dependent on that support,” Erchinger-Davis said in an interview.
Safety and security
The city held a public information session on June 24 regarding the development where officials gave examples of steps that have already been completed in order to prepare the site. These include a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) survey conducted in cooperation with Bellingham Police to address concerns about perceived potential increases in crime that may accompany the Base Camp.
A CPTED is intended to minimize problematic or dangerous situations by identifying potential locations for installations like security cameras and floodlights said Bellingham Planning and Community Development Director Rick Sepler.
An environmental inspection of the site has also been completed; the site was granted a determination of non-significance. A DNS means that the project doesn’t pose a significant adverse effect on the environment.
The city hopes that the community will see the necessity in the building’s new purpose. “We just don’t have a choice,” said Mayor Fleetwood. “We have to create healthy living spaces for people experiencing homelessness.”
The building has a long history in Bellingham. According to Jeff Jewell, research technician in the photo archives of the Whatcom Museum, there had been a Safeway at the site from 1942 until the mid-’80s, with the current building being constructed circa 1963. After Safeway left, the building cycled through various tenants including a carpet store and an indoor children’s play space called Tube Time. Most recently, before vacancy, it was home to the Public Market, a collection of restaurants and small businesses anchored by the Terra Organica natural foods market.
Max Brunt is a journalism and political science student at Western Washington University who is interning with the Salish Current. Originally from the Seattle area, he thinks events in the Pacific Northwest deserve a greater national spotlight and hopes to provide residents with fair and accurate reporting.