Whatcom County will continue to operate its severe winter weather emergency shelter at the Civic Center Building in downtown Bellingham until the morning of March 1, 2019.
On the agenda for the Feb. 20, 2019, Special Meeting; the Whatcom County Council voted to keep the emergency shelter for homeless men open until 7:30 am March 1 when overnight temperatures are expected to remain safely above freezing.
Council members discussed the many problems with the county running an emergency shelter. The location was one issue. County Executive Jack Louws admits the Garden Room would not be an appropriate place for a long-term emergency shelter. “This was put together on an emergency basis,” Louws said. “This is what was possible in my mind to get this done.”
Staffing and security was another issue. So far the shelter has been staffed by council members and senior-level county employees along with volunteers from HomesNOW!. Council member Todd Donovan questioned the need for senior-level staff to be present. Executive Louws said the county couldn’t create a well-defined regular staff position dedicated for this kind of work on such short notice.
Louws said he decided that law enforcement officers should provide security at the shelter. Sheriff Bill Elfo said he’s been pulling on-duty patrol officers from other parts of the county to be at the shelter, and has to back-fill those shifts with overtime. Sheriff Elfo told the council “so far we’ve spent $8,600 in staffing” to provide security at the shelter.
Council members also discussed ways they could better collaborate with the City of Bellingham to run short-term emergency shelters in the future. The city made its emergency proclamation on Feb. 11th and amended it on Feb. 15th to include working with the County. The city closed its temporary emergency shelter at Maritime Heritage Park on Feb. 15th without notice before the County-run Garden Room shelter was opened. Jim Peterson, president of HomesNOW!, said the city and county were “playing whack-a-mole with the homeless again.”
Council members needed to decide when to close the shelter. Council member Satpal Sidhu recommended closing the shelter Feb. 23rd or 24th. Donovan said they already have staff scheduled to work at the shelter through Sunday morning, Feb. 24th. Jim Peterson with HomesNOW! asked the Council to keep the shelter open until March 1st as more freezing weather is expected.
The Council invited Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville to talk about the City’s plans to protect people without shelter if the severe winter weather continues. Linville said the City has many shelter options available including the Lighthouse Mission and local churches, but many people without shelter choose not to use these services. The Council voted 5-0 to keep the emergency shelter open until March 1st.