John and Janet Crews guest write. The Crews family has been involved in downtown Bellingham since the end of WWII when Jack Crews, partnered to open Luke and Crews Floor Covering on Railroad Ave. Over the years, Luke and Crews combined a series of small older buildings extending along Railroad Ave. which have become homes to small family businesses. After Jack’s death in 1987, our family committed to continuing Jack’s vision for Railroad Ave.
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As members of the North Downtown Property and Business Owners Working Group, we would like to share some of our views related to the new low-barrier shelter proposed for the Public Market building on Cornwall Ave.
We do not believe that the Public Market site is a reasonable area for a low-barrier shelter, as confirmed by the City’s own 2018 report. Our focus in communicating to the mayor’s office and city and county council members has not been on trying to stop the creation of a new drop-in shelter. Instead, we are trying to re-frame the question by suggesting and supporting alternative sites, along with practical and financial support for a temporary shelter. There are sites available on government-owned property that would not threaten the survival of downtown businesses already struggling on the brink of collapse due to the Covid-19 restrictions.
We understand that the recent coronavirus pandemic has hit homeless people very hard, and that there is an immediate need for a suitable temporary shelter as required by state-mandated Covid-19 restrictions. We understand that homelessness is a problem we must address and solve as a community with fairness for all.
However, families that own small businesses, as well as their employees and families, are also being hit very hard during the current pandemic and its associated government restrictions, and they, too, are struggling to survive. The thought of our downtown business neighborhood being sacrificed by the City is truly scary for small-business families.
These small-business owners have tough memories from fifteen years ago when this area of downtown was overrun with disenfranchised individuals resulting in people urinating and defecating in business doorways in front of customers, having graffiti painted on their storefronts and rocks thrown through their windows, having drug dealing and prostitution openly taking place in front of their shops, and having customers too afraid to get out of their cars or walk to businesses.
Through the courage of many small business owners, the dedication of the Bellingham Police officers, and support from City government, this situation was eventually turned around to create a safe and thriving business community over the past twelve years. To add the bleak possibility of the previous problems returning on top of what downtown is already dealing with due to Covid-19 is an unfair burden, short-sighted, and could lead to increased unemployment and financial stress for the citizens of Bellingham.
For the City to see a vibrant and healthy downtown re-emerge from the current pandemic with the ability to support jobs and families, it must not throw fuel on the current pandemic stresses by putting a low-barrier shelter within the boundaries of the Central Business District. We commend the City’s recently proposed efforts to make the new shelter a safe and well-controlled environment.
However, the safety and security measures that we have seen proposed are limited to the shelter site. The only assurance the City has offered for the downtown businesses, shops, and restaurants is to enforce existing laws against sitting or lying on a sidewalk. While being well intentioned, this addresses about one percent of the problems that may descend on downtown.
On Tuesday, City Management is presenting the City Council with a lease for the proposed Public Market property as an either/or proposition: Either use the property they are proposing, or vote for no shelter. Either agree to subject downtown small businesses, their employees, and downtown visitors to social elements that are directly or indirectly detrimental, and sometimes overtly hostile to small businesses’ survival; or vote in a way that appears to be unsympathetic to the homeless. We believe that this is a false choice, and that there are better alternatives which we are actively working to support.
Our current focus as a working group has been on trying to re-frame this either/or question by supporting alternative sites, along with offering practical and financial support for building a shelter on these more appropriate government-owned sites that would provide the necessary shelter without threatening the survival of downtown family businesses.
During the most recent City Council meeting, City Management stated that government-owned properties were indeed an option, but they felt that these options involved higher costs and may not meet the necessary timeline. We believe that, through recent community efforts, both of these issues are no longer primary concerns. We are working with a prominent local contractor who firmly believes that he can meet the necessary timeline, and we believe that the additional costs can be mitigated or reversed by the generous community support that is outlined below.
Over the past few years, to its credit, the City has been actively searching for a permanent location for a drop-in shelter. Each of the options they looked at had issues that precluded them from being chosen.
The current Covid-19 situation has changed the essential nature of that search to now being the need for an emergency temporary shelter location for the duration of the pandemic. We believe that the temporary nature of the current crisis should allow the use of existing government properties that were judged not to be feasible for a permanent solution.
We are supporting locations in Old Town and in the vicinity of the courthouse that would be much more suitable for a temporary shelter, without pitting the needs of the homeless against the welfare of downtown business families and their employees’ families.
There is no question that each of the alternative properties that we are supporting involves challenges. However, in this crisis situation we believe that the City has the power and ability to overcome these obstacles, as illustrated by the fact that their proposal to the City Council for the Public Market location includes an unusual request to exempt the proposed shelter from Washington State Building Code requirements due to the urgency of the Covid-19-induced shelter crisis. We believe that this same creative crisis management can, and should, be used to make other, much more suitable, government-owned sites available.
If the upcoming decision-making process is going to take into account the mental health aspects of a shelter’s location, which it should, it is very clear that the lot north of the courthouse is vastly superior to the Public Market site. There are numerous research studies which show that being near nature and greenery has a very positive effect on mental health and depression. The Courthouse Annex site is surrounded by trees on three sides, and there are tree-lined pathways that lead down to Maritime Heritage Park. The Public Market site offers blacktop, busy streets, and alleyways. If any consideration is going to be given to the mental welfare of the people using this shelter, there is no question that the Courthouse Annex site is a vastly superior choice.
In order to aid in this process, the community is offering support to the City in the forms of a prominent local construction company offering to build a temporary shelter within the needed time-frame at no markup, building suppliers who have offered to supply materials at their cost, engineering firms who have offered to supply the needed work at no costs, and our working group has offered to pitch in $50,000 of private money to help fund the project. Since the sites we are proposing are government-owned, there would be no leasing costs to the City.
We realize that the solutions we are proposing will certainly involve some challenges for the City to move them forward, but the fact that this is a temporary use during a pandemic crisis should empower overcoming those challenges. There are certain challenges with each of the sites we are supporting, but therein lies the chance for government to fulfill its role of trying to help all of its citizens, without unduly burdening others.
Up until this point, there has been a tendency to view this as a choice of casting the burden on either the homeless, or on downtown small-business families and their employees’ families. This is an opportunity for local government to step up and use its land resources and emergency powers to support the well-being of both groups, and to provide the best solution for all citizens by taking the burden upon themselves at the small cost of working through the obstacles, and providing use of government-controlled land on a temporary basis.
This is a chance for local government to show compassion for all their citizens, not just one group or another. We are asking the City Council to briefly delay their decision on Tuesday, and ask the City and County to find ways to make one of their own sites available for the benefit of their citizens during this crisis.