Neighbors push back as Bellingham homeless shelter seeks to double its capacity

Business owners worry about how the expanded homeless shelter will affect downtown Bellingham.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — A homeless shelter manager in Bellingham is hoping to expand his operations to accommodate more people, but the neighborhood is pushing back on his plans.

The Lighthouse Mission has ministered to homeless people in Bellingham for 99 years, 49 of which were spent in the same building on Holly Street near downtown. CEO Hans Erchinger-Davis wants to double the capacity of the current shelter, which has worried some nearby business owners.

A few months ago, Erchinger-Davis moved the 120 people who lived at the Holly Street site to other Lighthouse accommodations to begin renovations.

“This particular initiative is a very bold move,” he said.

Dealing with the homeless has divided Bellingham in recent years, with protests and occupations of City Hall and public parks. Hans has been trying to open another animal shelter in town for years, but encounters resistance from everyone.

“Every time a place was circulated, tons of letters would come in from people saying they love it [Lighthouse] mission, but they just don’t want it anywhere near them.”

Erchinger-Davis’ plans for the new shelter would increase the capacity from 120 to 400 people. Most of the residents would be families, the working poor, the elderly and those with mental health problems.

“The people who live with us don’t commit any crimes. That’s a rarity,” said Hans. “But you get people on the periphery.”

It is this periphery that worries Peggy Platter.

She has owned the Sojourn Boutique a few blocks from the shelter for 27 years.

“The screaming, the human excrement. Things get a little dangerous here and that scares people,” she said.

Platter supports the Lighthouse Mission but doesn’t think the extra beds will have much of an impact.

“The Lighthouse Mission can only do so much,” she said. “Just because they have more beds, people who don’t want help and recovery won’t go there. I don’t know if 400 beds will help. You also have to think about the neighborhood. You always have to think about the neighborhood.”

Part of the plan for the renovated shelter includes a three-block design with no camping or loitering to address concerns and make the area more business-friendly.

Hans believes he can change people’s perceptions by giving hope to the homeless.

“This will address the needs of homelessness in our community,” he said. “That will leave a big dent.”

The fate of the shelter will soon be in the hands of a hearing examiner. A decision is expected by July. Neighbors push back as Bellingham homeless shelter seeks to double its capacity

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