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

Business owners worry how the expanded homeless shelter will impact Bellingham's downtown area.

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

The Lighthouse Mission has served homeless people in Bellingham for 99 years, 49 of which were spent in the same building on Holly Street near the city's downtown area. Executive Director Hans Erchinger-Davis wants to double the current shelter's capacity in a move that's worrying some nearby business owners. 

A few months ago, Erchinger-Davis moved the 120 people staying at the Holly Street location to other Lighthouse shelters in anticipation of beginning the renovations.

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

How to handle the homeless has divided Bellingham in recent years with protests and occupations of City Hall and public parks. Hans has been trying for years to open another shelter in the city, but at every turn, he has been met with opposition.

"Anytime a location was floated tons, of letters would come in from people saying they love [Lighthouse] Mission, but they just don't want it 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, senior citizens and people with mental health challenges.

"The folks who are staying with us, they're not doing crimes. That's a rarity," said Hans. "But you do get people on the periphery."

It's that periphery that worries Peggy Platter.

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

"The screaming, the human waste. Things are getting a little bit dangerous, here and that makes people scared," she said.

Platter supports Lighthouse Mission but doesn't believe the extra beds will have a major impact.

"The Lighthouse Mission can only do so much," she said. "Just because they have more beds, people who don't want help and don't want recovery aren't gonna go there. I don't know that 400 beds is gonna help. You have to think about the neighborhood, too. You always have to think about the neighborhood."

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

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

"This will address the needs of homelessness in our community," he said. "It will put a major dent in it."

The shelter's fate will soon be in the hands of a hearing examiner. A decision is expected by July.


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