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Workgroup proposes actions to address downtown health and safety

Mayor Kelli Linville

By Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville

Bellingham is a wonderful community with a great downtown. We regularly receive “best places” recognition, the most recent by Livability.com, ranking our downtown the eighth best in the country because of our investment in local businesses, our walkability, and our support of the arts.

Our area also was listed in a recent Gallup Poll as the top happiest, healthiest small community in the nation. And data the City collects says we all know we live in a great place, with 94% of Bellingham residents ranking our quality of life as “good” or “excellent.”

We have a lot to be proud of and to celebrate. But like any city, Bellingham has its share of challenges. The concerns I hear about downtown include homelessness, pan handling, alcohol and drug consumption, behavioral and nuisance issues, and business vacancies.

I convened the Community Solutions Workgroup on Downtown Health and Safety to focus on these challenges. This short-term, action-oriented group included business owners, social services and public health representatives, public safety and liquor control officials, and others. We were charged with identifying challenges downtown, recommending solutions and producing an action plan.

The conditions we are concerned about downtown exist in other neighborhoods as well, so we made sure that many proposed solutions can be applied to neighborhoods throughout the City.

We also were careful to coordinate recommendations with the Draft Downtown Plan and City Center Implementation Strategy, both currently under review by the Planning Commission.

Analysis of Challenges

The workgroup met five times to analyze challenges and duplications or gaps in services, and identify potential resources.

The challenges fell into six general categories: mental health, homelessness and housing, crime and public safety, clean and safe environment, alcohol and drug abuse, and public education and perception.

We then identified possible solutions, and organizations and funding sources to support those solutions. We also considered examples from other communities to see how other cities have addressed similar challenges.

Priority Needs and Recommendations

We had rich, extensive discussions with many possible solutions identified, then we narrowed our action plan to the following 14 top recommendations:

Provide a 24-hour youth drop in center: Northwest Youth Services currently has limited drop-in hours for homeless youth, but not enough to meet the need. Last year, NWYS briefly operated a 24-hour youth drop in center, working with the Bellingham Police to provide a safe, service-enriched environment for youth, so this has worked in our community in the past.

Provide supportive housing citywide: More supportive housing is needed throughout the city. New housing projects are being built, but more are needed. The workgroup recommended the City take a stronger role encouraging more supportive housing projects.

Provide increased social service and outreach coordination between agencies and support intensive case management: We have great services and providers in our community, and we need more coordination among them. Intensive case management was identified as a related need. Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement is currently taking the lead to coordinate such a service along with help from other community agencies.

Develop a mental health court: A mental health court is needed to address crimes committed by people who are mentally ill but not receiving adequate treatment. City and county officials are partnering in a potential pilot in the Bellingham Municipal Court.

Create a 24-hour mobile crisis response system: Vulnerable populations need systems that can help 24-hours a day. Whatcom Counseling’s Mobile Outreach Team provides targeted services, and the Whatcom County Behavioral Health Triage Center would be an important addition to this system.

Provide police training on how to triage mental health and alcohol issues: Bellingham police officers often are the first contact for people in need of mental health or crisis services. Bellingham Police Chief Cliff Cook has initiated this training, with a goal of all sworn and direct customer service providers having 40 hours of training by 2018.

Increase police presence in time of need: There is a perception that there is not a visible police presence at certain times of day. Providing additional officers would require additional City funding.

Implement Maritime Heritage Park development plan: Plans for this park include collaborative programs, improving infrastructure, adding enforcement and installing a playground, lighting and security cameras.

Adjust municipal codes and staffing to allow intervention and enforcement of the most common infractions: Our goal is to connect people with the services they need, though adjusting some municipal codes may be appropriate. We recommend re-examining laws about pedestrian interference, panhandling, open container, and sitting and lying on the sidewalk.

Market the Bellingham Police Department’s Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) program: Loitering is frequently identified as a challenge for downtown business owners and residents. Examples of CPTED concepts include installing lights and speakers, utilizing cameras and making physical improvements to downtown properties. We recommend marketing the CPTED program and providing training to planning and public works staff.

Support initiatives to approve a business improvement district, Main Street program or similar tax incentive program: A business improvement district is a self-assessment program to raise funds to enhance vitality of an area. A Main Street or similar program allows the city to institute a tax incentive for businesses contributing to eligible downtown projects.

Initiate a Downtown Ambassador Program: Ambassador programs are found in cities across the state and can help create a more friendly atmosphere downtown. The Downtown Bellingham Partnership proposed an ambassador program last year, an idea supported by the workgroup. There are several ways to do this, including ambassadors serving a public relations role, helping link people with social services, and providing a liaison with the Bellingham Police Department.

Create an alcohol impact area downtown: If there is a demonstrated need, cities are authorized by the state to create alcohol impact areas to help address problems with chronic inebriation and illegal activities. We are working with the state Liquor Control Board to provide more information on this option.

Support the “Homeless in Bellingham” video series: We recommend addressing the need to communicate the realities of homelessness in Bellingham by providing additional funding for a video series initiated by a local filmmaker and the Opportunity Council.

Complex Challenges Need Strategic Solutions

These challenges are complex and multifaceted, and solutions will take a strategic, City-wide approach. It also will take strong leadership from us all: City officials, social services providers, neighbors, businesses, our government partners and others. A full report of this group’s work is posted on the City website at www.cob.org.

I very much appreciate the time, expertise and care dedicated to this effort by the members of the Community Solutions Workgroup on Downtown Health and Safety, and I look forward to checking back in with them in the months ahead as we pursue these ideas. I am also launching another Community Solutions Workgroup, this one exploring ways to strengthen Bellingham’s business climate, and I will write about this work in the months ahead. Please contact me at 360-778-8100 or mayorsoffice@cob.org if you have questions or comments.

Published:  April 7, 2014

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