Work group formed to address downtown challenges

In the past several months, it has become increasingly clear that innovative solutions need to be found to address some of our most pressing community issues, especially downtown. Because of this, I have convened a Community Solutions Workgroup.

The purpose of the Community Solutions Workgroup is to convene selected community stakeholders and city staff to provide public health and safety solutions for various downtown challenges.  Many exciting and positive things happening in our city center, and the vision of this workgroup is to understand our challenges and to come up with solutions.

This is the second initiative we’ve taken on this year to provide a short-term, focused process to produce immediate solutions to social issues in our community. The first effort was to revisit the Countywide Housing Affordability Taskforce work from 2008 and to provide short-term solutions to affordable housing needs. This new citywide CHAT group met four times over the summer and produced a list of 17 recommendations that we’ve begun to include in the City’s 2014 work plan. It is this results-oriented approach that we are taking with this new Community Solutions Workgroup.

The Workgroup members include community stakeholders and city staff who represent social services, the police department, the parks department, the city attorney's office, the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, health-care advocates, property owners, business owners, the Liquor Control Board, Western Washington University, and the Mayor's office. The task of this group is to identify key issues that should be addressed, identify solutions, and produce an action plan by early 2014. Our timeline for this project is swift, and we have scheduled meetings every two weeks through December to accomplish the bulk of our work before the end of the year.

Our community is not alone in facing these issues. Seattle, for example, is also working on its downtown issues, and a recent article in the Seattle Times headlined “City considers broader strategy to address downtown’s homeless” outlined a proposal to expand a pilot project that helps divert low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system and into social services. In Bellingham, our Workgroup will be examining all options to address our similar issues.

The Community Solutions Workgroup held its first meeting on Oct. 24, and we spent two hours outlining the challenges facing downtown. That list included homelessness, behaviors associated with mental health problems, pan handling, alcohol/drug consumption, cleanliness/beautification issues, alley responsibilities, Maritime Heritage Park programming and use, social service coordination, health-care access, police presence and community coordination, nuisance laws, street lighting, and business vacancies. As the group discussed these issues, members identified possible contributing factors and how, as a community, we could be more successful in breaking these cycles.

Many initiatives already underway

Even though we have challenges, the community has been moving forward on many fronts, and we discussed some of the programs and initiatives that are already underway. We have a Downtown Community Safety Alliance, and a strong partnership between the Whatcom Homeless Service Center and Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement. Both Northwest Youth Services and Whatcom Homeless Service Center continue to work to identify the number and demographics of the homeless population, and several organizations have street outreach programs. These are just a few of the many cooperative initiatives undertaken by social services in our community.

The City is also taking actions to address many of these issues. The Bellingham Housing Levy awards are helping to provide funding to address some of our affordable housing needs. The City continues to support the Downtown Bellingham Partnership to help with neighborhood organizing, event planning, marketing and cleanliness and beautification needs. My proposed 2014 budget also includes increased staffing of the police department, including two additional police officers. We’re also moving some of the City’s professional services employees to the Federal Building, which will bring more people downtown to shop and dine.

Besides addressing downtown's needs and what the community is currently doing to address them, the group also looked more deeply into these nuanced and complicated issues.  We acknowledged that there are many types of people under the umbrella of "homeless" - some who want help, and some who don't.  It is also clear we have to do better to provide help to our most vulnerable populations, such as homeless children and young people who need stable housing and services. 

We also acknowledged that sometimes the issue is the perception of downtown as much as it is the real challenges. Perception is reality, and even with the success of events like the Bite of Bellingham, which had the largest turn out ever this summer, downtown businesses have expressed concern about a perception that downtown is unsafe.

Identifying the gaps

At the end of our first meeting, I asked the group to think about the gaps in our systems so we can prepare to identify the solutions. We’ve already identified a need for housing, especially for youth; the need for a centralized contact number to connect residents, visitors, and businesses with social services; the desire to create some sort of ambassador program that can help assist the police in keeping downtown safe and friendly; the need for education regarding alternatives to giving cash to panhandlers; a disconnect between prosecutors, judges, and solutions; and a post-hospital release program or specialized housing for those with mental health challenges.

The next step for our Workgroup is to get into the hard work of the issue: Here are our challenges, so what are the solutions? While this task may not be easy, I am excited to be moving forward with finding solutions to these pressing issues. The City wants to be proactive in coming up with an action plan, and although we know that there is no one perfect solution, I’m heartened that the Workgroup members are committed to dedicate the time in the next couple of months to work on these very important issues, and I’m excited to see the results of all this hard work. This is not just a City of Bellingham solution. It will take a cooperative effort from all of us in the community to address these challenges, and I welcome your help. Please contact my office at 778-8100 if you have any ideas or questions.

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