People experiencing homelessness in our community are at greater risk of getting sick with COVID-19 and the Lighthouse Mission’s Drop-in Center on Holly Street is not big enough to ensure the safety of those staying and working there. To address those challenges, more than 150 people are accessing emergency shelter each day at Bellingham High School through an agreement with the Lighthouse Mission Ministries.
“As a district, we are committed to protecting life, promoting safety and minimizing the spread of the virus,’ said Superintendent Dr. Greg Baker. “And we believe this partnership is a good demonstration of our work in this area.”
Bellingham High School is familiar to many people living in homelessness because the high school is the location for Project Homeless Connect. This annual summer community event uses the first floor of the school to provide a variety of resources for people experiencing homelessness including medical and dental services, free clothes and haircuts.
The building has many amenities that are particularly useful for sheltering people including showers, food services facilities, and large rooms such as the gym. Bellingham High School offers significantly more square footage than the Drop-in Center location, which allows mats to be placed six feet apart and physically-distanced daytime socializing.
These were just some of the concerns when Whatcom Unified Command began considering options in partnership with Bellingham Public Schools, the Whatcom County Health Department, local law enforcement, and partner agencies. The closure of all public schools makes public assets available for alternate uses in the event of an emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Schools are community buildings and designed to be used by the community,” says Bellingham High School Principal Linda Miller.
Finding an emergency shelter facility that would allow for safer distancing and potentially minimize the spread of COVID-19 among those experiencing homelessness was a priority for Whatcom Unified Command, BPS and the Lighthouse Mission not only to keep guests healthy, but to prevent broader transmission in the community and ensure local health systems are not overwhelmed.
“Folks are just so grateful for the space. It means so much to them to have a safe, clean place where they have a much better chance of staying healthy during this crisis,” says Jessica Hess, Marketing and Communications Coordinator at the Lighthouse Mission. “Having showers available all the time is wonderful — it was much more limited in the usual Drop-in Center location.”
Lighthouse Mission staff say that guests have expressed gratitude for the alternative facility saying, “Thank you for opening up Bellingham High School for all of us at the Drop-In Center,” “This is a super nice facility,” and “The food smells amazing.”
The Drop-in Center provides an essential service of sheltering 160 people per night and is the only walk-in 24-hour emergency shelter option in Whatcom, Skagit, Island and San Juan counties. Without the center, 160 people experiencing homelessness could be endangered, with potential loss of life, if displaced from essential shelter and food services.
“Our community came together to figure out a solution so the Drop-in Center can safely serve our neighbors experiencing homelessness during this pandemic,” Hans Erchinger-Davis, Executive Director of Lighthouse Mission Ministries. “Many hands were involved and I’m incredibly grateful to Bellingham Public Schools and Bellingham High School for stepping forward.”
The Lighthouse Mission produced this video tour of the facility:
While this is a collaborative, innovative partnership to help protect our community’s most vulnerable, the Lighthouse Mission is the lead agency. Its Drop-In Center at BHS is managed with the same staff as the Holly Street Drop-in Center, but supplemented with staff from other agencies who have similar, appropriate skills. Bellingham Public Schools is not involved in the day-to-day administration of the shelter.
“At least one administrator in the building during the day,” said Miller. “When I’m there it’s calm, it’s quiet. I really have not observed any damage or concerns.”
BPS staff meet remotely with Lighthouse Mission staff on a weekly basis and a staff person from BPS facilities rentals checks the facility each day.
“Mission staff have been really great to work with and very responsive. It’s clear they know their guests,” said Miller.
The Lighthouse Mission cleans the spaces they are using throughout the day and BPS maintenance continues to service the building. Prior to students and staff returning to Bellingham High School, BPS janitorial staff will do additional cleaning. BPS maintenance staff were already planning to paint some interiors of the school and that will occur before re-opening. Air filters will be changed as well.
“People on the streets are just as scared, if not more so, of this virus. The unknowns for them are so much more. Our people have already lost everything, so what do they have left? One thing they have that is stable is the Mission,” said Erchinger-Davis.
“I’ve heard from students that they understand this is an important thing to do,” said Miller. “I’m really proud that we can share our building and be a part of this effort.”