[Douglas Gustafson guest writes. Doug is the Chair of HomesNOW! Not Later, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization operating in Bellingham and Whatcom County. HomesNOW operates Unity Village, the first tiny home community for homeless individuals in Bellingham. Doug is also a small business owner providing community IT support and has lived in Bellingham since 2006.]
With the two-year anniversary of Unity Village coming up, we are concerned about its future. Bellingham municipal code (20.15.050, Section C) says the maximum time a tiny home community can exist is two years. For the past several years, I have been advocating to change the municipal code and allow villages to stay up to five years.
Personally, I don't think there should be a hard cut-off line at all. We all understand that emergency tiny home communities are supposed to be temporary and transitional. We also know that if the land we are on is needed for another purpose, such as sewer treatment plant expansion, we'd have to move. But an arbitrary time limit leads to upheaval and expense for both the occupants and the city’s taxpayers.
At a recent Bellingham Planning Commission meeting, Rick Sepler, the director of city planning, proposed changing the limits from two years to five. Since the planning commission makes recommendations to the City Council regarding code changes, if the council agrees, council may allow Unity Village three more years at its current location. If this code change goes forward, the village will continue to be stable and successful, will help people rebuild their lives, get out of homelessness, and move forward.
Also, Unity Village is expanding capacity. The city has agreed to provide materials for two new structures, allowing us to house a total of 22 people. We are partnering with Habitat for Humanity for the build. Before COVID-19, our own tiny home design with full heat, insulation, and electricity cost around $3500. Currently, with lumber prices up almost 200% in the last year, the cost of the same design is around $6500.
Regarding Swift Haven, shortly before it opened in December, 2020, two sites were proposed for this second tiny home village. One was port property on Cornwall Avenue, directly behind "Peace of Mind Cannabis" (formerly Satori), the other site was the one we currently occupy at 1555 Puget St. in the upper Frank Geri fields parking lot. This site required the city to put in a sewer line for drainage, water hookup, and electricity for 25 tiny homes. It's been a smashing success.
As Swift Haven was being established, and the need for more, higher quality shelter increased during the winter, I spoke to city council members, the mayor, and the planning department about HomesNOW managing a third site. We were happy to be able to say, “Yes, we can do this.” Council member Michael Lilliquist suggested we take a leap of faith on a third site and push the city to find a more long-term site for the third village. Once I was confident we could smoothly handle a third site, I spoke to Port Commissioners Ken Bell and Michael Shephard, as well as Port Executive Rob Fix to suggest the Cornwall site for a third village. Both commissioners visited the current villages and were impressed with the quality and resident-managed model that we have. On April 20th, the Port voted to allow HomesNOW to use the Cornwall site. Here's the video of that interaction.
Immediately after the vote, the city informed me there would not be a third site and that Swift Haven would be moved to the Cornwall site as soon as possible. I felt like I had been duped. I had understood the issues were about whether HomesNOW could handle a third site or not. I negotiated in good faith with multiple local officials; we did everything we said we were going to, jumped through every hoop, and then were told something different.
Moving will be expensive for the city, as well as for us, and it will decrease the quality of life for the residents of Swift Haven. The Cornwall site is not as good a fit for Swift Haven for multiple reasons:
1. The city will not put sewer in at Cornwall because they say it will be too expensive. The site we have right now already has sewer. This means that we'll have to use a grey water trailer like we do at Unity Village, but with more residents at Swift Haven, therefore increased water usage, we’ll have to do daily water dumps. Also, the Cornwall site is not near a dump site (unlike Unity Village).
2. The Cornwall site is a block or two to the nearest bus stop. At our current site, it's right outside the front gate. This means residents will have to walk further to get to a bus, hindering their access to transportation.
3. The Cornwall site is too small for Swift Haven. When discussing the possibility of a third site at Cornwall, I thought it would be for 20 tiny homes, not 25. The layout for the Cornwall site, as suggested by the city, is extremely awkward, placing three rows of tiny homes in a small area. Also, the site won’t accommodate our kitchen and laundry/shower tents. This means we’ll need to downgrade the capabilities of the village. It's a lose-lose solution. We want a win-win solution.
4. The Cornwall site is also in a higher crime/higher poverty area, with many RVs parked along the street; moving us to this location would further concentrate poverty. The city seems to be saying, “Let's just stick them all on Cornwall. We’ve got Basecamp, we’ve got tents in front of the Opportunity Council, an RV camp, and a cramped village. They’re all in one place, all on the same street. It’ll be great! We will set up our own version of "Skid Row" in Bellingham.” (Sarcasm).
Given what we face in moving Swift Haven to Cornwall, I cannot in good conscience sign the agreement the city currently proposes. We need better terms: either a better place to move Swift Haven, or stay at our current location because it has all needed amenities. Therefore, we are gathering signatures for a petition to allow Swift Haven to remain at its current location. We want to be allowed to operate under the standard permitting process for a site rather than the current emergency authority. The petition reads:
"The City of Bellingham has allowed HomesNOW to operate Swift Haven, a Tiny Home Community, located on city land at 1555 Puget St, Bellingham, WA 98229 in the upper Frank Geri fields parking lot since December of 2020. Swift Haven houses around 25 people while they look for permanent housing. The current site has all needed amenities. The City has stated that July 1st, 2021 is our end date and the village will be moved to Port property on Cornwall avenue, which will reduce the quality of life for residents where there will be fewer amenities (such as reduced laundry and shower capability) in a higher crime neighborhood at greater taxpayer expense to set up the site such as sewer line, water access, electric lines, and the cost of the move itself."
"We, the undersigned, are in favor of extending Swift Haven beyond July 1st of 2021 and to allow the village to go through the standard permitting process for its current location at 1555 Puget St. Bellingham, WA 98229"
In 24 hours we have gathered around 200 signatures, and we plan to hit the ground running. If you would like to help gather signatures, we would greatly appreciate it. There is a link to the petition in the description of this video that you can print at home and use to gather signatures. We also have hard copies if that's easier for you, just show up at either village, and we'll give you a few sheets.
Remaining where we are is not an unreasonable request either legally or logically.
1. We are impacting one of three softball fields. I have lived in Bellingham since 2006, and can attest that these softball fields are empty most of the year. When they are in use, I have never seen all three fields used at the same time. This means our presence in the upper field’s parking lot does not interfere with those who want to play softball at either of the other two fields. Housing people who were previously living on the streets is more important than a handful of softball games on one field.
2. At one point, the planning department publicly discussed converting one of the softball fields into a long-term tiny home community. Somehow that came "off the table,” I'm not sure why. But we don't even need to convert one of the softball fields, the parking lot we're at right now does quite nicely.
3. Moving us to Cornwall will cost the city, the taxpayers, and our organization a lot of money. It also takes a toll on the residents; it’s disruptive, disorienting, takes time, and requires setting up a new site. Moving isn’t easy and no one likes to do it.
4. Significant expense was incurred installing needed infrastructure that is currently providing services. This infrastructure, and expense, will go to waste if we vacate the site.
We ask that the city allow us to go through the standard permitting process for our current location. We are aware that there's always the possibility of an appeal, but HomesNOW has never been appealed in the past. If we were to lose an appeal, we could also then proceed forward to another site as a Plan B. We hope that our petition will sway the city to look at the situation logically and rationally.
There is another reason I can't sign the agreement in good conscience.
In several recent meetings, Anne Deacon, Human Services Manager for Whatcom County, described our villages as barely qualifying to be shelter according to HUD definitions. On paper this effectively means we're treated as a less effective shelter than emergency shelters such as Base Camp.
I spoke with Ms Deacon about the metrics used to determine we were a “lesser” shelter. She said there were two factors: our kitchen tent, and the fact we have porta-potties rather than flush toilets. We are absolutely interested in such upgrades and have wanted a real services building and flushing toilets all along. But let’s be clear: we're not the ones getting in the way of that, and moving Swift Haven to the Cornwall site will only push us further backward, to a point where we will not be allowed to upgrade. If we can continue at our current site, we’re ready to do more. But I am only interested in signing an agreement with the city that will upgraded amenities and improve quality of life for the village.
Being called "barely a shelter" upset me because we have consistently tried to improve residents quality of life. I describe our model as "emergency housing,” as opposed to emergency shelter. We are a stepping stone out of homelessness and poverty, emergency shelters are not. Because, no matter how good the shelter is, unless you have your own unit, personal privacy, and independence, you're not going to be able to get out of survival mode and move forward. Many of our residents have stayed at Base Camp, and describe the differences between our model and their’s. We have done a number of interviews and you can hear from them directly. (See links below)
Sadly, there is more bad news regarding homelessness as Whatcom County opts to dissolve the Homeless Strategies Workgroup. The workgroup used to meet every two weeks, getting all players related to homelessness in the same room/same meeting. This typically included the police department, city officials, county officials, various representatives from the housing providers/nonprofits and homeless advocates. The provision to dissolve the workgroup was a last minute decision, without discussion, suggested by councilmember Rud Browne who was never very active in the meetings.
Dissolving the work group makes it harder to form strategies to end homelessness in Whatcom County. I suspect when winter hits again, the city and county will be even less coordinated than they currently are in working on this issue. It was a big mistake and the people who will pay the biggest price will be homeless individuals, as always. The city and county need to take homelessness more seriously. Eventually, the eviction moratoriums are going to end and there will be a new wave of homeless people on the street. By dissolving the workgroup, local governments and organizations will have reduced their ability to coordinate effectively. It's not just a numbers game. Local governments tend to speak of homeless people as numbers or try to find a "one size fits all" solution. They pay little attention to the quality of sheltering, their concern is just raw numbers.
People need more options. The more options provided, the less strain there is on the system and the better the outcomes. The city and the county need to go out of their way to increase options for people who are homeless. Base Camp isn't a realistic option for a lot of people.
In the years I've been working with HomesNOW, almost every single person I have spoken to has had bad experiences at Base Camp: their stuff was stolen, they got beat up, they were sexually assaulted, there was heavy drug use and dealing, awful food and unhelpful staff. Common descriptions have been, "It's like a prison without bars,” or "It's like a mental institution,” or "I feel like I'm just doing time.” I've heard it from dozens of people. I can say that if I was homeless I would not stay there, could not stay there. People need more options and they deserve better than what Base Camp offers.
County and city officials should step back, and evaluate why so many people would rather live in a tent in the rain/snow than stay at that shelter.
Base Camp's goal and the goal of the Lighthouse Mission is to create a God-dependent relationship to "introduce them to a lifesaving relationship with Jesus Christ.” It is not to help people rebuild their lives and get out of homelessness. In essence, for religious reasons and their own agenda, they prey on people when they are most desperate. That's why many of the people who must stay at Base Camp are caught in limbo and not able to move forward effectively, moving forward isn't the goal of the institution. My intention is not to trash the Mission or Base Camp, they do some good for some people. But they could do a lot better. I wish I had heard good things over the years from people who have had to stay there, but the reviews haven't been good.
In any case, the goal of HomesNOW is "Ending Homelessness One Person at a Time.” We are going to keep doing our best to open more villages and get more people off the streets. Working together, we will continue to help them rebuild their lives so we can all have a safer, healthier, and happier community. I hope more will join us in that endeavor.