I never imagined I would be writing the following type of article, period. I never imagined I’d be writing this article as a result of actions by James Lee (Jim) Peterson, the former president and co-founder of HomesNOW.org. He was arrested in Bellingham on Nov. 1, 2019, for allegedly embezzling more than $75,000 from HomesNOW, a 501(c)3 non-profit based in Bellingham, WA. The charge is suspicion of first-degree theft and he was booked into the Whatcom County Jail. Peterson has since been released on bond and is currently awaiting trial.
Full disclosure: I’ve written about Peterson and the organization here before. I have volunteered with and donated to HomesNOW over the past two years and will continue to support them. Unpaid volunteer NW Citizen writers are not required to be impartial journalists.
Many supporters and community members are, understandably, surprised, upset, and disappointed about the situation. Peterson was homeless for 17 years. In the decades since then he volunteered and worked in various states to advocate for homeless people. For over two years with HomesNOW he and a team of volunteers helped find support services and housing for people who are homeless.
In spite of this setback, HomesNOW is moving forward more clearly and strongly than ever. There are many past and current successes to celebrate.
After two previous sites were used for approved tent camps, the organization now operates a tiny home community, Unity Village, in the city-owned parking lot at 210 McKenzie Ave., near the Post Point Water Treatment Plant in the Fairhaven neighborhood in Bellingham. The tiny home encampment, which can house up to 28 people in 20 homes (double occupancy in some homes), is permitted to operate at its current location through April 2020.
Fifty-four people are now off the street thanks to HomesNOW when you total the numbers for all three sites. That’s success and great progress! Residents can stay at a HomesNOW site for as long as they need provided they are progressing with their individual plan. Their plan can include any number of things: finding a job; getting the medical, social work, or other support services they need; completing paperwork for Social Security Disability or other programs and services; and finding and moving to a more permanent housing situation. The organization has helped find permanent housing for 14 people, a 26% rehousing rate.
Before I share more about HomesNOW’s successes, here are some additional details about the theft and the group’s responses and actions.
Over the past months, HomesNOW co-founder and board chairman, Douglas Gustafson, has handled this difficult situation in a very professional manner. He’s been detailed and transparent in sharing information about the alleged theft, Peterson’s involvement, and removal of Peterson and two other board members. The non-profit has reorganized with more stringent policies and additional accounting checks and balances. The HomesNOW Board of Directors has been expanded. In addition to Gustafson, board members Carol Winikoff, Markis Dee, JC Mansfield, Nickolas D. Lewis, and Elizabeth Anthony bring much valuable experience to the organization. An accountant has been added as an advisor to the board. Volunteer social workers and advocates support the residents in various ways.
Other policies have been reviewed and updated including codes of conduct for the board, staff, residents, and volunteers, and a more thorough sexual harassment policy has been implemented. All HomesNOW sites are drug and alcohol free.
Did you know there are more rules, regulations, and conditions for living in a HomesNOW community than for renting or buying any apartment, condo, or home in any other neighborhood in Bellingham or Whatcom?
Gustafson posted on Nov. 1, 2019 …
“About 1 month ago, I learned of an incident involving Jim Peterson (Former President of HomesNOW) in which Jim attempted to start a sexual relationship with one of the residents of Unity Village (the tiny home community that our organization manages).”
“Through speaking to other residents, I also found evidence of mistreatment of the residents in general such as verbal abuse involving 3 board members. Residents did not come forward sooner because they were afraid of losing their housing. This discovery caused me to open an internal investigation into misconduct of these 3 board members for various forms of misconduct. The results of this investigation led to the removal of 3 board members from the organization.”
“Throughout the process of this investigation, I discovered evidence of financial fraud committed by the former President of HomesNOW (Jim Peterson). I reviewed the bank statements when I was informed about activities involving misspent funds which included trips to the casino and purchasing of tobacco, marijuana, excessive dining, and personal items for Jim (former President of HomesNOW) and Rachel (former Vice-President).”
The following public statement released last month contains the details of that discovery: homesnow.org/news/investigation-of-misconduct”
After Gustafson’s own internal investigation, he turned over all evidence of the financial improprieties to Bellingham Police Chief David Doll. The Bellingham Police Department (BPD) launched their own investigation which concluded on Oct. 31, 2019. The final amount stolen is estimated to be $75,000 and maybe up to $90,000. The BPD concluded their investigation and Peterson was subsequently arrested.
How does an organization miss a $75,000 or $90,000 discrepancy? Gustafson addresses this:
“1. Information such as receipts and donation records were actively withheld and hidden from the treasurer and the technical director.
2. Multiple donor checks were directly cashed by Jim [Peterson], and did not show up on the bank statements at all.
3. Multiple cash donations were not deposited into the bank account.
4. Insufficient separation of duties related to financial operations.
5. Insufficient approval authority requirements for purchasing.
6. Many large donations occurring within a short period of time.
7. No obviously visible signs of shortage of funds for items such as construction supplies, insurance, and monthly expenses was observed.
8. Decisions were made on behalf of and in the name of the entire board when only 3 board members were making decisions.”
While the investigation was underway, BPD’s Chief Doll, City of Bellingham (COB) Planning Department Director Rick Sepler, and Mayor Linville put a hold
on HomesNOW accepting more residents. Once the investigation was complete, the hold was lifted and three additional people on the waiting list moved into Unity Village. Approximately 10 more of the 300 people on the waiting list (of 800 to 1,000 homeless people in Whatcom County) have completed the application process, criminal background check, and interviews with the HomesNOW Board and a social worker. Board representatives meet for weekly check-ins with the Mayor, Director Sepler, and Chief Doll.
Peterson volunteered with HomesNOW, as do all the board members, staff, and volunteers. The organization has no paid staff and has stipulated that a maximum of 5% of proceeds will go to overhead. Perhaps this is unrealistic. Perhaps a stipend or salary should have been in order for Peterson plus a paid administrative support staff member? In the end though, maybe that wouldn’t have changed Peterson’s behavior.
HomesNOW would not exist without Jim Peterson’s vision, dedication, and work to date. But, it takes a village. Many volunteers and donors, along with the residents of Unity Village, share in the work and the ongoing success. As unfortunate as the theft has been, these are the things that can make organizations better.
HomesNOW has a proven track record. The tiny home community model is extremely cost-effective and easy to duplicate. Tiny home communities in Seattle and many other cities have been successful with great benefit to the residents and the neighborhoods where they are located. For example, data has shown that crime rates have gone down in neighborhoods where tiny home villages have been located.
The expenses to operate Unity Village are approximately $1,200 a month: water, electricity, Porta Potty rentals ($600 a month!), and various supplies. Liability insurance is another $1,900 for 6 months. The COB has provided use of the land and waived permit fees. Many residents receive food stamps (although some only receive $100 or less a month) and contribute toward their food. Donors and volunteers help with donations of food, both ingredients and prepared meals. Having many small or medium-sized tiny home communities around Bellingham, Whatcom County, and beyond, is part of the longer-term vision of HomesNOW, whether they or others develop and manage the sites.
To me, the real success is seen and felt when you take some time to get to know the residents and hear from them directly. They’re not “homeless people” or “formerly homeless people.” They are people. They’re our neighbors and community members. I consider a number of the residents of Unity Village and the previous camps to be my friends and one resident does yard work at my home ongoing.
Unity Village resident Tina Hayes grew up in Bellingham. She lived with her single mother who worked at a company located on the Bellingham waterfront just down the street from Unity Village in Fairhaven. Tina’s mother had a difficult time making ends meet even though she was working. “90% of my childhood was spent moving every month or two to a different apartment building.” Hayes explains, “My mother would have just enough money to get us into an apartment and pay a deposit and rent for a month or two. Then she’d run short of money and we’d have to move.” As an adult, Tina was married for 13 years and raised four children in Bellingham. She also worked and ran a janitorial service for 17 years. She divorced her husband due to issues with addiction. After an injury on the job, Tina couldn’t work and then couldn’t afford to pay her rent and she became homeless.
“I’ve been homeless for 10 years now ... until living at Unity Village,” says Hayes. “I never thought I’d be homeless. It’s embarrassing. It’s exhausting! You don’t sleep when you’re living on the street. You always have one eye open. You don’t function well at all. You worry where you’ll be sleeping that night and where your next meal is coming from. Will that meal be a sandwich from one of the food trucks that volunteers drive around, or what?
“You’re constantly on alert and half awake. You don’t know if another homeless person will take your sleeping spot. You don’t know if the police will show up to clear your stuff away or take you to jail because you’re sleeping on a property with an owner who has zero tolerance for trespassing. Then you have a fine and an arrest on your record … a fine you can’t afford to pay. Then a court date and maybe more charges you can’t pay.”
Then the homelessness downward spiral continues. By this time in our visit and interview, Tina and I are both in tears. We hug.
Tina shared that when she was homeless she slept under bridges, under tarps, in her car (when she had one), in tents, or under trees. She explained that she and many homeless and formerly homeless people suffer the effects of PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
I am very grateful for a safe, warm home that my husband and I can afford. I can’t imagine having to sleep outside suffering through rainy or cold conditions and being forced to move around constantly. Prompted by many requests, City Council visits, and emails from HomesNOW Board members, volunteers, and other community members, the COB responded to last winter’s terrible cold weather situation by putting together a somewhat more comprehensive cold weather shelter plan. However, many of those additional emergency shelters don’t open until the temperature drops to 28 degrees and after the Lighthouse Mission is full. The additional emergency shelters (in churches and other locations) can choose to open when the temperature is above 28 degrees but if they do, they will not receive any of the available emergency funds. Hypothermia can set in at 50 degrees and people can die sleeping outside at temperatures well above freezing! Shelters, while helpful in the short-term, are not housing.
Hayes can’t work now due to herniated disks in her back and neck. She receives disability and food stamps. Although she has physical challenges, she is mentally very sharp and active. When I visited, she was reviewing the COB’s rules for Unity Village and making notes for a regularly-scheduled, upcoming resident meeting. Residents actively participate in their self-governance and tasks needed to run the community.
Residents at Unity Village take turns at various roles and maintenance tasks: Site Manager, Assistant Site Manager, Security Officer, Grounds Keeper, Kitchen Lead, Grill, Bathroom Cleaning (Porta Potties and an outdoor sink), Shower Truck Maintenance, Donations Lead, and Front Desk.
In addition to Tina Hayes, residents Laura, Michael, and another Tina H. all shared their positive experiences about participating as members of this community.
Tina H. (who also grew up in Bellingham) said, “Living in a tiny home is way better than living in a tent. Heck, yeah! I feel good. I am stable and have a warm place to sleep and a shower. Our community is progressing more and more here. It is very good.”
While some members of the community are on disability, others work. Laura is working three jobs, including one job with 10-hour days, three days a week. All this, and she still couldn’t afford a place to live here!
The female residents, in particular, were uncomfortable and very upset because of Peterson’s sexual harassment. All of the residents were sad and disappointed with Peterson’s actions regarding the alleged theft. But they feel the community is now calmer, better organized, and stronger than ever.
“We have not let this bad situation deter us,” says Hayes. “We’re a community. We’re a family. We’re not homeless people. We are normal people who go to school and work and volunteer and some of us have families to spend time with. We’re your neighbors.”
I, and many folks, continue to support HomesNOW. Land is needed before April 2020 so the tiny home community can settle in one place rather than continue to move from site to site. Moving all the homes, kitchen and dining tents, Porta Potties, fencing and security system, and other infrastructure takes a lot of time, physical labor, money, and other resources. And it will probably be pouring rain in April, making a move even more difficult.
There is a chance that an extension on the Fairhaven site may be granted, although that permit extension must go through the COB Planning Department and public processes.
There is another COB-owned site, the “Clean Green” site on Lakeway and Woburn, where the tiny community could be relocated. Again, the permit and public notification process takes time, energy, and resources.
I, and others, would much rather see land donated, purchased, or a long-term land lease available for the future of HomesNOW’s Unity Village. Unless land is donated or the lease is a modest amount, funds will need to be raised to purchase land. A minimum of a quarter acre would work. A larger site would be even better. The location should be on or near a bus route, preferably within the Bellingham city limits. Kitchen, dining, laundry, and bathroom and showers could be constructed in a shared common building. No more Porta Potties at $600 a month, for example! A community garden, fruit trees. and other amenities can be created over time. Co-housing is a cost-effective and proven model used successfully in many areas, including Bellingham. Decades ago I worked in Seattle with a non-profit developer who helped create one of the first co-housing communities in the U.S. on Bainbridge Island, the Winslow Co-housing Community, which is still thriving.
I know the HomesNOW Board, residents, and volunteers all greatly appreciate the ongoing support of Mayor Linville, the COB Planning Department and Director Sepler, Chief Doll and the BPD, City and County Council members, and the many community supporters and donors.
- I hope you’ll consider supporting HomesNOW.org with an online tax-deductible donation. Info for donations by check or cash: homesnow.org/donate
- Please stop by Unity Village at 210 McKenzie Avenue in Fairhaven anytime between 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, to have a tour, meet some residents, drop off food or other donations. If you stop by after 4 p.m. or on a weekend, a resident or volunteer may be able to give you a tour ... ask at the gate.
- Blankets, sleeping bags, warm clothing, hats, scarves, gloves, hand warmers, socks, and hot water bottles are being collected now at Unity Village. Some residents need those items. Volunteers also drive around town and distribute those items to people who are sleeping outside.
- For Thanksgiving, volunteers have already stepped up to roast turkeys and bring side dishes for a meal at 1 or 2 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 28th at Unity Village. We’ll be providing the meal for some of the residents who don’t have family in the area and can’t easily get to one of the free Thanksgiving meals in town.
- Perhaps your family, office, church, or other group would like to sponsor and prepare a meal over the December holidays or once a month or once a quarter.
- To volunteer - Sign up at HomesNOW.org or Volunteers for HomesNOW on Facebook.
- Attend a City or County Council meeting to speak out in support of Tiny Home Communities like HomesNOW’s Unity Village and other important issues supporting our homeless neighbors. View Doug Gustafson speaking to the city council.
Thank you for considering and helping however you can. It takes a village.