What do you feel when you walk by a homeless person sitting or lying on the sidewalk or in a park? Do you feel disgusted or angry? Do you think …”Lazy bum. They should get it together, sober up, and get a job”? Do you feel sad and wonder why, in this supposed “Land of Plenty,” we have men, women, and children without homes, living outside or in a vehicle or wherever they can find shelter for the night? Or do you feel empathy and want to try to help in some way? Sometimes you’ve probably even avoided looking at a homeless person altogether. Maybe you’ve felt many of these feelings at one time or another depending on your interaction with a homeless person. Perhaps they were pleasant, and you had a nice conversation or even struck up a friendship. Or maybe they acted in a confrontational manner and seemed overly aggressive or scary.
Jim Peterson of Bellingham remembers what it felt like to have people treat him poorly when he was homeless. He’s had people spit on him and beat him with a baseball bat at night when he was homeless. He felt that he wasn’t worth anything and was not deserving of help or people’s time or attention. But, those feelings of unworthiness started well before he became homeless.
There are a variety of reasons why a person might become homeless. I wrote about many of the causes of homelessness in my first NW Citizen article. Traumas and the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) that frequently follows trauma can contribute to someone becoming homeless. A person with PTSD may struggle with self-esteem issues, may not be able to hold a job, or may turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate to reduce the pain.
I met Jim Peterson in Bellingham in the Fall of 2017 when I wanted to do more to volunteer and help people who are homeless in our community. I have appreciated getting to know Jim and learning more about his journey through homelessness to helping others and having success with his non-profit, HomesNow.org.
Jim Peterson was raised in a well-to-do family in Ohio, one of two boys adopted by the family. Before his adoption at age 7, he lived with foster families after being given up by his birth mother. Because Ohio’s foster care regulations at the time stipulated that a child could only spend a maximum of one year with a foster family, Jim lived with 7 different families in his first 7 years!
On the surface, with their nice home and good standing in the community, Jim’s adopted family seemed happy and perfect. But, behind closed doors, his adoptive father was abusive. Jim’s feelings of unworthiness and anxiety started when he was in foster care being shuttled from one family to the next on an annual basis. His low self-esteem and PTSD continued with physical abuse at the hands of his adoptive father. Somehow Jim managed to do well in school, earning straight As. Until 10th grade, that is. Then drug use got him kicked out of school. After his arrest for drugs, a judge gave Jim a choice … the Ohio State Penitentiary or the Navy. Jim chose to enroll in the Navy. Unfortunately, the Navy was not the right place for Jim as his drug addiction issues and growing PTSD and anxiety were bringing on more mental health challenges.
When Jim was discharged from the Navy, he didn’t have a place to live or a family to help support him. He became homeless. At first, traveling around the U.S. seemed fun. But, after a year or so, the tough reality and grind of being homeless set in. Jim struggled with mental illness and addiction issues. After spending 5 years being homeless on L.A.’s Skid Row Jim remembers thinking “I’m probably going to die right here.” He would periodically enter a 28-day drug rehab program. He’d complete the program but, after a short time, return to using drugs. Using drugs was a way to numb himself and block out the pain and hardships of being homeless. Hardships included how some homeless people, including Jim, were treated rudely or even violently by others. “It’s hard to stay positive and have good self-esteem if you’re homeless and people walk by and spit on you … or call you names … or attack you with a baseball bat at night,” says Jim.
In the 1980s, the demographics of the homeless population in the U.S. changed dramatically, primarily because of President Ronald Reagan’s policies. From a 2013 article in Poverty Insights, “When Reagan was elected President in 1980, he discarded a law proposed by his predecessor that would have continued funding federal community mental health centers. This basically eliminated services for people struggling with mental illness.
He made similar decisions while he was the governor of California, releasing more than half of the state’s mental hospital patients and passing a law that abolished involuntary hospitalization of people struggling with mental illness. This started a national trend of de-institutionalization.
In other words, if you are struggling with mental illness, we can only help you if you ask for it. But, wait. Isn’t one of the characteristics of severe mental illness not having an accurate sense of reality? Doesn’t that mean a person may not even realize he or she is mentally ill? (1) When the mental institutions were closed, cities were overwhelmed and struggled to provide services for homeless people who suffered from mental illness.
In the early 1980s when Jim Peterson was homeless on L.A.’s Skid Row, he recalls seeing buses pull up to the Skid Row curb, stop, and discharge people. Those busloads of people turned out to be mentally ill patients who had been released from the recently-closed mental institutions. Many of them were only wearing hospital gowns. The challenge is ongoing for people with mental illness who are homeless. If you don’t have health insurance or a permanent address you often can’t get the counseling you need. Mental institutions certainly have had their detractors but for some people who are severely mentally ill or become violent due to their conditions, for example, a mental institution is an appropriate place for them to reside.
After 17 years of being homeless, Jim got some help to get off the street and into an apartment. The help didn’t come from a Mission, a non-profit organization, or a program, but from a lady named Barbara Stanton. By this time Jim was in North Dakota. After striking up a conversation with Jim, Barb asked what it would take for Jim to get off the street. Jim’s answer was, “A place to live.” She offered to help Jim find an apartment. Barb didn’t do everything for Jim, but she helped by getting a newspaper, letting him use her phone to call for appointments, and driving him to view the available apartments. Jim was able to afford an apartment as he had a part-time job and some public assistance funds. There was an important dynamic in their communication. “It was the first time in all those years of being homeless that anyone ever asked me what I needed.” explains Jim. “Not what they thought I needed or wanted … but what I needed.” When Jim told Barb what he needed … a place to live … she empowered him to get that place to live.
After a few days in his new place, Barb asked Jim, “Now what do you need in order to stay housed?” Jim needed help finding drug addiction counseling and outpatient mental health services. Barb helped him locate the necessary services. Barb did have a background in social services. In the early 1990s, she was the director of a battered women’s shelter in North Dakota and was really a “Housing First” pioneer. Barb’s simple step-by-step approach and empathetic communication made the process of going from homeless to housed and then to sober seem attainable for Jim. Before meeting Barb, Jim felt the process prescribed by the courts and social service agencies made for an impossibly long list of requirements that had to be met before you received housing. For example, you were required to stay clean and sober for 30 days before being recommended for housing assistance. As mentioned above, for most homeless people affected by the stress and challenges of being homeless, drug or alcohol use is a way to self-medicate and deal with living on the street. Creating a stable environment by providing housing first, and then helping with the support services afterward, is a much more cost-effective and successful approach to ending the cycle of homelessness. Barb Stanton understood the importance of Housing First. Many cities, including Bellingham, strive to follow the Housing First model … because it works.
Jim Peterson has been successful in many ways since he left homelessness behind. He went on to work as a liaison between the homeless and the Fargo, N.D., city government. He worked with the National Coalition on Homelessness, including spending 2 years with that organization in Washington, D.C. In the early 1990s, Barb Stanton and Jim helped create the first homeless health clinic in Fargo staffed with students from the nearby medical school. That clinic is still in operation today. He has worked with AmeriCorps and their Hunger in America program. Jim worked to lead National Coalition on Homelessness presentations to churches, non-profits, and other groups in various cities and has helped in the creation of ten non-religious homeless shelters. Jim was a stay-at-home father helping raise his children from his first marriage and has a happy marriage with his wife, Carol.
Jim Peterson truly believes in “giving back.” Today, he runs the Bellingham-based non-profit HomesNow.org with his partner Doug Gustafson. Since 1993, Jim Peterson has had a dream to solve homelessness, one person at a time. Homes NOW! has a plan that is very simple. The plan is to take a homeless person off the street and house them, plain and simple. Years ago, in 1994, when Jim Peterson presented this plan to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, they told Jim that the plan was too simple and would never work. But Jim never gave up on his dream.
Homes NOW! believes that small communities of tiny homes for the homeless are one solution to housing the homeless … a particularly affordable and permanent solution. While drop-in programs and shelters do good work and help temporarily take someone off the street for a night at a time, they are not housing. To use a shelter, you must wait in line every afternoon to see if you can get a shelter bed for the night and then pack up all your belongings and leave the shelter early every morning. Carrying all your belongings with you during the day makes it difficult or impossible to find or keep a job or even keep your social service and other necessary appointments. With the temporary housing of a mission or shelter, you are not receiving the benefits of permanent housing.
For some time now, the City of Bellingham has been searching for a suitable piece of land for another 200-bed shelter. For various reasons, many Bellingham area residents and businesses do not want a shelter located near their home, office, or retail store. As I asked at a recent Bellingham City Council meeting,”How does another shelter fit the Housing First model that Bellingham has embraced?” A shelter is not permanent housing but is a temporary and expensive fix for homelessness … not a sustainable, long-term solution.
Jim and Doug and an increasing number of volunteers, including social worker Amy Glasser, continue with the work of Homes NOW! to build permanent housing. The Lummi Nation has provided land for one tiny home so far and has room for another home. A proposed pilot project of six tiny homes and a service building has been presented to the Bellingham City Council and the Whatcom County Council with Homes NOW! asking for help in securing affordable land. Fundraising is ongoing for construction of tiny homes and an eventual land purchase. Heritage General Building Contractors has generously offered to build the first six tiny homes and service building for the cost of materials and they have already built the first tiny home for free as an in-kind donation. (Approximate cost per tiny home is $2,500.)
Homes NOW! hosts a monthly Homeless Summit collecting clothing, tents, tarps, sleeping bags, and more supplies to hand out to people who are currently homeless. Homes NOW! also provides a free meal at the monthly summits. The local Sikh community has joined with Homes NOW! to provide a hot meal at the summits. Some of the summits at Maritime Park or other locations have seen 150 or more homeless people stop by. Jim Peterson encourages those of us who volunteer at the summits to take some time to talk with some of the homeless people attending. Then you begin to see that many homeless people are just like the rest of us … only they’ve ended up homeless after experiencing a tough situation such as a job loss, divorce, abuse, or a medical or financial crisis. The next Summit is Saturday, April 28 from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. in partnership with the Cascadia Volunteer Advocacy and will be held at the Bellingham Food Co-op Downtown store, 1220 N Forest Street. Food will be served at 1:00 p.m. and clothing and gear will be distributed starting at 2:00 p.m.
Another success by Jim and Homes NOW! was the Camp Out staged on the Bellingham City Hall lawn this past December. The event began as a three or four-day Camp Out to bring attention to the needs of the homeless and ask the City and Police Department to discontinue cleanups (sometimes called “sweeps”) of homeless camps. Thanks to Jim and Doug’s determination along with about 45 protestors/campers, and the support of many volunteers, the Camp Out continued for 18 days. Homes NOW! was able to meet with Mayor Linville and the City Council during the Camp Out asking for consideration for various items including allowing people to legally camp in a designated safe spot on public land for 90 days during the winter … a “tent city” where they wouldn’t be forced to leave. Unfortunately, a designated tent city did not manifest but other issues were brought to the forefront: the need for some porta potties and dumpsters to be located in various parts of Bellingham, primarily for use by our homeless citizens. “This demonstration did raise the awareness level for people in our community about the conditions under which a lot of our residents are living. That’s a good thing,” Mayor Kelli Linville said Monday (December 18, 2017). (2)
At the March 26, 2018, Bellingham City Council meeting, Bellingham Police Chief Doll announced that after work by the Mayor, the City Council, and the Police Department, the porta potties and dumpsters would soon be in three or four locations around Bellingham. These porta potties and dumpsters should be of great benefit to homeless people who often do not have facilities to use, particularly at night. And, hopefully, these facilities help minimize or do away with the trash and human waste some downtown Bellingham businesses have had to deal with on a regular basis.
Jim Peterson does know what it’s like to be homeless. He’s grateful to be on the other side now. But he’s on a mission and he won’t rest until every homeless person in our community is housed.
For more information, to volunteer, or to donate: HomesNow.org
(2) Bellingham Herald - www.bellinghamherald.com/news/local/article190393214.html