Bellingham non-profit HomesNOW is in the midst of the permit review process for a temporary tiny home encampment in Fairhaven. The City of Bellingham published a notice of application for the project with a 14-day public comment period open until June 14, 2019.
HomesNOW (full name HomesNOW! Not Later) founders Jim Peterson and Doug Gustafson created the 501(c)(3) to support people in Bellingham and Whatcom County who are homeless, in the process of getting back on their feet, and to help them find permanent housing. The group is all-volunteer and privately funded, supported by individuals, businesses, and churches in our area.
To date, the organization has created and successfully managed two temporary tent communities for homeless people in Bellingham. The first, Winter Haven, was located in the parking lot behind Bellingham’s City Hall for 90 days, ending on April 6, 2019. The current temporary tent community, Safe Haven, is located in the Sunnyland neighborhood at 620 Alabama St. in part of the 911 Call Center parking lot.
The Fairhaven Unity Village location is proposed for 210 McKenzie Ave. and will have 20 tiny homes, completed in phases. HomesNOW will start with 12 tiny homes and eight tents, as more tiny homes are built, tents will be removed. HomesNOW intends to build and manage the Unity Village tiny home community in accordance with Ordinance No. 2018-10-019, Bellingham Municipal Code, permit requirements, Washington state laws and regulations, and Whatcom County Health Department regulations. The project will take approximately eight months to complete, ending in April 2020.
As with their other locations, Unity Village will be a drug-and-alcohol-free community. Unity Village is intended to provide a safe and stable place for homeless individuals to live while they actively seek permanent housing. Unity Village residents will likely consist of people who are either working or disabled and who have a source of income. Unity Village residents will be selected based on their ability to succeed in a community living setting.
Two public meetings have been held to share information with Fairhaven residents and other interested people in our community and to field questions and comments. I attended the public meeting at the Fairhaven Library on June 4th. Jim Peterson spoke about the ongoing mission of HomesNOW, the details of the transition from tents to tiny homes, and gave an overview of the Fairhaven Unity Village project. Document copies of both the Unity Village Proposal and the Handbook & Code of Conduct for Unity Village were available to meeting attendees. You can access those documents here: homesnow.org/unity-village.
Rachel Duval, liason to the HomesNOW Board, also spoke. Rachel was a former resident of Winter Haven and after just three weeks there, she was able to move into permanent housing. She explained that once a person is homeless, whatever the cause, it is very difficult to find a path back into normal life. A homeless person has often lost confidence and needs help to re-establish their self-esteem and contribute to the community. Rachel said she now feels more confident and has a sense of accomplishment and pride thanks to the help she received from HomesNOW.
The Housing First model has been used successfully in many cities in the U.S. and around the world. Once someone is housed and can experience a sense of stability and comfort, the benefits received from support services (help from a social worker, healthcare, mental health care) are much more likely to be effective long-term.
Meeting attendees participated by sharing their comments and questions. A question was asked about the background check criteria used by the Bellingham Police Department to screen prospective residents. Police Chief Doll explained that those with outstanding warrants, on the sex offender registry, or those with repeat offenses even without warrants would not be cleared to live in a HomesNOW community. HomesNOW representatives have weekly check-in meetings with Chief Doll, COB Planning and Community Development Director Rick Sepler, and a representative from the Bellingham mayor’s office. Chief Doll praised HomesNOW and Peterson for taking his recommendations on whether or not an individual would make a suitable HomesNOW community resident. Peterson did note that approximately 20% of homeless people do not want help. HomesNOW focuses on those who do want help and are willing to step-up, take more responsibility, and help themselves.
Chief Doll said tent communities have been a positive addition to the neighborhoods for a number of reasons including the fact that crime rates have gone down around the HomesNOW locations. Doll also said, “Take the most skeptical person in this room and multiple that by 100 and that was me before we started to work with HomesNow.” He went on to explain how the HomesNOW team, volunteers, and residents have won him over. He commended HomesNOW for doing what they said they were going to do and being a responsible and good partner with the city, BPD, and neighborhoods. Sunnyland area residents gave glowing testimonials about the addition of Safe Haven to that neighborhood.
Planning Director Rick Sepler addressed questions about why the Fairhaven location was chosen. He explained that many city-owned locations were considered. Some were not available for the needed project duration and others were deemed unsuitable for various reasons. One Fairhaven resident asked why the Fairhaven location was chosen when HomesNOW’s goal is to move people into permanent housing and Unity Village residents could never afford to live in Fairhaven. The answer is that tiny home community residents will end up finding permanent housing in many different areas, not specifically in the neighborhoods where Unity Village or Safe Haven are located. Sepler mentioned that the first community, Winter Haven, was two blocks from his home and it was a positive addition to the neighborhood. He also said that we are all a part of this greater community of all neighborhoods.
A couple of Fairhaven residents expressed frustration that the Planning Department had not given more public notice of the June 4th meeting and a longer comment period.
To answer other questions, HomesNOW shared that they pay utility costs at their various locations and the organization carries $1 million worth of liability insurance. Residents and volunteers receive various training and support including de-escalation training from the police department. Residents take turns participating in the self-governance and day-to-day operations by taking roles as deputy mayor, security, kitchen manager, and office administration. The community holds weekly resident meetings. People can visit and request a tour of Safe Haven at 620 Alabama St. from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., 7 days a week.
As of 2018, there are over 800 homeless people in Whatcom County and many are forced to illegally camp on public or private property or sleep in their cars. Homeless people lack access to basic human necessities, including bathrooms, showers, drinking water, cooking facilities, garbage services, etc. Many people who are homeless are forced to carry all of their belongings with them at all times, which often prevents them from being able to seek employment. The proposed Unity Village project provides a safe legal place for our homeless neighbors to live. Unity Village will give access to basic human necessities, such as shelter, bathroom and kitchen facilities, garbage/recycling service, as well as a sense of safety and community. Unity Village will also serve as a central location for service providers to meet with residents to determine their individual needs.
I read the full permit application for Unity Village as well as the thorough Code of Conduct Handbook. I was struck by the realization that the expectations about behavior and the rules for these tent and tiny home community residents are much stricter and more limiting than rules and regulations renters or homeowners would ever be required to follow.
Unity Village Permit Application:
Lack of affordable housing for people of many different income levels continues to be one of the primary challenges faced by Bellingham and Whatcom County. Bellingham, with various partners, continues to work on supporting more development of affordable housing.
Please consider donating to HomesNow.org so they can raise the $70,000 needed to build 20 tiny homes. HomesNOW plans to move these tiny homes permanently to a plot of land (when that is located and secured) and to create more permanent tiny home communities in the future. Then the need to move temporary tent or tiny home encampments from site to site will, hopefully, be eliminated. It takes a village.