Would you sleep outside in a tent during the winter? I certainly couldn’t. Fortunately, we are having a relatively mild winter in the Pacific Northwest this year. But, even with warmer-than-usual winter temperatures, most of us would choose the comfort of sleeping inside rather than in a tent outdoors. Hundreds of people sleep outside every night around Bellingham and Whatcom County. The Lighthouse Mission does a great job sheltering people each night in their downtown Bellingham facility. But the Mission is not a good solution for some homeless folks. Some people don’t want to follow the Mission’s rules and some just don’t get a good night’s sleep there. Others don’t want to line up to wait for a sleeping spot or have to pack up their belongings and leave in the morning. Some homeless people have jobs and need a more permanent housing solution.
Enter HomesNow.org’s Winter Haven tent community. For a year and 9 months, Bellingham non-profit HomesNOW! has been asking Mayor Linville and the Bellingham City Council for permission to run a secure temporary tent encampment in the winter months. HomesNOW! organized a Camp Out on the lawn in front of Bellingham’s City Hall in December 2017 that lasted for 17 days. The Camp Out was to bring attention to the need for a secure tent encampment and other issues faced by the homeless. After repeated visits to City Council meetings and discussions with the mayor and City Council, a permit was issued for a temporary tent encampment. Called Winter Haven, the camp behind City Hall at 210 Lottie St. can provide shelter for up to 40 people for 90 days this winter. The permit allows Winter Haven to operate until early April.
Although the city would allow 40 residents at Winter Haven, HomesNOW! plans to keep the total number of residents under 30. Currently 22 people have been approved for shelter there. The approval process includes an application, a background check by the Bellingham Police Department, and an interview with a social worker.
The site includes bathrooms, use of the HomesNOW! shower truck, drinking water, an outdoor kitchen, garbage and recycling containers, as well as access to social services. The tents are set up on raised wooden platforms for more comfort and warmth.
The City of Bellingham has new rules in place for temporary homeless shelters. Winter Haven must follow these public health and safety rules.
In addition to the Winter Haven application process and Bellingham Police Department background check, these rules include:
▪ No drug or alcohol use for people living in the camp.
▪ Onsite supervision 24 hours a day provided by a HomesNOW! board member or a volunteer who isn’t living on site.
▪ Security measures such as video cameras that will be provided by the city, as well as lighting and fencing.
▪ No children younger than 18 can stay overnight unless they are accompanied by a parent or a guardian.
▪ Open flames or fires are banned.
▪ Registered sex offenders, people who are required to register as a sex offender, and people who have active warrants will be barred from the encampment.
▪ A HomesNOW! board member is required to meet with city staff each week to discuss any issues at the camp.
The city can close the site immediately if any crime is committed, police or fire chiefs believe there is a danger to campers or the community, or the permit provisions
The Winter Haven residents I have spoken with say they feel safe at Winter Haven and appreciate being in a community setting. They are happy to have a tent to call home for now. Residents are cooking meals together, keeping the site clean and running well, and have elected members to self-govern. The residents also greatly appreciate the support of the city and community members who are volunteering and donating food, bedding, monetary donations, and more. Although the City has generously provided use of the property and video security cameras, the costs to set-up and maintain the camp are handled by HomesNOW! via donations received through their ongoing fundraising efforts.
HomesNOW! President Jim Peterson is pleased with how smoothly things are going at Winter Haven. Once homeless himself, Jim knows how important safe housing is for people to be able to continue to improve their lives. The goal is to help at least half of the residents of Winter Haven find permanent housing. There is currently a waiting list for Winter Haven. The longer-term goal for HomesNOW! is to create tiny home communities to house the homeless.
HomesNOW! is an all-volunteer non-profit. Individual and corporate donors are helping support Winter Haven. Ferndale company G.R. Plume built sturdy wood picnic tables and benches for the Winter Haven dining tent. Scrap-It Recycling in Ferndale donated use of fencing. To join the many people supporting Winter Haven, please visit www.HomesNow.org or their active Facebook page for volunteers: www.facebook.com/groups/HomesNOWvolunteers