Two nonprofits are working to build 100 tiny houses for homeless tribal members and their family on the Lummi Reservation.
Lummi Stepping Stones and HomesNOW! are behind the project, which includes fundraising and asking the Lummi Nation for land with utilities already in place – possibly an old RV park – for the tiny homes community.
The effort was sparked by comments from Carol James, a 57-year-old disabled Lummi elder who was homeless, and concern for those left outside during last year’s frigid winter.
People were living in the woods, under bridges, in their vehicles and in tents, James said, striking the floor with her cane, to those who had gathered in October for a candidate forum for the Lummi Indian Business Council, which is the tribe’s governing body.
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“I said, ‘You folks who run this tribe need to do something to help us people. We’re still your family. We’ve been displaced and we’re out here and we’re suffering,” James said in an interview Monday. “I was basically scolding them. Years ago, there was nothing like this that was happening, and I explained that to them.”
Aaron Thomas was at that event, which he was broadcasting on Facebook live.
“It was shocking what she did,” Thomas said. “We always knew there were homeless living in Bellingham, but we didn’t know there were people living in trucks and tents on the reservation.”
Thomas is seeking election to the tribal council.
In response, Thomas and a group of other volunteers went out in search of their homeless throughout Whatcom County. They brought pots of chili and sandwiches to feed people. They did that for six weekends.
When overnight temperatures dropped to 19 degrees Dec. 6, the group opened a boarded-up home on Rural Avenue to bring the homeless in. Two people were there that first night. The next night, it was 30 people. The third night, 50 people sought emergency shelter, according to Thomas, who helped form Lummi Stepping Stones.
That led to the opening of another two houses – owned by the tribe and managed by Lummi Stepping Stones – as shelters. One on Kope Road was called A’le’leng, or “our home,” and the other on Shorewood Lane was named Ne’wi’leng, or “welcome.”
Thomas said Stepping Stones is now helping 31 people, and that 52 percent of the current residents are younger than 18. That includes two newborns.
Behind Ne’wi’leng sit two tiny homes already erected and retrofitted by HomesNOW! and other volunteers, in June and July.
Last Thursday, Jesse Solomon, homeless until recently, sat in front of the tiny house that he moved into about a month ago.
It’s comforting to have a place of his own, the 30-year-old Solomon said. He doesn’t have to worry about the cold or the wind tearing down the walls of his tent. The Lummi man said he feels safe, and likes having a place where he can shut out the world.
“I know they have to knock on the door,” Solomon said of having privacy.
People who want to be part of Lummi Stepping Stones and live in the shelters must get mental health and chemical dependency evaluations from Lummi Nation’s Chemical Addiction and Recovery Education, be clean and sober, and enroll in programs with the Employment Training Center. The programs help tribal members search and apply for jobs and provide rent subsidies. Counselors with Lummi Nation refer clients to the waiting lists for the shelters.
Going to make it
In front of Solomon’s tiny home, some residents of Ne’wi’leng were making peanut butter sandwiches.
The space has been set aside for homeless families. Among them was Jeannie Finkbonner, 31, and her family. She joined Stepping Stones in February, after couch-surfing and living in her car.
At one time there were six family members sharing a room, Finkbonner said, but “it was our area so it meant something.”
Soon Finkbonner and her husband will move out of the shelter and into their own home.
James, the elder, is now living in an apartment at Little Bear Creek on the Lummi Reservation. But she remembered being cold while living in her Suburban with her daughter and she recalled being able to go inside to one of the shelters that Stepping Stones opened.
“Such a reprieve,” James said, “and a relief knowing that, hey, we’re going to make it.”
Contact Aaron Thomas at 360-303-9979 to donate to the effort to help the homeless on Lummi Reservation. The nonprofit Lummi Stepping Stones is behind the project, which includes a collaboration with HomesNOW!, to build 100 tiny homes.
Go to the Lummi Stepping Stones Facebook page for information. HomesNOW! is on GoFundMe.com. Find the group by typing its name into the search window.
Building and retrofitting each tiny home costs $3,000 to $3,500, according to HomesNOW!
In addition to monetary donations, Stepping Stones needs gift cards. Call Thomas for details.