Is it hard to solve Whatcom County’s homelessness? This new nonprofit doesn’t think so

Volunteers worked most of the day Saturday to place electrical wiring, siding and vinyl flooring in the home.
Volunteers worked most of the day Saturday to place electrical wiring, siding and vinyl flooring in the home. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The founders of a new nonprofit organization aim to tackle the area’s homelessness by offering them tiny homes – and they say it’s simpler than most people think.

HomesNOW! co-founders Doug Gustafson and Jim Peterson registered the nonprofit at the end of May. The group, along with volunteers, installed its first tiny home, an 8-by-10-foot shelter, on a property on the Lummi Nation earlier this week.

The idea

Peterson, who was homeless for 17 years until 1990, has long been searching for answers to the issue of homelessness, he said. Peterson grew increasingly frustrated with how hesitant many people – mostly politicians – were to try new ideas.

“I could never get connected to the right people who were as motivated as me,” he said.

That changed in August, when he and Gustafson met as members of Whatcom for Bernie supporting Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Gustafson said he, too, feels that solutions to homelessness are less complex than they’re made out to be, adding the City of Bellingham’s $300,000 expense to clean up homeless camps around the city could have been better spent building new homes.

Jim Peterson with HomesNOW! staples siding into the organization’s first tiny home. The home aims to have someone living inside it by Sunday night. Kyle Mittan The Bellingham Herald

“Honestly, what surprises me the most is that it hasn’t been solved yet,” he said.

Having found a common cause, Peterson pitched to Gustafson the concept: buy small shelters through donations, find land for them and give the shelters to those who need them.

The idea remained on the back burner, they said, until late May.

An unlikely partnership

As a Lummi Nation council member, Nick Lewis was also trying to address homelessness in his own community. He began handing out meals in October 2016, and, since December, he’s helped turn two Nation-owned houses into shelters, which he runs through an organization called Stepping Stones.

More than 40 people are now living in the homes, many of them children, Lewis said.

Residents are required to get mental health and chemical dependency evaluations from Lummi Nation Chemical Addiction and Recovery Education and enroll in programs with the Employment Training Center. The programs help tribal members search and apply for jobs and provide rent subsidies, Lewis said. Counselors with the Lummi Nation refer clients to the waiting lists for Lewis’ shelters.

“The only reason we can do the things that we’re doing is because we already have the services,” he said.

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HomesNOW!, a new nonprofit organization, aims to use tiny homes like this one to help combat homelessness. This first home was placed in the yard of a Lummi Nation house that also shelters homeless people. Nick Lewis Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

After hearing about HomesNOW!, Lewis said he thought partnering with the nonprofit could mean more roofs for people in the Lummi programs. Earlier this month, Lewis sent a message to Peterson, who, at first, wasn’t warm to the idea of a partnership.

“I blew him off because I did research and found out he was a council member,” Peterson said. “I’m like, ‘politician – no, thank you.’”

A friend convinced Peterson to hear Lewis out, and the first tiny home is now going in the yard of one of Lewis’ shelters on Shorewood Drive. The group hopes to have more homes on the Lummi Nation in the coming months, and to use the partnership as a model that they can then expand to other areas in the county.

Increasing interest in solving homelessness

Donations raised the roughly $2,000 that helped buy the first house, which was placed on-site Friday. About the size of a small bedroom, the shelter comes with a window and a small loft for a twin-size bed.

Volunteers worked Saturday retrofitting the home with electrical wiring, insulation and interior paneling. The resident will move in Sunday night, Gustafson said.

Volunteers worked most of the day Saturday to place electrical wiring, siding and vinyl flooring in the home. Nick Lewis Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

HomesNOW! represents an increasing interest to address homelessness in Whatcom County, said Mike Parker, the director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center. The center, he said, helps homeless people find housing and subsidizes their rent.

But the county is in need of more “interim solutions,” he added, like tiny homes and safe camps seen around the state, like Quixote Village in Olympia.

“I think it’s exciting to see people getting engaged around this issue,” Parker said. “Because all these little steps can be part of the answer to this problem of too many unsheltered folks.”

Peterson and Gustafson said their goal is for HomesNOW! to become unnecessary – to see homelessness completely gone in Whatcom County.

“We don’t want to keep doing this for 20, 30 years,” Peterson said. “We want to get in here and get it done.”

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan

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