For some homeless, ‘a place to call home’ will be in these tiny homes in Bellingham

HomesNOW! building tiny homes for homeless encampment

HomesNOW! is building tiny homes in summer 2019 to replace several tents at the homeless encampment in the Sunnyland neighborhood of Bellingham, Wash.
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HomesNOW! is building tiny homes in summer 2019 to replace several tents at the homeless encampment in the Sunnyland neighborhood of Bellingham, Wash.

A nonprofit that operates a homeless tent encampment in Bellingham is replacing its tents with tiny homes.

Known as Safe Haven, the encampment is in part of the What-Comm Dispatch Center’s parking lot at 620 Alabama St. in the Sunnyland neighborhood. It’s been on the city-owned land since April 4 and will be there through this summer.

HomesNOW!, which operates the encampment, has applied for a permit to relocate it to part of the city-owned parking lot at 210 McKenzie Ave., near the Post Point Waster Treatment Plant in the Fairhaven neighborhood.

There, in its third temporary home, the encampment would be renamed Unity Village and all of the tents that the residents sleep in would be replaced with up to 20 tiny homes for as many as 28 people.

HomesNOW! has opened all of the encampments with the approval of the city. Each time the camps move, they get a new name.

If approved by city of Bellingham officials, Unity Village would be at the McKenzie Avenue spot from Aug. 24 through April 30, 2020, provided no one appeals the decision that is expected by Thursday, June 27.

The McKenzie Avenue location will be the last time the city will make its own land available for such an encampment, according to Rick Sepler, Planning and Community Development director for Bellingham.

The city agreed to provide its land — the first location was in a parking lot behind Bellingham City Hall at 210 Lottie St. starting in January of this year — to show other property owners or managers that HomesNOW! and Jim Peterson, its president, could operate such encampments, Sepler told The Bellingham Herald.

“Few folks were willing to take the risk of having his facilities placed on their land. Well, after three encampments and a good track record, it should be easier for him to find land,” Sepler said. “They’re proving it to be viable.”

A decorated tent at the Safe Haven homeless encampment provided by HomesNOW! in part of the parking lot at 620 Alabama St. in Bellingham. Each tent sleeps up to two and provides enough space for residents to have a cot and personal items without being cramped. Paul Conrad For The Bellingham Herald

The encampments have been approved under new rules that the Bellingham City Council approved Oct. 22 for temporary homeless shelters in buildings, tent cities, tiny homes and parking areas. The city provides the land, reviews the permit without charge and provides water for free.

But it doesn’t provide money to run or staff the encampment.

About 700 people in Whatcom County are homeless, according to an annual count conducted in January.

That’s a 14 percent drop from the 815 homeless people in 2018, according to the Whatcom County’s Homeless Point-in-Time Count. The count is a snapshot and advocates have said that the actual number of homeless is higher.

While Bellingham will no longer make city-owned land available for such encampments, officials will consider them if other government entities, nonprofits or religious groups apply to open them in city limits.

Residents and businesses the encampment proposes moving into have raised concern about its presence.

“But it seems as if once the encampment is there, those concerns tend to fall away,” said Lisa Pool, Bellingham senior planner. “We’ve seen, I think, an improvement — at least in observed criminal behaviors — when the encampment is present in the surrounding area.”

What are the Sunnyland neighborhood’s views of Safe Haven?

“The association considers Safe Haven residents our neighbors, just like anyone else who lives and works in our neighborhood. If there have been specific concerns, we have asked residents to contact the Bellingham PD or HomesNOW! directly. The response we’ve seen online has been largely supportive,” the board of the Sunnyland Neighborhood Association said in a statement.

That doesn’t mean it’s been perfect, but when problems come up, they’ve been handled, according to Sepler.

“Can’t say there haven’t been bumps in the road. They’ve had to exit a number of people who were residents for violating the rules,” Sepler said. “Quite frankly, we don’t consider it a strike against them because that’s exactly what those rules should be.”

Tents to tiny homes

To get to Safe Haven, the current tent encampment in the Sunnyland neighborhood, turn off Alabama Street onto Iron Street.

Walk through the chain-link fence, sign in at a tent set up to welcome visitors, walk past a separate large tent that serves as a dining room and kitchen area and make your way to the blue and gray tents — where the residents live — that are lined up neatly on the blacktop.

HomesNOW! opened the camp but its residents work together to run it.

Amenities include portable toilets, showers, drinking water, an outdoor kitchen, garbage and recycling containers, as well as human and social services.

On June 1, Peterson and HomesNOW! volunteers were putting finishing touches on the first tiny home and building the second one.

The first will serve as office space. The second will go to Richard Taldo, 41, and his wife, whom Taldo said is disabled. He said they’ve been homeless for about three years.

Taldo was among those working on the tiny homes build on June 1.

“It gives me a chance to build myself out of the hole I got myself into,” Taldo said, adding that “earning it” was better than having the tiny home given to him.

“It’s more fulfilling, gives me a sense of achievement,” he said.

HomesNOW! volunteers and Safe Haven residents planned to build the third tiny home on Saturday, June 22.

Sepler referred to the wooden structures being built as “tents with walls.”

“They are less than 120 square feet,” he said. “They’re really a sleeping room.”

The goal is to replace six of the tents that the residents sleep in with six tiny homes. About 20 adults live at Safe Haven, which can hold up to 25 people.

The 62-year-old Peterson, who has a home in Sudden Valley, has said he wanted to build tiny homes from the beginning — as opposed to setting up a tent encampment — but initially met resistance from Bellingham officials because they didn’t know much about HomesNOW!, which was then a new organization.

This past winter showed that temporarily housing people in tents doesn’t work, Peterson added.

That was when snow and ongoing frigid temperatures made it dangerous for homeless campers to stay in Winter Haven, the name of the first encampment that operated behind City Hall on Lottie Street from January to April.

“It’s the Pacific Northwest. Everybody can camp in the summer months when it’s nice out for a weekend. Try living in a tent when it’s 30 degrees or when it’s been raining for a week,” Peterson said.

There’s another reason for moving people out of tents and into tiny homes.

“It’s just more privacy and it’s more like a home. It’s the next step up,” Peterson said.

Kitchen facilities, including a cooking area, are provided at the Safe Haven homeless encampment provided by HomesNOW! in the back lot of 620 Alabama Street in Bellingham, Wash., on Monday May 6, 2019. Paul Conrad For The Bellingham Herald

Building tiny homes for the homeless is something Peterson has wanted to do for a long time.

“I’m finally glad to see my dream. I’ve had this dream since 1991 to build tiny homes,” Peterson said. “I honestly think the community’s gonna be amazed at what they look like, how successful it is. It’s an out-of-the-box solution. It’s not the total solution, but it’s part of the solution.”

‘A place to call home’

People who want to live at the encampments operated by HomesNOW! must first apply. They have to agree to be clean and sober, although residents with a medical marijuana card are allowed to use medical marijuana. They have to follow a set of rules.

The residents voted to each pay a $50 utility fee to help pay for the portable toilets, water and other needs.

The population is about 70% men and 30% women. Peterson said nine residents have full-time jobs, with another resident starting a job in a week.

Peterson said HomesNOW! is working to end homelessness one step at a time, one person at a time. The encampments provide safety and help residents with the goal of getting people into permanent housing, which Peterson said it has done for 10 people since January.

“It’s about normalcy and having a place to call home,” said Peterson, who once used heroin and was homeless from 1975 to 1991 until a woman helped him in Fargo, North Dakota.

Peterson, who said he toured different tiny home villages to get ideas for HomesNOW!, likes the ones in which residents govern themselves, work together to run them, have public restrooms, and congregate in a centralized kitchen and dining area.

“They become part of a community. They are responsible. It gives them a sense of worth. It gives them some respect. Just because they’re homeless, it doesn’t mean they can’t do this. It means they haven’t been given the chance to do it,” he said.

Ultimately, Peterson said he would like to open four tiny homes villages that house 20 people in each location. Each would be managed by the residents and would serve a different population — one for people who work and are disabled, one for veterans, one for women and one for families.

They’ll each pay $150 a month, or 10% of their income.

Residents at Safe Haven include 50-year-old David Morse, who served a stint as its mayor.

He said he worked as a cook at Red Robin before he hurt his back and tailbone and couldn’t work. As a result, he didn’t have the money to pay for his share of the rent in an apartment, ended up on the streets and found a place to squat in until he was discovered. When that happened, he moved to Safe Haven, in late April.

Morse, who planned to go back to work, said he’s been humbled.

“I always had everything in my life. This was really humbling. It’s actually taught me quite a bit. I have more respect for people,” Morse said.

Jim Peterson, president of HomesNOW! readies for bed as Rachel Duval closes the office for the day at the Safe Haven homeless encampment.. The city of Bellingham requires that someone from the nonprofit organization be there at all times. Duval, one of the first residents at the encampment, is now vice president of HomesNOW! She is no longer homeless. Paul Conrad For The Bellingham Herald

Rachel Duval, 41, lived in the first tent encampment, called Winter Haven.

She now lives with roommates in a Bellingham house and is vice president of HomesNOW!

She’s also in training to be the organization’s president. It’s important the nonprofit’s president have been homeless, Peterson said.

These days she and Peterson take turns being at Safe Haven. The city requires HomesNOW! to always have someone at the encampments.

Being admitted into Winter Haven and being helped by Peterson were critical for her.

“When people find out you’re homeless, it is like you become human-less. Because they no longer see you as a person,” said Duval, vice president of HomesNOW!. “You’re nothing to them. You become the problem and now you’re in their way.

“It had jump-started my life again. It had given me back my life,” Duval said. “I’d probably be dead right now but he changed my life.”

How to help

The nonprofit HomesNOW! is raising $90,000 to build 20 tiny homes for those who are homeless for its Unity Village project. It has raised $20,000 so far.

Learn more or donate by going online to homesnow.org.

Have questions or concerns? People are invited to check out Safe Haven, the current encampment for the homeless, and see for themselves.

“We really encourage it. We want people to meet some of the residents that live here so they realize that not all homeless are the same,” Peterson said.

To tour Safe Haven, go to 620 Alabama St. in Bellingham from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. You’ll need to sign in and sign out.

The location for Unity Village was corrected on June 27, 2019.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.