While recent allegations managing members of HomesNOW! misappropriated funds has been a setback for the organization, residents of its Unity Village tiny home encampment say the model works for pulling people out of homelessness.
“It was very heartbreaking what they did to us. Feeling that we were being lied to and stolen from and finding this out now is extremely hurtful, because we do have love for (the managing members) and what they’ve given to us. They’ve given us a home,” Tina Hayes, a Unity Village resident, told The Bellingham Herald. “We’re a family. It has hurt our community very deeply.”
The Bellingham Police Department announced Monday that it has opened an investigation into specific managing members of the nonprofit HomesNOW! for misappropriating funds. The organization operates Unity Village, which is an encampment with 22 tiny homes for homeless people. The encampment sits on a city-owned parking lot at 210 McKenzie Ave., near the Post Point Water Treatment Plant in the Fairhaven neighborhood, and is permitted to operate through April 2020.
Hayes moved into her purple tiny home with green trim, nicknamed the ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ house, on Sept. 3, shortly before the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the encampment two weeks ago. She said the residents have gone without some commodities and any alleged misappropriation was wrong, but she’s now no longer out in the cold or wondering where she’ll find food or a place to shower because of her tiny home.
“It’s amazing, and what it’s done for me already here is amazing. I would love for people to come and visit us and see what tiny homes is really about and what it’s doing for each and every one of us. We’re not just those people that you think that we ... are trying to be vindictive and do drugs and go out there and do wrong in the world... We’re all trying to pull together as one so we’re all achieving,” Hayes said. “We’re normal just like everybody else. And if it wasn’t for tiny homes, these 20 people wouldn’t have a chance for a new start. It’s changed every one of us.”
Doug Gustafson, who is a co-founder of HomesNOW!, said more than a dozen people are currently living at Unity Village, and he expects to fill the remaining vacancies within the next few weeks.
Bellingham police said it received a complaint from a HomesNOW! board member on Sept. 27 that claimed specific representatives of the organization misappropriated funds. Gustafson said he came forward with the allegations after noticing discrepancies with the company’s funds. He said money meant for the organization was being spent at a casino and on marijuana.
The Bellingham Herald is not naming the board members referenced in the allegations because they have not been arrested or charged with a crime.
Bellingham Police Lt. Claudia Murphy said Wednesday no further details about the complaint or investigation were available.
“There is nothing we are releasing at this time, and it will likely be a long time before we do. Financial investigations like this can take quite a while to complete,” Murphy said.
Gustafson said the organization is making changes and adding additional board members to ensure something similar doesn’t happen in the future. He said the organization should have caught the misappropriated funds sooner.
“A lot of good has been done here,” Gustafson said. “We’re not stopping, we’re not going away, we’re going to keep doing what we were doing, but this behavior with the (allegations), it’s inexcusable. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve done lots of good things, you still need to be held accountable.”
Gustafson said his main concern is still the residents and getting them into permanent housing.
“I figure if we do what we set out to do, and we make sure that they’re doing well, then this program will continue to be a success and it’ll get even better because nothing is getting siphoned off,” he said.
A life-changing tiny home
Chriss Clemens, 51, said living at Unity Village has been life-changing. Clemens, who moved into Safe Haven (the tent encampment prior to the tiny home village) on May 31, found out about HomesNOW! through his social service case manager. He applied online, went through the interview process and was allowed to move in.
He said living in the tiny home encampment makes him engage more and that he now has support and friends, which he hasn’t had in years.
“You get to come home to one of these and you feel like you have something that’s really nice, that’s really wonderful. It makes you feel like maybe you can do a little more and get a little more,” Clemens said. “It’s meant to be kind of like a micro-community so that we can learn to be part of a community again. A lot of us have been out here solo in survival mode for so long … it’s going to take us a while to kind of get back to that really fully functioning member of society. And so that’s what this offers you.”
“Sure we had some recent kind of wrinkles, but this is a strong model. This works, this is a good program. Unfortunately, you’re not always going to come across good people,” Clemens said. “Coming home to this adorable little home that’s yours, that’s your room, that you can lock the door and feel safe, you can’t put a price on that. It’s life-changing.”