There were 35 people in attendance at Lairmont Manor for the Homes Now-Unity Village presentation at the ENA Annual Meeting on July 31, 2019. Four speakers made presentations. The presentation lasted one hour.
ENA President, David LeBow introduced Rick Sepler Director of Planning and Community Development for the City of Bellingham. Rick talked about the history of the homeless encampments. First there was Winter Haven, behind City Hall, then Safe Haven in the Sunnyland Neighborhood. Now there are plans for Unity Village, scheduled to move in near the Post Point Water Treatment Plant, on or near August 28th. It will be a gated community of 20 tiny homes with up to 25 residents. Tiny homes are simply tents with walls. They do have electricity, but they have no running water or bathrooms.
The next speaker was Jim Peterson president of Homes Now. Jim was homeless for 17 years and wanted to use his experience and to help others. He worked in Washington DC with the National Coalition for the Homeless. Jim moved to Bellingham 7 years ago and kept hearing there was a need for helping the homeless. He started Homes Now in 2017 with the goal of building tiny homes for homeless people. He said, “We don’t need to fix these people, we need to give them the tools and safety for them to help themselves.” Homes Now has placed 17 people out of their 48 residents in homes since it was formed.
Rachel Duval is vice president of Homes Now and she was the first resident who was placed in a home. She suffers from severe panic attacks and she is now 14 years clean and sober. She talked about her experience with being homeless and how Homes Now has changed her life.
The next speaker, Chief Doll had quite a bit of anxiety and apprehension about Winter Haven, when it was first proposed. This anxiety has lessened a great deal since the homeless camps were implemented. He attends weekly meetings at the homeless camp and personally vets persons who want to be housed in the encampment. They hold residents accountable who don’t follow the rules, hold a search for drug and alcohol, and do some drug testing on a regular basis. There was some concern that the camps would draw outside negative elements to the area but conversely, the camp residents have taken responsibility for what’s going on around them.
Questions from the audience:
Question: “Does this put additional stress on the police force?”
Chief Doll replied that enforcement is minimal at the encampments.
Comment from the audience, “I think this is a wonderful idea and I’m looking forward to volunteering.”
Question: “Jim, is this a drop in the bucket?” Jim replied they plan to have 80 tiny homes built by 2020.
Question: “What are we doing about the larger homeless population?”
Rick Sepler replied. It’s a challenging problem. Several city resources are looking into the problem, but there’s a wide range of issues that have to be dealt with. Jim said moms with kids are a high priority and they hope to have a “mom’s with kids” village by next year.
Question: “Why did you choose the site at the Post Point Water Treatment Plant?
Rick Sepler replied. They looked at all available city-owned properties and because of the location and availability of services this was the best site for a temporary encampment. The city hopes that a private individual or non-profit organization will provide a permanent encampment space in the future.
Question: “Why is Unity Village only scheduled to be in the location at McKinsey Ave for six months?”
The Post Point treatment plant is going to be enlarged in the near future and that space occupied by Unity Village will be needed. Where else are you looking for camps locations? And how will it be permitted? Rick Sepler replied the City Council has approved a chapter in the zoning code for temporary housing, which states if they could find a location it could be permitted for up to 5 years .
Question for Rachel: There are going to be only up to 25 people in this encampment. Are you seeing this as hopeful? Rachel replied…”Just like Jim and myself who were homeless and now we are helping others who are homeless, we are enlisting other homeless residents who were helped to continue to volunteer and help. So yes we see this as very hopeful.”
Who monitors the homeless camp? Jim told us he is there on weekdays and Rachel is there on the weekends. The residents are required to participate in monitoring themselves. At weekly meetings, they hold elections for mayor, clean-up committee, security, food preparation and other duties. Residents voted to pay $150 or 10% of their income to go towards utilities.
You can visit the homes now website at www.homes.now.org. Unity Village residents will move into their new location on McKinsey Avenue the last week of August. Donations are welcome.
The Annual Edgemoor Neighborhood Association meeting followed the presentation. A meeting summary will be posted separately.