Tiny home village opens in Fairhaven

Residents of Unity Village watch as children from the crowd cut the ribbon at Unity Village on Sept. 14. // Photo by Zachary Jimenez

By Isa Kaufman-Geballe

When HomesNow.NotLater founder Jim Peterson first confronted Bellingham city officials about the possibility of building a tiny home village for people experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County, they immediately turned the idea down as unrealistic, he said. 

“I was told flat out ‘no, not going to happen’,” Peterson said. He was determined as ever to prove them wrong.

Jim Peterson, former president and current vice president of HomesNOW!, gives a speech to the crowd at the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Unity Village on Sept. 14. // Photo by Zachary Jimenez

Two years later on a Saturday afternoon, long shears cut into red ribbon in front of 20 brand new colorful tiny homes in a Fairhaven parking lot, marking the opening of Unity Village, Bellingham’s latest tiny home encampment.

“Anyone that knows me knows if you tell me I cannot do it, I am going to do it.” Peterson said to the crowd of Bellingham community members.

HomesNOW! is a volunteer run non-for-profit organization with a mission to end homelessness ‘one person at a time.’. 

After months of hard work and negotiation, the temporary tiny home encampment, Petersons goal came to fruition.  The encampment had been approved by the City of Bellingham’s Planning and Community Development Department to occupy a section of a Fairhaven parking lot located in 210 Mckenzie Ave., a stones throw from Fairhaven Station, this past June.

Twenty tiny houses are currently on-site as of this month. Up to 28 people who meet regulations to be Unity Village guests will be able to occupy the tiny homes in accordance to the city permit. Features of this space include portable toilets, an outdoor sheltered kitchen and social service programs.

According to Unity Villages’s temporary shelter permit, the encampment can occupy the space from August 24, 2019 to April 30, 2020. 

 

Grand Opening

 

Claps and cheering ensued when a clean-shaven  Peterson stood at the podium in front of community members attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sept. 14. 

This opening was sentimental for Peterson who chose to give up his housing to oversee the former Safe Haven tent encampment since winter.

Unity Village residents celebrate after the ribbon is cut at the opening ceremony on Sept. 14. // Photo by Zachary Jimenez

Peterson was called up to the podium to give a speech after a Lummi elder opened the ceremony with a blessing on the land Unity Village now occupies.

He thanked several volunteers and board members involved in the planning and moving of Unity Village, as well a few words from acting president of Homes!NOW Rachel Duval and a few current residents.

 

New residents, new homes

 

After the community celebration, it’s all about Unity Village residents getting used to their new home, Duval said. As someone who formally experienced homelessness, Duval is mindful of the repercussions of a hectic move from many of their former homes in Safe Haven and the toll it can take on many resident’s mental health. 

“Being in a tiny home when you’re on the streets is very different and it can be overwhelming and a trigger,” Duval said. “The move itself {can} set us back.”

Chris Clemens, resident and current mayor of Unity Village, stressed this sense of  security and safety is of first importance. 

 “Safety is a big issue,” Clemens said. “In fact, I feel safer here and safer over Safe Haven in the tent than I did in my car.” 

Clemens’ responsibilities as mayor extends beyond a regular resident which includes  keeping tabs in each residences safety and behavior. 

Fairhaven residents had previously submitted public comments of concern that the presence of tiny home encampment would “result in an increase in criminal activities, disruptive behaviors, loitering and congregation in the encampment and surrounding neighborhood from Unity Village guests and visitors and other individuals who are not part of the encampment,” according to the permit document. 

Clemens confirmed there are cameras located in multiple viewpoints within the confines of the space and there is a security desk at the front to monitor who comes in. Guests are required to sign-in and out. 

Clemens acknowledged that these precautions pay off with the mutual reassurance that no one is going to be vandalized or stolen from from within and outside the village. 

This is the first time in my whole life that I will live in a brand new house,” Clemens said. “I mean you get to come home to this little colorful house that makes you feel good and it feels better than lying down in a homeless shelter on a little pad on the floor.”

Tina Harkness, 51, was as excited for her new home. She welcomed attendees and volunteers into her house, pointing to the crystal skulls that hung next to her door. 

Now that she has a place of her own after experiencing homelessness for 16 years,  Harkness plans to decorate the interior of her tiny home with Mickey Mouse decorations and personalize it to the memories she had with her cousin. 

“{We} used to sit watching Mickey Mouse ClubHouse with our lonely years on everything before it was black and white,” Harkness said. “I remember she was like the closest thing to a sister I had.”

Tina Harkness, Unity Village resident, sits on the porch of her home. Harkness left the door open so visitors can see what her home looks like on Sept. 14. // Photo by Zachary Jimenez

Harkness hopes that her adult son can eventually join her in the tent encampment. 

“He’s going to apply here, he just recently got clean, so I am glad this place is here to actually be there for him,” Harkness said.

 

Major Transitions

Peterson recently announced that he was stepping down from his position as president of HomesNOW! for personal reasons and that Duval would be taking his place as acting president. He plans to serve the organization’s vice president for this next year, at least, according to Duval. 

When asked about her new role, Duval has already acknowledged the pressures on her shoulders but was confident she could take on the task after her predecessor. 

I think the transition will be really smooth because I have him beside me helping me into it you know and he’s been doing it for two years so,”Duval said. I’m learning a lot and he’s teaching me all the logistics. Jim’s gonna help me all the way and I feel confident.

 The main goal of the Homes!NOW efforts is finding permanent housing for these residents. So far the non-profit ha helped several people find permanent housing, Duval said. 

The hope is that Unity Village will help bring security for residents who were in danger on the streets so they can  reacclimate to community life and have a roof over their head while they are doing it.  

With tiny home encampments on the rise in other cities, Clemens hopes that more are built in the future, and Duval agreed. 

Moving forward, Duval stressed the necessity for the homeless community in Whatcom County to have access to tiny homes. Homes!NOW is aiming for four more tiny home encampments in next five years. 

“We don’t have enough shelter and we don’t have enough affordable housing,” Duval said. “And so, as long as that need is there, we’re going to keep going.”  

Homes!NOW is already looking for new spaces appropriate for the the next tiny home encampment to move in April, according to Duval.

2 comments

  • Personally…… I think this is a great way to help people, which have suffered living on the street! I am overjoyed for each and every person! When driving down familiar streets and I see someone lying on the cement with cardboard for a blanket, my heart breaks!
    So, CONGRATS TO YOU ALL WHO GOT THEIR TINY HOUSE!! Enjoy

  • I’m so happy that u have this when I was on the streets in Bellingham I had tow kides and didn’t know we’re to fo for help so I went to a shelter and that helped me I was new to Bellingham Washington’ then I don’t a place on Texas st and it was a tow bedroom but you guys have helped my beast friend Amy Dorsey out know ahead have her place and doing food I would like to say thank u guys so much for helping herd out

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