The HomesNOW! shower truck has two portable showers that allow residents to take up to 7-minute showers. // Photo by Zoe Buchli
By Zoe Buchli
In the parking lot behind Bellingham City Hall, 20 brown tents have been pitched in a straight line. These shelters will be temporarily hosting up to 30 Bellingham residents who are experiencing homelessness during the cold winter months.
The encampment, called Winter Haven, is operated by HomesNOW! and on Jan. 3, opened its doors to people in Bellingham needing a place to live. Winter Haven will serve as a secure, community space with several amenities for residents.
HomesNOW! is a non-profit, volunteer-led group dedicated to finding shelter for people experiencing homelessness in Bellingham, as described by their website. HomesNOW! President Jim Peterson said the encampment is designed to provide its residents with stability.
“When you’re homeless you’re in survival mode,” Peterson said. “[Our goal is to] get people stable so we can start working on getting them into housing and to get the services they need.”
Peterson explained how the site is a place where people can go to be adults and have their own space. It’s a place for residents to have a secure place to keep their belongings, he said.
Winter Haven offers a shower truck with two portable showers, several portable toilets and a wash station. The site also has a covered communal kitchen space with two microwaves, a refrigerator and food storage space. Wi-Fi and portable heaters are available.
Anne, 64, is a Winter Haven resident who has been homeless for four and a half months due to an injury, she said. She chose not to include her real name so as to protect her privacy.
The residents of Bellingham have been the main suppliers of food and equipment, including the tents, Anne said.
“The support from the community has been amazing,” she said.
When residents request small items for cooking or personal care, Anne said it is not uncommon for them to be donated within a day.
She said the encampment has been home to mostly single adults for the first two weeks of operation, and that Peterson is working on bringing in couples and families too.
The permit for the encampment lists a series of provisions put forward by the city of Bellingham. For example, a volunteer monitor must be on-site at all times.
City of Bellingham Senior Planner Lisa Pool said the city developed this set of conditions to protect not only the camp’s residents, but also the surrounding community.
She said the city worked with HomesNOW! for several months and considered different sites for the encampment before deciding on the lot behind city hall due to its access to water and electricity. The lot is also close to different social services and the Bellingham Police Department headquarters, Pool said.
“We realize it’s not a permanent solution, it’s a temporary solution to a very complex issue in our community,” Pool said.
In addition to the conditions set by the city, HomesNOW! uses an off-site screening process for admitting residents, Pool said.
People who want to be in the encampment fill out an application with HomesNOW! and go through an interview process, Pool said. When they pass these steps, the names of people who have been approved are passed to the police department to check for any outstanding warrants.
The opening of Winter Haven comes after City Council voted 7-0 on Nov. 19, 2018, agreeing to work with HomesNOW! to open the encampment after being provided with an overview of the project, Pool said.
She said this was a unique circumstance because the City Council typically does not review permits, but due to the location of the proposed site being on city property and the style of the encampment being brand new to the city, it was brought before council members.
Following the vote, HomesNOW! brought the application to the Planning and Community Development Department on Nov. 20, 2018, who reviewed it and officially approved it following a 14-day appeal period.
Peterson said the permit is set to expire on April 15, and HomesNOW! is already discussing where they can relocate the camp once Winter Haven closes. They have been meeting with the city weekly to discuss potential future sites, Peterson said.
“We want to give this some time and make sure it’s running smooth, and then we’ll be looking for other sites,” Peterson said.
He added that HomesNOW! has a long-term plan for 2019 — to build four tiny home villages this summer in addition to running a more permanent tent encampment.
This story was updated on Jan. 16, 2019 to correct the date of the permit expiration, correct spelling of the company name HomesNOW! and update the amount of tents now being occupied at the site.