Use of HomesNOW! funds under investigation
The HomesNOW! banner located at the entrance of Unity Village on Tuesday, Oct. 1. // Photo by Zachary Jimenez
By Ella Banken
The possible misappropriation of funds by HomesNOW! board members is under criminal investigation, according to a Bellingham Police Department statement released on Monday, Sept. 30.
The same afternoon, HomesNOW! board member Doug Gustafson uploaded a 12-minute video to the organization’s Facebook page describing the events that led up to the investigation.
Former president and founder Jim Peterson, former acting Vice President Rachel Duval and operations director Charlie Storrs were all removed from their positions for various behaviors by a board vote on Sunday, Sept. 29, according to Gustafson.
“The total damage is estimated to be around $8,000 in misspent funds in 2019. This is out of a total of around $150,000 in donations,” Gustafson said in his Facebook post.
Board member Elizabeth Anthony said Gustafson began an internal investigation the previous week after hearing complaints from residents about possible harassment and abuse by the former board members.
The Bellingham Police Department began their investigation of the misappropriation of funds after receiving information from Gustafson.
The investigation is in the early stages; no names have been released and no charges have been filed, according to Lt. Claudia Murphy of the Bellingham Police Department.
There will be no change in the daily operations at the recently opened tiny home encampment Unity Village, Murphy said.
Gustafson examined the bank statements of the organization and saw several transactions from ATM machines located near marijuana dispensaries and the Silver Reef Casino Resort. This led him to believe the funds were being misused, he said.
“It took us off guard that the president of the entire organization would do these kind of things,” Gustafson said, in reference to the board’s decision to remove Peterson.
Peterson and Duval did not respond to multiple efforts to contact them on the phone or via social media. Storrs said he had no comment regarding the Facebook post or criminal investigation.
“We were all devastated by this whole thing,” Carol Winikoff, HomesNOW! treasurer, said.
Winikoff, who said she was unaware of the suspected misused funds, said Gustafson has access to the organization’s online banking statements for their annual report and was able to start the investigation from there.
“I kind of messed up and didn’t check the addresses of every ATM machine where there were withdrawals,” Gustafson said.
Peterson and Duval would often show up to the camp with large amounts of food, marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia, according to residents Julie Anderson, Criss Clemens and Tina Hayes.
The residents did not initially suspect the apparent misuse of funds but did wonder how Peterson and Duval could afford those items, according to Anderson. However, everyone assumed the money was being well spent, she said.
“We’re not going to question where [things] are coming from when we’re getting a home,” Anderson said. “You don’t pay attention because you think it’s okay.”
Residents said they confided in Gustafson that Peterson, Duval and Storrs were all verbally abusive toward the residents, which prompted Gustafson’s internal investigation. Anderson, Clemens and Hayes each confirmed they had experienced or witnessed verbal abuse by Peterson and Storrs when the former board members visited the camp.
“All the residents told me that all three of them yelled at them and made them feel like they weren’t working hard enough or fast enough, or they didn’t want housing if they didn’t come to city council,” Gustafson said. “[Peterson] made comments to all the female residents which made them uncomfortable, like sexual jokes.”
Duval had informed Gustafson that the situation regarding Peterson and the resident had been taken care of, and they didn’t consider it to be sexual harassment, Gustafson said.
Peterson submitted a letter of resignation to the HomesNOW! board Monday morning before he was told he had been removed, according to Gustafson.
“Jim is mostly guilty of financial fraud,” Gustafson said, referencing the board’s decision to remove the three members. “Going forward into the future, every single month we’re going to have two board members review the transactions together, and they’ll both have to sign off on it.”
“Residents did not speak up sooner about these activities because they were afraid of losing their housing,” Gustafson said in the post.
Gustafson concluded his post with a letter collectively written by the residents of Unity Village.
“We were all very active in this investigation and the continued successful running of the program. We feel as a community that the investigation and decisions of the board were fair, justified and in line with what is best for us, the residents,” stated the letter by Unity Village residents.