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Thursday, May 28, 2020

City helps Unity Village find new location

A “HomesNOW! Not Later…” sign sitting on a pile of pallets at SafeHaven, HomesNOW!’s previous location, on May 6, 2019. // Photo by Zack Jimenez.

By Aryonna Willoughby

Unity Village, HomesNOW!’s third temporary encampment, will be moving to a new location with the help of the city of Bellingham.

On Jan. 17, newly elected Bellingham mayor, Seth Fleetwood, directed city staff to help find a new site for Unity Village.

Unity Village, a temporary encampment made up of 20 tiny homes, was created by the non-profit, HomesNOW! to help shelter people experiencing homelessness.

The current permit requires Unity Village to vacate 210 McKenzie Ave. by April 30. Prior to the city’s assistance, residents and supporters of Unity Village advocated for an extension of the current permit.

Now, the city and HomesNOW! are focusing on finding a new location.

Doug Gustafson, co-founder and chairman of HomesNOW!, met with Bellingham City Planner Rick Sepler and police chief David Doll on Jan. 17 during their weekly meeting. Gustafson learned the city would help find a new site for Unity Village, Gustafson said in a video HomesNOW! posted to Facebook.

“This is a victory for HomesNOW!, the city of Bellingham and the people in our community,” Gustafson said. “We are thrilled …  Peace of mind is important and nobody, including myself, knew what was going to happen.”

Former mayor, Kelli Linville, said the city had previously provided HomesNOW! with three different sites and it was no longer the city’s responsibility to find a new one, Sepler said via email.

“A key component of the successful approval process for this project was the assurance to neighbors that the project end-date was firm and could not be extended,” Sepler said.

HomesNOW! is seeking to raise $20,000 to move current infrastructure and build new facilities at the new site once it’s found. Habitat for Humanity has agreed to provide two free tiny homes for Unity Village’s new site, Gustafson said.

The new location of Unity Village has not been determined. Sepler said city staff anticipates making a recommendation to the mayor this week. There was discussion about the previous Clean Green site, located on Lakeway Drive and Woburn Street, as a possibility, Dee said.

Clean Green was a program that the city shut down in 2016 to help residents get rid of tree limbs, grass clippings and leaves collected from their properties, according to an article by The Bellingham Herald.

The city-owned lot would have to be fully vetted by the city, which includes factors such as the long-term availability and sustainability of the site. Public health and safety will also be other considerations while vetting for the new site, Sepler said.

Gustafson said Sepler told him the new site Unity Village moves to should be able to host them for two years, the maximum amount of time a temporary encampment can reside on city land under city ordinances. None of HomesNOW!’s previous encampments have occupied a site for two years.

To avoid two nonfunctioning sites, HomesNOW! plans to build on the new site and gradually move existing buildings and equipment from the old site, Gustafson said. The moving plan ensures both sites will have full facilities, including a kitchen tent, dining tent and portable toilets. The plan also guarantees current residents won’t be left on the streets during the transition.

“The [full] name of the group is HomesNow! Not Later,” Vice-chairman of HomesNOW! Markis Dee said. “If I have a home sitting empty for any length of time and somebody sitting on the street, that doesn’t equate.”

The proposed moving plan is estimated to cost more than moving all the buildings at once, but Gustafson is hopeful that it will decrease the amount of stress that is involved with moving.

“When we moved last time it was really stressful,” Gustafson said. “It was too much, too fast.”

HomesNOW! has raised approximately $1,500 of the needed $20,000 through a Facebook donation page. HomesNOW! is also looking for volunteers to help during the move.

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