Charlie Storr (Photo by Mallory Biggar)
The City of Bellingham has approved a permit for HomesNOW!, a local volunteer-based nonprofit, to move their Winter Haven project into spring.
Winter Haven is a safe camping site for the homeless with 20 tents of either single or double occupancy, according to the HomesNOW! website. Residents of Winter Haven underwent a rigorous application process and were required to follow a strict code of conduct once accepted onto the site.
Safe Haven, the official name of the new encampment, will be up and running Wednesday, April 3, pending an appeals process following the Winter Haven encampment, according to the permit issued by the city.
HomesNOW! President Jim Peterson said Safe Haven’s mission is to get as many people housed as possible, and give them a safe place to be in the meantime.
“Our encampment is safe, it’s secure, you can leave your stuff in your tent and go look for a job, or go to your doctor’s appointments without carrying all your stuff around,” Peterson said.
This temporary tent encampment will be located at 620 Alabama St., in part of the parking lot of the What-Comm Dispatch Center. It will operate for 90 days with an opportunity for two 30-day extensions, provided that all of the requirements provided by the city are met, according to the permit.
Similar to Winter Haven, Safe Haven will require people to go through an application process in order to be admitted to the site. Applicants will be accepted based on how well they will be able to live in a community setting, according to the HomesNOW! website.
According to the Safe Haven Handbook and Code of Conduct, the site will be drug and alcohol free, with an exception for prescription drugs. No resident under the influence will be allowed on the site. Residents are responsible for the cleanliness of their space as well as common areas. Firearms and knives longer than 3.5 inches are not allowed on the site.
According to letters submitted during the two-week public comment period, some members of the Sunnyland community expressed concern about the encampment moving to their neighborhood.
Peterson said he is very familiar with concerns like those raised in the letters.
“We have about 80% support for [the encampment], but it’s the 20% that’s really loud,” Peterson said. “[Safe Haven will] get the community to see that not all homeless people are drug addicts or mentally ill and we’re not bad people. We’re just other human beings — we’re your neighbors.”
According to letters submitted to Lisa Pool, senior planner for the City of Bellingham, some of the concerns raised ranged from issues with public safety, to litter in the nearby park. One letter submitted by Jonalyn Hudson, a mother of a young family residing in the Sunnyland Neighborhood, expressed concerns.
“When the patrons of the camp don’t feel like being supervised, where are they going to go?” Hudson’s letter said. “Rent a porta-potty and dumpster and leave it to go uncollected so that human feces, syringes, clothes and broken furniture are strewn about the area? The neighborhood kids run in Sunnyland park barefoot.”
Some residents like Josh Parrish, who has volunteered at temporary encampments hosted by churches in the area, feel differently.
“When I saw the notice about this Temporary Shelter Permit I was encouraged,” Parrish’s letter said. “For too long it seems the default response to homelessness in Bellingham was to turn a blind eye. I fully support the use of this property for temporary shelter, and I commend those involved with this project.”
Pool said the city received emails and letters from about 71 people during the public comment period before residents and businesses were informed of the permit’s approval. Though every comment was taken into consideration, according to Pool, the permit adequately addresses concerns. No appeals have been filed in the 14-day appeals period, which ended April 2 at 5 p.m.
“From the city’s perspective, we feel as if the permit has been conditioned appropriately,” Pool said. “It should not have a negative impact on the residents of the encampment or the surrounding community, so we feel as if the concerns that were raised have been appropriately addressed.”
Rachel Duval, now a board member and public liaison for HomesNOW!, said Winter Haven has changed her life completely.
“I went homeless two-and-a-half, almost three years ago,” Duval said. “I moved to Bellingham with my family, and I was living with them, but I wanted to do it on my own. The only way to do that was to be homeless because I didn’t have anything on my own yet. So I found Winter Haven, and it was amazing.”
Duval said there are five residents, including herself, who found housing through Winter Haven.
“Within three weeks of being at Winter Haven I had found housing,” she said. “I was the first resident to get housing, but I wasn’t the last. We’ve housed three other people, and this week we’re going say goodbye to another resident because she’s found housing as well.”
Now that Duval has found housing, she said her goal is to help others who were in her situation, and she wants the community to know that they can help too.
“People always say they don’t know what to do to help, but it’s the little things,” she said. “Coming down and talking to the residents, letting them be able to tell their stories sometimes help them open up and helps them feel like they haven’t been lost or forgotten.”
This article was corrected on April 5, 2019 to clarify that the public comment period occurred before the permit's approval.