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Residents respond to relocation of HomesNOW! development

Richard Taldo exits his tiny home at Safe Haven on July 10. There were three occupied tiny homes, two for residents and one for the onsite office, while more tiny homes are in construction. // Photo by Alex Moreno By Alex Moreno A recent proposal to build tiny homes in Fairhaven by HomesNOW! has made it past the period of possible appeals after receiving approval from the city for Unity Village on July 10.  HomesNOW! Not Later is a nonprofit organization with the goal of advancing people experiencing homelessness into housing and employment through a Housing First approach in Bellingham.  “At any point in time, at least 700 people in Whatcom County are homeless,” according to the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness 2019 Annual Report. “Throughout the year, hundreds more face the prospect of losing their homes due to economic hardship, domestic violence and sexual assault, family break up, loss of employment and mental illness.”  HomesNOW! has advanced eight people through their program and into permanent housing, with another resident moving into housing this month.  As of July 10 there were three occupied tiny homes, two for residents and one for the onsite office, while more tiny homes are in construction.  [caption id="attachment_32535" align="aligncenter" width="691"] Jim Peterson, HomesNOW! president, and Rachel Duval, HomesNOW! vice president, sit in the first constructed tiny home on July 10. // Photo by Alex Moreno[/caption] “There is a misconception that everyone who is homeless wants to be homeless. I have 20 residents who can prove that wrong. I can prove that wrong,” Rachel Duval, vice president of HomesNOW! and previous resident, said. “There is this misconception that everyone who is homeless is a drug addict, I have 20 people and myself that can prove that wrong.” “They’ve had really good experiences and behavior in previous locations and it’s been nothing but positive, so that’s what we expect with this third one,” Brooks Anderson, president of Fairhaven Neighbors, said. “Even the chief of police was real clear in saying he was skeptical in the beginning when they started this, and now he’s totally positive about it and meets once a week with HomesNOW! leadership. If anything is a question or an issue they nip it in the bud.” HomesNOW! will be relocating on August 24 from their current site, Safe Haven, stationed in the Sunnyland neighborhood. The next site, Unity Village, will also be located in a parking lot owned by the city at 210 McKenzie Ave. near the train station in Fairhaven. The residents are permitted to stay until April 30, 2020, Duval said.   “HomesNOW! started at Winter Haven [HomesNOW!’s first location behind Bellingham City Hall] January 3, 2019,” Duval said. “ I was one of the first people to become a resident.”  Duval was the first person to find permanent housing after three and a half weeks at Winter Haven.  “We don’t have to fix the homeless,” Jim Peterson, president of HomesNOW!, said. “We just have to give them a safe space to look at themselves and fix themselves and give them some time.”  There are no paid employees at HomesNOW! and all operations are volunteer based.    When moving into tiny homes the residents will pay 10% or $150 per month, whichever is cheaper for them. This system is being implemented because a lot of the residents don’t remember how to pay bills or rent on time, so it helps get them back in the habit, Peterson said. This will not be an absolute requirement and exceptions can be made, Peterson added. This system will also help HomesNOW! become more self-sufficient as a community and not have to rely as heavily on donors to keep operating, Peterson said.  “[HomesNOW!] provides a sense of security and community,” Dan LaPlante, Winter Haven resident said. “I’m able to setup my Xbox and it helps me feel at home and cope with homelessness.”  The sense of community, security and safety are all aspects of HomesNOW! that residents appreciate and are able to grow through, David Morse, a HomesNOW! resident and onsite building supervisor for tiny homes, said.  “When people get here, you can see them relax and get in touch with themselves to realize what they need to do to get back into society,” Morse said. “Here it’s so different than just seeking shelter and food, because we are able to establish priorities and build our lives.”   There is a serious background process for HomesNOW! applicants to try and source people with high potential for success in finding housing and employment, Duval said.  “Every person had to go through interviews, background checks, get OK’d by the chief of police and have a warrant check, which is updated every week by the police,” Duval said.  “Every person here is very vetted.” Social compatibility is established through everyone having jobs here on site, Morse said. It’s a resident and volunteer-run operation, so residents are required to work 12 hours a week if unemployed and 6 hours a week if employed, Morse said.   Residents and organizers are excited about the move into tiny homes, because it will further help serve the feeling of security, home and safety along with better protecting against the elements, Peterson said.  Peterson explained the Housing First model is centered around stability and establishes a feeling of security.  “Homelessness is only one thing: being without a home,” Peterson said. “It doesn’t mean you’re an addict, mentally ill or need to be saved, it just means you don’t have a home. Give people a home and give them time to adapt to having a home and they will fix themselves and figure out what they need to do to move forward while in a safe place.” If someone isn’t safe and in unstable housing then they can’t think of anything but surviving, Peterson said. All people without housing can think of is where to sleep, where their next meal is coming from, where the cops aren’t going to bother them and how to keep possessions from getting stolen, Peterson said.  “We have realized tents don’t work for Washington or anywhere really,” Duval said. “Tents have no privacy. They’re for camping and short term use, not for living in.”  Many residents of Sunnyland were hesitant and fearful at first when HomesNOW! was moving in, Duval said. Most of the residents opened up to the new addition to the community quickly and now even help organize fundraisers for HomesNOW!, Duval added.  Sunnyland has helped open up the community to HomesNOW! and combat stigmas surrounding homelessness, Duval said.  Following a mandatory resident meeting every Sunday, each resident does a two block radius clean up of litter, Duval said.  “It’s a way to open up to the community and since this community is letting us be a part of the community, it’s our way of showing our respect, that we are grateful and keeping our area clean,” Duval said.  Safe Haven has been much better than anyone in Sunnyland could have predicted, Yvonne Vaughn said, who lives next door to Safe Haven.  “It’s very different from what you see downtown on Holly street and near the shelters,” Vaughn said. “It’s people you can tell are trying to change their lives for the better and deserve a second chance. We were against it at first. I have a seven-year-old daughter and we expected the worst from it at the start, but it’s been better than we could’ve expected.”   HomesNOW! has been accepted into Sunnyland for the most part but concerns from some Fairhaven residents and businesses are still present.  [caption id="attachment_32537" align="alignright" width="485"] David Morse, Safe Haven resident and onsite building supervisor of tiny homes, prepares wood for construction of tiny homes on July 10. “It’s given me my esteem back and helped me learn to encourage myself and others, while they’re also helping me,” Morse said. //Photo by Alex Moreno[/caption] There was a couple dozen residents in Sunnyland who were very concerned with HomesNOW! at the start of the project, Dannielle Amari, planning lead for HomesNOW!, said. “After they [concerned Sunnyland neighbors] came and visited here and saw what it was all about they changed their minds, for the most part, and would come back and bring cookies or just come hang out and talk with us,” Amari said. “We’ve actually had a lot of support from Fairhaven, but there are definitely a few who are nervous about it.”  The Fairhaven location is in a mostly industrial area but still has some nearby businesses.  “It hasn’t been too much on anyone’s mind yet,” Liz Park, an employee at Paws For a Beer, a nearby dog park and bar, said. “I don’t foresee any out of the ordinary problems. It shouldn’t influence beyond what’s already happening here in terms of a rise in present homelessness.”  The Fairhaven tiny homes location has the nearby waterfront, Marine Park, an off-leash dog area, a heron rookery and is close to the bus line.  Brian Conrad lives in an RV across the street from the Fairhaven location on a lot he owns and rents space for cars and boats. Conrad said he heard that there aren’t really any problems with the current location in Sunnyland, but still has concerns.  “I think it’s a lousy location, there is better places,” Conrad said. “It’s an industrial working area, not a camp for homeless [people]. HomesNOW! said they’ll keep other homeless people out of the area, but if the police can’t get people to leave after six months or two years than I don’t see why that’ll change.”  Kevin Schoenmakers is a design engineer at Cypress Designs, a manufacturing company located on the same block as the Fairhaven site. He has concerns, but thinks the operation could be positive if managed correctly, Schoenmakers said.  “Hopefully we don’t have issues with loitering,” Schoenmakers said. “We’re just trying to make money and we want our customers to feel welcome. There are already five or six homeless [people] that live in the area and police haven’t done much about it,” Schoenmakers said. “If people are respectful and don’t detract from others' experiences on the waterfront then it won’t be a problem.” According to Schoenmakers, he is concerned about liabilities for the business since they’ve previously had problems with people sleeping in their wood recycling bins and yelling obscenities and threatening them outside their business.  “There are concerns because there is already drug issues in that area. I’m confident that HomesNOW! is going to fix that. Our record shows that everywhere we’ve been we have increased security and actually decreased crime in that area,” Duval said. “We keep crime down, because we bring a whole community in that is going to push crime out.”  A recurrent hurdle for HomesNOW! is convincing nearby homeowners that the incoming residents will not negatively affect the area, Amari said.  Amari expressed that there are misconceptions about what Safe Haven does for people and visiting is the best way to understand it all.  “We’re not bringing people that are on drugs or have severe mental issues,” Amari said. “We are bringing the people that are working or disabled that just need a helping hand to get into housing. They’ll [nearby homeowners] see these are just normal people who are trying to get housing.”  The residents currently living at Safe Haven will be the same residents moving to the Fairhaven location. Safe Haven is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day with an open and encouraged invitation for tours, Amari said.  “If managed correctly it could be a really positive thing,” Schoenmakers said. “There has to be somewhere for people to go and if it’s safe for the public and safe for them that’s what’s best.”  HomesNOW! is a nonprofit and relies on donations for operations.  “Right now we have $60,000 and we need to reach $90,000,” Peterson said. “It costs anywhere between $3,500 to $4,000 to build our tiny homes.” Next year, HomesNOW! wants to operate four separate tiny home villages with 20 homes in each village. The goal is to have one for working and disabled residents, another for veterans,  another for women and another for families, Peterson said.  “We’ve proved that everything we said we could do, we have done,” Peterson said.   *A correction was made on July 21, 2019 to reflect the accuracy of a quotation from Brooks Anderson to "nip it in the bud."

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