Whatcom County is nestled between the Salish Sea, Mount Baker and Canada, about 100 miles north of Seattle. By most accounts, it is an idyllic location: a university town (Bellingham), agriculture, outdoor recreation, a beautiful climate. But it has problems too, including ever-increasing homelessness.
In June 2017 Doug Gustafson and I founded HomesNOW! Not Later, a 100 percent volunteer program headquartered in Bellingham. As a homeless activist and having been homeless myself for 17 years, I saw that despite the efforts of local organizations, the homeless situation was worsening, and overnight shelters could not come close to providing a solution. One of the primary goals of our organization is housing first with social services following.
With this in mind, in the first few months we collaborated with the Lummi nation (and their social services agency Lummi Stepping Stones) to build two tiny homes on the reservation, immediately house two individuals and do it all with volunteer labor and at a cost of $2,000 per unit. Since that time we have envisioned a pilot project of six tiny homes (bedrooms) with a central common-use building. One of our local contractors graciously has designed it and is willing to construct at cost. We are currently negotiating with the county and Bellingham to find property to place the pilot project.
Our work does not end with just housing. Since last summer we have held monthly homeless summits in either a city park or donated day space to provide clothing, gear and a meal (completely provided by our Sikh community). The summit allows homeless people to talk with us about their needs, and for the community-at-large to hear those needs and determine in what way they can assist.
From Dec. 1–18, we organized a homeless tent encampment on Bellingham City Hall grounds. This was done to visually highlight the issue to the public, and also ask for six items to be provided by the city: 1) public portable toilets and 2) dumpsters to be strategically located in the city for homeless people to use, 3) a place to build secure storage for belongings, 4) safe places for people who live in their vehicles to park, 5) safe places to camp, and 6) land for the pilot project. After negotiations with the City Council, administration and police department, we have accomplished the first four.
In late March we opened our office in a shared workspace. We now have the ability to hold and host meetings, be a central information hub and begin to research and analyze information gathered from our homeless community to concentrate our efforts in the short and long term. With the permission of the landlord, we have created the “Garden of Eating” (two raised garden beds) with fruits and vegetables to be grown for homeless people to take for free, a place to sit and rest, and a book box.
We are reviewing and contesting county and city ordinances that may be discriminatory and a burden on the homeless community.
We have opened dialogues with local governments and law enforcement, Western Washington University, community and technical colleges, faith communities, communities of color, the tribes, farm workers, social service agencies (government and nonprofit), neighborhood associations, businesses, the community-at-large and, most importantly, seniors, adults, college students and children impacted by a lack of permanent housing. Our dialogues have been productive and at times rancorous.
We are in the planning stages of a countywide activist summit to bring these groups together in coordination. New collaborations are being formed now and hopefully as a result of the summit will take on specific projects and tasks. And we don’t waiver from our ultimate goal of a home for everyone.
Homelessness is solvable. Compassion, persistence and focus are the keys.
We invite you to visit with us at our website, our Facebook page, our monthly summits or at the office.
Jim Peterson is the president of HomesNOW! Not Later.
Wait, there's more. Check out the full June 13 - June 19 issue.
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