Providing a Safe Haven for the Homeless

by Doug Gustafso

Editor’s Note:
There are over 100 organizations in Whatcom County working to provide supportive services to those experiencing chronic poverty and its associated effects: addiction, homelessness, incarceration, mental illness, and unemployment. Whatcom Watch believes these organizations often labor unnoticed by citizens — this column is designed to add daylight to their endeavors. We have contacted the organization appearing in this column and asked them to explain their mission. Because, in challenging times, being inspired and perhaps empowered by the acts of others is more important than ever.

The mission of HomesNOW is “Ending Homelessness One Person at a Time.” Currently, Homes-NOW is uniquely qualified to set up additional sites in partnership with the city of Bellingham for a multitude of reasons, including the low cost of the model, the speed at which new sites can be set up, the qualifications of the management team of HomesNOW, the individualized approach and consistent innovation that our model implements, our constant engagement and clear and open lines of communication with the city and the community in general, as well as the results that we’ve been able to achieve in the time that HomesNOW has been in operation since June 2017.

HomesNOW is an all-volunteer organization, with no paid staff, and we do not take government money, but we have asked for spots/sites on which to build future villages.

Unity Village is the first tiny home community for formerly homeless individuals in Bellingham, and is managed by Homes-NOW. Many of the residents of Unity Village were campers before they became residents, and most of them have been cleared on multiple occasions when they were stuck in the cold.

Because Unity Village was able to provide emergency/triage and transitional housing, we have not only prevented people from having to camp (reducing the cost of cleanups for the city), we have also provided better outcomes for individuals through an increased quality of life. On top of that, we have over a 40 percent rehousing rate, meaning 40 percent of our residents have found permanent housing. And, that rate is rising. Having the ability to quickly and efficiently provide even the most basic housing for people will result in seeing fewer camps in town, and thus fewer cleanups, allowing those funds to go toward something more meaningful.

Residents Run the Village
These results have been achieved through a model of self-sufficiency, and self-management — in other words, the villagers run the village together, working with the board/staff/volunteers to get the best results for daily life at the village, as well as helping people into permanent housing.

HomesNOW has no paid staff, and the whole village costs around $1,500 per month to operate. Residents willingly donate monthly, based on ability to pay to cover the cost of utilities.

We have three on-site managers who are also residents, similar to an apartment complex where management often lives at the apartment. However, we encourage residents and staff to be upfront with each other and speak to each other directly when issues arise.

The reason why we go with a self-management approach, and why we avoid the paid staff model, is because we think that it’s more effective for finding regular housing. When somebody is homeless and they are trying to get their own long-term place, if the environment is conducive to them having to be independent, manage themselves, work with others, get their own paperwork, find their own services (with our support, of course), it is much more conducive to them getting out of survival mode, and being successful in finding housing, because, once they find that housing, that’s what they’re going to have to do on their own.

What HomesNOW mostly provides is a stable place to get things back together again, so you can move on with your life. We try as hard as possible to keep it simple, make sure people are freed up to do what they need to do and can maintain their independence. This means they spend time working to improve their own outcomes, without unneeded interference, or too many hoops to jump through internally.

I also want to make clear for those who don’t know that the Unity Village and HomesNOW model is not a low-barrier shelter. We aren’t high barrier, either. We can help those who still have some serious issues, but people who are at least stable on a daily basis. We also don’t have a segregated program (like only men, only women, only veterans or only families), although everybody who lives at the village has to be an adult. Children are allowed to visit as guests (such as family members), though.

The villagers take part in forming their own rules for the village, within the framework of what we’re required to do under the law and agreements that have been made in our permit. This means each person who lives there has a say and a stake on being able to change policies and rules where it makes sense.

Screening Process
We also have a screening process for when we let new people in. A person who wants to live at the village has to apply on our website — if they don’t have a computer or a phone, we will fill out their application with them. If an application looks promising, we do an interview over the phone. After the interview, we receive a picture of the applicant’s driver’s license or ID, and we send to Bellingham Police Chief David Doll to check for active warrants. We also do our own background checks as well.

Once that process is complete, the applicant is invited to a community meal and “meet and greet” with all of the residents. The residents, as well as the staff, each have one vote, and we all decide whether the person will be a good fit or not. Typically, we vote yes because we think people deserve a chance. This process has been smoother than what we had done in the past (during which the board would decide exclusively whether to let somebody in or not to live there).

Our goal is to build housing and get people housed as quickly as possible and end homelessness.

Homelessness will only continue to get worse if current policies regarding homeless camp sweeps/cleanups aren’t changed to provide options to those in need. There must be a way to prevent camps from forming in the first place. Put very simply, if most of these campers had housing, they would not be camping. Remember, when a camp is cleared, it doesn’t go away. Because the person has not been housed, they simply set up camp somewhere else. Then, eventually, they are moved along, once again, and the cycle repeats.

HomesNOW has been pushing for increased shelter capacity for years. As an organization, we have been eager to set up additional villages. A few weeks ago, we submitted a proposal to the city of Bellingham to set up a second tiny home village at the former Safe Haven location at 620 Alabama Street in the Sunnyland neighborhood. The city denied our proposal and instead asked for an RFQ (request for qualifications). We are being asked to compete with other sheltering agencies in order to prove we are qualified to manage city sites— sites like Unity Village, which we have been managing under the city’s watchful eye for the past two years. This requirement will only slow a cumbersome process even further.

Had this RFQ been in place two years ago, HomesNOW would not exist and there would be no Unity Village, because one of the qualifications is two years experience with sheltering. The city is effectively eliminating new organizations, such as the collective/cooperative at city hall or a new nonprofit, from providing homeless shelters. These barriers and bureaucratic processes are counterproductive because they push the ability to help people further and further out of reach.

Ultimately, I hope the city and county will take swift action, get experimental, and embrace multiple sheltering agencies and community members in an effort to provide future shelters and villages for different segments of the homeless population. For the sake of the entire community, I hope it happens soon. Pull quotes: Our goal: get people housed as quickly as possible and end homelessness. When a camp is cleared, it doesn’t go away. HomesNOW is an all-volunteer organization. The city is effectively eliminating new organizations.

Doug Gustafson is chairman of HomesNOW! Not Later, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization operating in Bellingham and Whatcom County. HomesNOW operates Unity Village, the first tiny home community for homeless individuals in Bellingham. Doug is also a small business owner providing community IT support and has lived in Bellingham since 2006.

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