Tent City Now, But Where Next?

Tucked behind Bellingham City Hall, built in 1938, is a temporary community established in 2019. At 210 Lottie St., a chain-link fence surrounds a parking lot, where cars have been replaced by tents atop wooden pallets. The tents house the 22 residents of Winter Haven, a new homeless community in operation from January to April.

Bellingham nonprofit HomesNOW! received a permit to operate Winter Haven on a trial basis after a 21-month search for other sites proved futile. The site is just a block away from where homeless people and supporters camped out in protest in front of city hall for 18 days in December 2017. Their request? A temporary tent city they could call their own.

After the unsuccessful search, Bellingham City Council voted unanimously last November to support the encampment, located steps away from where the council holds its regular meetings and where officials run the city. Rick Sepler, Bellingham Planning and Community Development director, says the council’s actions have shown they’re willing to put the homeless—and a troubling problem—front and center. Also, if residents break the rules of the encampment, such as those barring drug or alcohol use, the onus is on the city. Sepler says the city is taking a chance by using city property to shelter Winter Haven. “But it’s a good chance,” Sepler says.

Sepler says the city’s intention is not to have the encampment here permanently. He says Mayor Kelli Linville and Whatcom Country are researching what to do after the city permit expires in April.

HomesNOW! raised $11,000 to help fund Winter Haven, which opened Jan. 3. Last year, Bellingham spent $4.9 million on homeless aid. “It’s premature to conclude this is the least expensive way of addressing the issue,” Sepler says. “If the volunteers are willing to continue putting in the time, the city is thankful. But it’s hard to continue a tent city like this without paid staff.”

The mission of the nonprofit is to address basic human needs of homeless individuals and help them in the process of getting back on their feet. Amy Dorsey, 49, has been homeless for three years. She says Winter Haven was the answer to her prayers.

Residents like Dorsey had to submit an application, get a free background check by the Bellingham Police Department, and be interviewed by a social worker before being approved. Dorsey says after going through the application process she checked her phone daily in hopes of good news.

“When they told me I was in I started crying and dropped to the floor,” Dorsey says. “That was the only thing I was waiting for.”

Residents cook meals, keep the site clean, and do community chores. Winter Haven features portable toilets, access to the HomesNOW! shower truck, a covered kitchen with an abundance of food like bread and fruit, and an outdoor grill. The organization’s president Jim Peterson says he is there to provide the basics and the rest is up to the residents.

“I’ve had them ask me what they should be doing and I say, ‘You live here. It’s your house. What do you want to do?’” says Peterson, talking from the site’s common area in January. The once-homeless Peterson is living on site, sleeping and working from a trailer, where each morning he updates the Winter Haven Facebook page detailing wants and needs of residents.

Local community members have been eager to help. Every Sunday, Whatcom County’s Sikh community provides a vegetarian meal to Winter Haven residents. County councilmember Satpal Sidhu helped facilitate the arrangement. “We’re very happy to have the opportunity to provide the service,” Sidhu says. “It’s a tradition of the Sikh community to give back. We’re just trying to do our part.”

Less than one month into the project, Peterson says it has gone better than expected. But it’s a temporary fix. While he has been in talks with the city about plans beyond April, his ultimate goal is to build tiny-home villages both in the city and the county to help Whatcom County’s homeless population, which currently stands at 815, according to the county’s annual census.

“When I said that was my goal two months ago people thought I was crazy and I said, ‘No, not really,’” Peterson says. “We’ve got momentum going. We’ve got the community’s eye now.”

To donate to HomesNOW!, contact Peterson at 360.319.2150 or through Winter Haven Tent Community’s Facebook page.

Be sure to check out our article on Friendship House, a non-profit that provides shelter to the homeless in Skagit County by clicking here.

"'If the volunteers are willing to continue putting in the time, the city is thankful. But it’s hard to continue a tent city like this without paid staff.'"