Pushing back on the push-back on tiny home villages / Letter to Bellingham and Whatcom County officials

Click the still frame of a YouTube video of the Bellingham City Council Community and Economic Development Committee to access the recording of the May 24, 2021 meeting

March 26, 2021 Dena Jensen

Sent: Wednesday, May 26, 2021, 09:54:49 PM PDT

Subject: Pushing back on the push-back on tiny home villages

Dear Bellingham City Council, Mayor Fleetwood, Whatcom County Council, and County Executive Sidhu:

I recently listened to Bellingham City Council’s Monday, May 24, 2021 Community and Economic Development Committee meeting. I wanted to address comments made by a couple of the City Council Members after Whatcom County Health Department Human Services Manager Anne Deacon gave her presentation. The presentation was on the Health Department’s Recommendations for Consideration by the Homeless Strategies Workgroup that the now-disbanded workgroup had voted to recommend to Whatcom County Council for approval. 

Council Member Michael Lilliquist had expressed (https://youtu.be/rm6WAKCV4xs?t=2796) that he was not comfortable with one of the recommendations of: “No further investments in the number of taxpayer-supported tiny home encampment sites without in-depth research to ensure the need exists (vs. wants), and that the response is the best practice for the situation.” The Council Member voiced his perspective that tiny home villages create powerful offerings such as a personal space; autonomy; a sense of safety; a sense of space; a sense of belonging.   

Council Member Stone (https://youtu.be/rm6WAKCV4xs?t=2883) indicated she felt she had to push back on this perspective and went on to express that while she agreed that tiny homes offer these things, and that a sense of community and safety was positive, she also felt that tiny home villages are a more formalized form of an encampment and don’t support a transition to permanent housing. She conveyed that people stay more stagnant because they do feel safe and comfortable and they have developed a sense of community.

In turn, I would like to push back on a number of things being set forth in this critique of tiny home communities. First, and obviously, many people have transitioned to permanent housing from Whatcom County’s current tiny home communities. It’s also true that not all of them have.

If tiny home communities are offering benefits, such as stability, safety and personal well-being, how can we criticize the aspect of people seeming to appreciate this and wanting to sustain it? It seems more like the issue for us to look at critically is: what kind of permanent living situations are we trying to send people off to from the place where they have gained qualities of life that many of us desire, or relish, or take for granted? 

At the April 28, 2021 Bellingham City Club presentation, “Chronic Homelessness, A Nationwide Challenge,” there was an emphasis by the presenters that we should seek to address the expressed wants and needs of the “customer” – meaning the people who are actually chronically homeless. It was explained that, in general, people do not ask for a pill, a program, or a protocol – they ask for place, and that even for those who have been chronically homeless for a very long time – if they are given what they want, they will take it. From the experience of Tod Lipka, who specializes in providing permanent supportive housing, after the first year of individuals in this sector of the community getting into such housing, 97% remain there. 

Meanwhile, I believe adopting the approach that views the benefits of tiny home communities actually as drawbacks worthy of casting them as something trendy, needing more research, and presently undeserving of investment, comes at a great cost. I say this because no better options are being presented to us here in Whatcom County. With all the recommendations supplied by the Health Department, and passed on to our local governments by the HSW, there is very little in those recommendations that provide anything more substantial than previous years, in terms of sheltering options during this time when sufficient appropriate housing remains unavailable, likely for some number of years ahead.

So far, there seems to be only a specific type of severe weather shelters that will be planned for – ones that open on a night by night basis, ostensibly when there is no capacity at the Lighthouse Mission and their related overflow Winter Shelter, and temperatures are below 28 degrees. These shelters have proven to not be effective at sheltering an appreciable number of unsheltered community members and have operated for extremely limited periods of time during our often-freezing winters.

There has been nothing I have heard presented by the Health Department to lead to the belief that warming shelters, which have been the only severe weather shelters effective at serving a significant number of people during cold weather seasons, will be planned for. 

Therefore, other than an ineffective model for severe weather shelters, the only other proposed emergency winter weather shelter option included in Health Department recommendations is to extend the operating period of the overflow winter shelter by two months, which is an option that has largely proven to provide a better quality of sheltering for those who would ordinarily stay at Lighthouse Mission’s emergency shelter. On a day by day basis, winter overflow shelters, in many cases (and especially this last year), have not proven to actually shelter more people than the Lighthouse Mission normally would without them.

To sum things up, if you elected leaders continue to accept the recommendation to wait for any research to surface that would tell you the same thing that Council Members both in favor, and opposed to supporting more tiny home communities have said they have found to be positive attributes of that model, then we have zero proposed measures to improve sheltering for those who are chronically homeless and others in our community for whom Base Camp-affiliated options are not appropriate. 

If not tiny homes, and if no Homeless Strategies Workgroup, it is critical for you to come up with some resource and some plan, or it will be up to your highly-alert community once more, to assess the gaps, that did not make the list of gaps that the Health Department provided, and try to fill them again next winter, as best they can. There was so much criticism from City and County governments of the encampments which community members helped serve this last winter, that it would be surprising to learn that you all think tiny home communities are a worse option. 

At the last Homeless Strategies Workgroup meeting, Emily O’Connor of Lydia Place spoke after public comment was held, near the very end of the meeting, and urged fellow HSW members to address the issue of encampment sweeps. She expressed that none of those present wanted to see the same things happening again during the next cold weather season that had happened during this one. She said, “Let’s figure out what it is we can do better, so that we don’t perpetuate this issue.”

It is vital that you, in meaningful partnership with and encouragement of your community, take on that critical work so that we are not increasing the trauma and crises our unsheltered friends and neighbors are experiencing as a result of our past failures. 

Sincerely,

Dena Jensen

Birch Bay, WA




This email was sent to the following addresses:

—– Forwarded Message —–

From: dbobena@yahoo.com <dbobena@yahoo.com>

To: ccmail@cob.org <ccmail@cob.org>; Michael W. Lilliquist <mlilliquist@cob.org>; Hannah E. Stone <hestone@cob.org>; Hollie A. Huthman <hahuthman@cob.org>; Daniel C. Hammill <dchammill@cob.org>; Lisa A. Anderson <laanderson@cob.org>; Gene R. Knutson <gknutson@cob.org>; Pinky T. Vargas <ptmvargas@cob.org>; mayorsoffice@cob.org <mayorsoffice@cob.org>; council@co.whatcom.wa.us <council@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Todd Donovan <tdonovan@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Barry Buchanan <bbuchana@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Tyler Byrd <tbyrd@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Carol Frazey <cfrazey@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Rud Browne <rbrowne@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Kathy Kershner <kkershne@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Ben Elenbaas <belenbaa@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Satpal Sidhu <ssidhu@co.whatcom.wa.us>

Cc: Anne Deacon <adeacon@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Mike Hilley <mhilley@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Michael Shepard <michaels@portofbellingham.com>; eoconnor@lydiaplace.org <eoconnor@lydiaplace.org>; jasonm@nwys.org <jasonm@nwys.org>

Sent: Wednesday, May 26, 2021, 09:54:49 PM PDT

Subject: Pushing back on the push-back on tiny home villages