The organization helps people experiencing homelessness advocate for themselves and their friends.
BY JOSHUA SOLORZANO
Nathan Gambrell found himself on the Bellingham streets living out of his backpack, seeing a relapse in his near future from an addiction he has steered clear from for more than 20 years. Gambrell was struggling with the hopelessness of homelessness which he thought surely would lead him back into drug addiction.
But everything changed for the better for Gambrell, he said, when he met Doug Gustafson, the chairman of HomesNow! Not Later, a nonprofit organization centered around building tiny home communities to battle the homelessness problem in Bellingham.
One village at a time
The organization, commonly referred to as HomesNow!, has been around since June 2017. It began by working with Lummi Stepping Stones a nonprofit on the Lummi Nation reservation, focused on addressing the unmet needs of Native Americans who are affected by homelessness on and off the reservation. The first thing HomesNow! did as an organization was help Lummi Stepping Stones build three tiny homes.
From there, HomesNow! managed Winter Haven, the first community created for their organization. Winter Haven operated from January to April 2019 as Bellingham’s first temporary tent community, located behind Bellingham City Hall.
Then, from April to August 2019, they managed Safe Haven, a temporary tent community located in the What-Comm 911 Call Center parking lot in the Sunnyland neighborhood.
“Unity Village” was their first tiny homes community at Fairhaven. It began with 20 fully-built 80-square-foot homes.
“We built our first community in Fairhaven about a year and a half ago. We’re the first two tiny home communities in Bellingham,” Gustafson said.
He said the important part about these communities is that they are resident-run. That also keeps it from being expensive.
Even the HomesNow! board is an absentee board; residents run the show. Gustafson said the communities don’t take government money, but are run fully by donations. They work with the city to get permits to place their communities, and the city also pays their utilities at Swift Haven. However at Unity Village the residents all chip in about $150 a month to pay the utilities.
Swift Haven, behind Civic Field on Puget Street, started in December 2020. It started as just tents in each tiny home spot until each home was built. HomesNow! now has 20 60-square-foot tiny homes at Swift Haven.
HomesNow!’s culture and democracy
Today, Gambrell is a resident and a site manager at Swift Haven. He said his role is not even that of a boss; he is more a leader, an example for the community.
Gambrell describes Swift Haven as having its “own culture, completely different from Unity Village’s culture. Each community has its own culture and rules completely different from each other where the residents build relationships.” What many of the people are looking for is just having a community once again and not being alone, he added.
Gambrell does not tell anyone what to do. If something needs to be decided on in the community, they have a unanimous decision. If they cannot reach that, then they have a vote. They are a democracy. Every Sunday the community meets, and they have a diner and make decisions on any issues, Gambrell said.
Criteria and process established
Members of a HomesNow! community must be homeless and pass a background check in which they must not have any violent offense or any sex crimes of any kind, Gambrell said.
HomesNow! and their communities are not just shelters for people experiencing homelessness. They offer an opening to a community and a return to something considered “normal life,” accompanied by some requirements.
“We’re considered a medium barrier,” Gambrell said, “as you must pass some criteria.” HomesNow! communities permit no drugs or alcohol on the premises. Residents cannot be drug addicted, but he said that it is not completely a barrier when starting with the organization.
Gambrell said some residents get connected with them and then they must go into detox. If someone is found using drugs on the premises, he would give them a UA (Urinary Analysis) test and then get them the help they need he said.
“We do not allow alcohol or drugs on the premises, so we hold each other accountable for that.” Gambrell said. At HomesNow!, they do not tell the residents they cannot drink but they cannot bring alcohol home, because for a lot of people just being around alcohol can be a trigger.
Insights on homelessness
Alcohol and drug addiction are a big factor as to why some become homeless, Gambrell said. But mental illness and overall trauma are really the underlying factors why people fall into addiction and then homelessness.
He said that every single person in Swift Haven has some kind of trauma.
“We’re all broken souls just working together to become better,” he said. Every woman resident has experienced sexual assault and so have some of the men. Many became homeless due to trauma and the only thing they can turn to is drugs, Gambrell said.
Gambrell said that he hasn’t used drugs since 1997, but believes that if he had not found the community and home that HomesNow! provided, he would have fallen back into addiction.
Michael Moynihan, a Swift Haven resident, said many homeless people in Bellingham are using drugs.
“Really, [for] people who use drugs it is because they have problems,” he said. Moynihan thinks the pandemic has contributed to drug use because people are isolated and missing the social aspects of life. Moynihan has also observed that the pandemic has made it easier for people who were antisocial to stay that way, and so they do not get support for their problems.
Meth has been a problem in Bellingham, but in the last 18 months Moynihan said he has seen fentanyl becoming a large issue. It has started to take many lives, but opioids in general are a big killer in comparison to meth. Meth deteriorates the mind, but opioids are what take lives, he said.
The journey continues
HomesNow! is doing something for Bellingham that is fairly new, with its focus on tiny homes and building new communities.
If HomesNow! continues to succeed in their journey of ending homelessness one tiny home at a time, then it could be possible that such communities for the homeless or even for people of all demographics could become a solution to expensive housing and provide an overall benefit for the world.
HomesNow! is a nonprofit organization, running on tax-deductible donations. To contribute to construction of tiny homes and to help end homelessness one tiny home at a time, information is available on its website.