Local advocates for the unhoused are publicly releasing a draft plan they believe is the solution to drastically reducing homelessness in Whatcom County — and they hope local government will adopt and fund it.
The plan, called the “Big Lift,” outlines a step-by-step model for addressing the homeless crisis. It includes declaring the issue a public health emergency, identifying available funding and detailing a plan to build tiny home shelter villages that offer access to comprehensive services.
The ‘Big Lift’ calls for streamlining individuals through a multi-phase transition into housing from emergency sheltering to temporary tiny home villages and eventually into permanent, affordable units or home ownership.
“This is an ask for government to do their work and this is the proposal for the work they should do,” said Markis Dee of Whatcom County’s Serenity Outreach Services, a group dedicated to shelter, outreach and wraparound services for unhoused people.
Emphasizing this plan is a draft, Dee told The Herald that comments were welcomed and many details still need to be fleshed out.
The plan was drafted by members of the group with input from Bellingham Tenants Union and local candidates for government, Elizabeth Darrow and Atul Deshmane, running for a Bellingham City Council seat and a Whatcom County Council position, respectively.
In a written statement to The Bellingham Herald, Deshmane said in part:
“At least locally, specific ideas on how to address the (housing) crisis are missing. So the group of us decided to put down something concrete, garner community support, the support of candidates, and hopefully people currently controlling our local government. The Big Lift is bold but we need bold action. We welcome input and contributions to the draft. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute on this important issue.”
The plan proposes an emergency sheltering center to stabilize unhoused individuals in Whatcom County using four villages, each with 25 tiny homes and a central building for food, facilities and services.
Dee suggested purchasing the tiny home shelters from the Everett-based company Pallet. Each cost about $12,000, with a total cost of $1.2 million for the 100 suggested tiny homes, according to Dee.
“This isn’t experimental,” Dee said. “We need to push forward now with proven housing-first models.”
Tiny home villages have historically shown a high rate of rehousing among residents.
Three tiny home villages for the homeless currently operate on city-owned land in Bellingham, including Unity Village and Swift Haven, operated by HomesNOW!, and Gardenview Village, which is operated in partnership between the Low Income Housing Institute and Road2Home.
“I am proud to have been invited to the table to draft the Big Lift alongside housing organizers and community members. Policy that moves forward without community integration and input will not solve our housing issues, nor will choosing one or two simple fixes. The housing crisis is a complex issue, intersecting with racial equity, poverty and the climate crisis,” Darrow said in a written statement to The Bellingham Herald.
“The Big Lift offers a housing landscape that addresses this problem from many different angles, with [the] impacted community at the center. We need to use the resources already available to us to provide a range of emergency sheltering and permanently affordable housing for all people in Bellingham,” Darrow said.
This draft plan comes after the release of the 2023 Point-in-Time Count which showed homelessness in Bellingham and Whatcom County increased substantially this year, reaching an all-time high and topping 1,000 people for the first time.
Dee said the plan evolved from an original idea that was presented to the city ahead of the clearing of a homeless encampment in front of city hall in January 2021. The clearing prompted protests and community outrage.
Bellingham council member Kristina Michele Martens also recently brought forward a draft resolution at a meeting on June 26 affirming that housing and homelessness are a public health crisis.
Read the full draft plan here: