On Rick Roddey’s second night in his home at Gardenview Village, he grilled 20 steaks for residents, community volunteers and himself.
“I hadn’t had real steak for three years, almost. And I’m like, I’m gonna go get steak,” Roddey laughed, as he sat on a metal chair near the grill he cooked the steaks on. The setup is part of an outdoor furniture set that comprises the smoking area next to the community kitchen and the craft and computer rooms.
It’s just a small corner of the roughly half-acre lot that will eventually feature 35 tiny homes. The first homes opened for residents to occupy the week of Oct. 18.
Gardenview Village, located on Woburn Street near Bellingham’s Bayview Cemetery, is operated by the local nonprofit Road2Home which was formed two years ago by a group associated with the Unity Village temporary tiny home community in Fairhaven. The founders pursued a pool of city money not being tapped into by nonprofits to provide housing options to people without housing.
A year ago, when the City of Bellingham sought to develop a supervised tiny home village, Road2Home applied in partnership with the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a larger nonprofit. The city owns the property and funded the project through local and federal funds, according to their website. Road2Home’s president Melissa Bird said they liked LIHI’s tiny home setups and, since LIHI is also a housing developer, she hopes to develop more low-income housing projects in the city.
Tiny home, major move
The 35 tiny homes are a step towards more permanent housing for residents, Bird said. While there’s no limit to how long residents can stay, Bird said the idea is that they, with the help of case managers, will be working towards finding a permanent home.
Construction is still underway, at an estimated cost of about $575,000, said City of Bellingham Planning and Community Development director Tara Sundin. Twenty tiny homes were donated by Whatcom County with additional funds coming from the city’s Real Estate Excise Tax for Affordable Housing and Road2Home funds and Road2Home volunteer labor to build 12-16 tiny houses.
Sundin said that the city has budgeted $550,000 in annual operating costs from its Community Development Block Grant and General Funds to provide 24/7 staffing, case management and other needs of the village.
“Tiny house villages are the most cost-effective shelter model per household when compared to other shelters, with a high success rate of moving people into permanent housing,” said Jon Grant, chief strategy officer of LIHI. He cited statistics related to the 2,801 people sheltered in tiny homes since 2015 in Seattle, which has one of the largest unsheltered and unhoused populations in the nation.
A much better night’s sleep
Since Roddey moved in, things are already getting better for him. He said Gardenview is “amazingly different” and is sleeping much better.
Before he came to “the village,” as he calls Gardenview, he stayed at the Lighthouse Mission shelter for the better part of the past few years. Roddey struggled with addiction and heart problems, and said the shelter saved his life. He stopped using drugs, his heart health improved and he became a volunteer in the shelter and helped with daily cleaning.
Now that he’s living in the village and not volunteering at the shelter, he has lots of time to help keep the community clean. Walking through the rows of tiny homes, he knelt to pick up a hairband, on the lookout to keep the space spotless.
But Bird said Roddey and the other residents can sit back and relax because Road2Home has plenty of community volunteers working to create the village. Brad Baldwin, volunteer construction manager, stepped up in late August to help construct the tiny homes, after the original construction manager stepped away with other responsibilities.
Baldwin said there are 10 to 12 volunteers who show up every day to work on the homes. He thinks the village is a positive step forward in addressing the homelessness crisis in the city.
“I’ve gained a lot out of it,” Baldwin said, referring to the camaraderie he has formed with other volunteers.
The camaraderie is felt throughout the village. It’s quiet, as folks walk around enjoying a cigarette or morning coffee, chatting outside their homes.
From tough times to the village
The atmosphere is a change from Roddey’s experience at the shelter. He regards his time there fondly but doesn’t mince words about the reality of living in a shelter.
He found being surrounded by folks struggling with their own addictions and their mental and physical health problems draining. If Roddey left the shelter for a few days and didn’t check in, he said he lost all his stuff when the shelter made room for others.
COVID-19 added further complications to living there.
“It was just mentally and emotionally taxing,” Roddey said. “It was really tough, sometimes. People died and you can’t even mourn about it.”
In his time living at the shelter, Roddey said, he saw five people die, not all from COVID-19.
He also stayed in a motel to quarantine. The stay drained his savings, with which he was planning to either buy a car or secure housing. He always went back to the shelter for a place to stay. One day he heard about the village from a shelter staff member.
“When I found out about this place, I got on a bus and I rode here to see [it], I knew where it was gonna be,” Roddey said. He found the tiny homes already being built and decided he needed to get in.
At the shelter, Roddey had started setting goals, and found that once he started doing that, he got things done. After he set goals to find housing and to get a driver’s license, he accomplished both in one day — the day he was accepted to live in the village, he was out getting his license.
Because the village provides kitchen supplies for residents to use and items to set up a home, Roddey said he can now use his savings to buy a car.
“All that money stashed, I don’t have to buy kitchen stuff, or sheets or blankets or anything. I could buy another beater with a heater. That’s all I want,” Roddey said.
Besides buying the car, his next goal is to get reacquainted with his children and grandchildren.
An older, fragile majority
Roddey is 58 years old, so in the village, he’s part of the majority. Three-quarters of the residents are 55 and older or medically fragile. Bird said Gardenview supports folks who are in failing health and have nowhere else to go.
For older people who are living sober and who don’t receive enough Social Security to afford housing, there aren’t many places to go, Roddey said.
The Gardenview community is drug- and alcohol-free, Bird said. People aren’t tested for entry but monitored based on behavior. Many people have worked hard to achieve sobriety, he noted, and they didn’t want to put that at risk. Roddey expressed appreciation for this practice.
“Every day is a miracle, every day is a blessing,” Roddey said. “It’s better than no days.”
Bird said Road2Home will refer residents to services that can help them stay sober, adding that a big part of sobriety can be getting someone housed.
“Getting off the street, stopping that cycle of trauma can really help with their substance use,” Bird said.
At the village, staff are present 24/7 for assistance, Bird said. Road2Home also provides case management to residents.
Filling the ‘poverty of community’
Roddey is glad to be living in the village, but he does miss his friends at the shelter, some of whom he visited on Halloween. Their first question to him was, when are you going to come back to volunteer? He said he will eventually go back and help.
“It needs to be done,” he said.
Volunteers can help through Road2Home’s community ally program which pairs a volunteer with someone experiencing homelessness, and the Gardenview ally program which pairs a volunteer with a village resident. Volunteers help with case management paperwork but also enjoy activities like roller skating, having coffee or seeing a baseball game together.
“It’s just kind of filling that hole of the ‘poverty of community,'” Bird said. “It’s really breaking down the stereotypes, having our community at large be able to support this population.”
Bird said the neighborhood surrounding the village has been very supportive, mentioning a woman who reached out through Facebook to offer clothing and food donations when Bird posted that there was a need.
Roddey said he hopes to see more of these villages in Bellingham, and Baldwin said he’d love to help make those happen. Bird said Road2Home doesn’t have any concrete plans for another village yet, but they’d like to explore different and potentially permanent housing options.
— Reported by Lauren Gallup
We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in the Salish Current. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (firstname.lastname@example.org) and he will respond with guidelines.