About 2 weeks ago I learned of an incident involving Jim Peterson (Former President of HomesNOW) in which Jim attempted to start a sexual relationship with one of the residents of Unity Village (the tiny home community that our organization manages). This behavior involved inappropriate sexual comments toward a resident and lewd comments to other female residents.
Rachel Duvall, former Vice-President of HomesNOW informed me of this attempted relationship and indicated that the situation was “already taken care of” and also that it wasn’t considered sexual harassment because the attempted relationship was mutual. I was not satisfied with that answer because I did not have all the facts and I had more questions than answers. I chose to directly speak to the resident in order to get her side of the story of what happened.
The resident in question was led on by Jim, being told that he and his wife Carol had decided to separate (Carol was unaware of this) and that Jim and the Resident could start their relationship soon after the second camp was set up. Over time the conversation steered toward more overt sexual comments and propositioning for sex.
The resident also informed me that it was taken care of by 3 board members (Jim, Rachel, and Charlie) and that she was told that the entire board approved of the course of action (which was to have business as usual, and to keep everything quiet but that Jim and the resident would not contact eachother anymore).
Finding out that a decision was made on behalf of the entire board when only 3 board members knew about it at all, made the rest of the board (Carol, Lizzy and I) concerned, and we felt that something wasn’t right.
After this, we decided to open an internal investigation into possible misconduct from some of the leadership of HomesNOW. When I informed the entire board of this internal investigation (Sunday September 22nd), Jim and Rachel immediately left Unity Village and claimed to be taking a 1 week long vacation.
However, as part of the contract with the City, a HomesNOW staff member must be on-site 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Since Jim and Rachel had left, I had to step in to manage the camp in their absence, it was unplanned. Since I was on-site for the week, I continued to investigate.
I spoke to every resident of Unity Village, and some common patterns emerged. Residents described being regularly yelled at and mistreated by Jim, Rachel and Charlie. Residents described regular fights and yelling between Jim and Rachel. Residents also described that the sexual comments from the leadership made them feel uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, that was just the tip of the iceberg. Another common pattern that emerged, was residents asking about money. They were wondering if the money for the organization was spent wisely. I obviously thought so, because for around $150,000, we were able to build 20 Tiny Homes and provide basic services.
Residents provided information indicating that significant funds were spent on personal items for Jim and Rachel, including an array of bongs, cigarettes/tobacco and marijuana purchases. Residents also stated that Jim and Rachel regularly enjoyed going to the casino for fun. Rachel claimed to not be aware of the misappropriation of funds, but had accompanied Jim at the casino and marijuana shops.
When I was made aware of this information, I decided to check the bank statements, to make sure that HomesNOW money (your generous donations) was not spent on this type of activity. What I found was deeply disturbing. I found evidence of Fraud. There was thousands of dollars of ATM withdraws from marijuana shops, and thousands of dollars of HomesNOW money spent at the casino. The total damage is estimated to be around $8000 in misspent funds in 2019. This is out of a total of around $150,000 in donations.
Police Chief David Doll (who we meet with weekly to discuss the operations of the camp) stopped by Unity Village during the first week I was staying here to ask what was going on, since he had heard that Jim and Rachel had left Unity Village and he didn’t know why. I told him the facts that I was doing an internal investigation and told him about the financial fraud and the attempted sexual relationship with a resident.
Chief Doll informed me at that point that my investigation was over and that they will have to open their own investigation into fraud regarding Jim. I turned over the evidence I had to the police. The police are now involved, and an investigation is active. This police investigation is occurring based on information obtained by the three remaining board members (Myself, Lizzy, and Carol).
After what was revealed by the evidence, Jim Peterson, Rachel Duvall, and Charlie Storrs were removed from the board of HomesNOW. They are no longer part of HomesNOW. Rachel and Charlie were removed from the board for mistreatment of the residents (yelling, throwing away belongings of residents, and demeaning language to the residents).
Residents did not speak up sooner about these activities because they were afraid of losing their housing.
As the managing organization, when you are running a tiny home community or homeless encampment, you are in a position of power over people who rely on you for housing (whether you want to be or not). Not only is it gross misconduct to use donor funds on personal items, it is also a crime and a potential felony.
In addition, if you are the managing organization, you also have to lead by example. Pursuing a sexual relationship with one of the residents at a community your organization is managing puts that resident in a vulnerable position because you are in a position to remove their housing if you end up having a personal problem with them later down the line. It is extremely unprofessional conduct and grounds for removal from the organization.
This situation caught everybody off-guard (The rest of the board, the volunteers, and the donors). Nobody expected that this type of activity would happen. Especially from somebody like Jim, who co-founded this organization and brought so many people together to build this amazing community. A lot of good has been done.
Jim did a good thing, this project would not exist without Jim’s hard work, compassion and dedication over the years, but these behaviors are inexcusable and grounds for removal from the organization.
I have been here for over a week, and I and the rest of the board will continue to be here to facilitate stable operations until the situation is fully resolved and remedied.
We will be putting in a number of reforms to our organization in order to ensure that nothing like this will happen again.
1. Bank statements and all transactions will be reviewed monthly. They will be signed and approved by at least 2 board members of the organization to ensure that no further funds will be misappropriated going into the future.
2. Our bi-laws will be updated to account for mistreatment of residents (something we never initially thought would be an issue), and we will put a poster up, indicating that if a resident is ever being mistreated or they need to report something they feel isn’t right, they will be able to call a number and have that information gathered anonymously (to avoid any threat of losing housing for speaking up).
3. The organization will become more decentralized, and the residents of Unity Village and beyond will play a greater role in helping to shape the decision making process of the organization. Their input will help to influence polices of the organization going forward.
We hope that these reforms will address any concerns that volunteers, donors, and members of the overall community might have with HomesNOW, going forward. The city of Bellingham has reassured us that they want Unity Village to continue because the model in general has been a success, and that they are still on-board with the HomesNOW opening future sites. They have been supportive during this whole process.
This is not the end of HomesNOW. This misconduct was caught early (revealed from an internal investigation by the board and testimony from the residents themselves). We have an amazing opportunity to turn it in a massive positive force for the community. For anybody that wants to see for themselves how this organization is run on a day to day basis, feel free to stop by at Unity Village, located at 210 McKenzie Avenue, Bellingham WA 98225.
As always we need your help and we hope that your trust in us as an organization has not been destroyed. It may have been easier to not bring this information to light, but it’s important that people who run an organization are held accountable for their actions, and that the problem is dealt with as quickly as possible, so we can all move forward and make progress. Whether you are a donor, a volunteer, a resident, a public official, or an advocate for ending homelessness. If we all work together toward common goals, we can achieve great things.
As a final note, I wanted to read a letter, written by the residents of Unity Village regarding the situation.
“We the Residents of Unity Village would like it known that we discovered the initial impropriety by Homes Now staff in our own diligence to run this community that we helped build; Our community.
The first instance of wrongdoing was brought to the attention of the board as soon as possible and an investigation by board members was begun. We were all very active in this investigation and the continued successful running of the program. We feel as a community that the investigation and decisions of the board were fair, justified and in line with what is best for us, The Residents.
We would also like to add that we have never felt more unified and stronger as a community. There is a renewed vitality and spirit of inclusion in the camp and we are still more than confident that this model works and can be run successfully. We feel that we have a voice that is heard now and that we have greater input and participation in this incredible program. Thank you to our continued supporters, board members and volunteers. We know that together we can make this amazing community better than ever.”
Signed in Solidarity by:
The Residents of Unity Village
It’s going to be a rocky few weeks, or maybe even a rocky few months. While we are sorting all of this out and implementing our reforms, the remaining board members will be regularly staying at the village, to facilitate stability, and in line with our contract to have a staff member on-site. I will be there most often since my day work allows me to work remotely, and I typically work from home. Unity Village is my home for at least the next few weeks while we work all of this out.
Thank you for your support over the years, and we’re enthusiastic about the future and where we make progress from here.
If anybody has any questions not mentioned in this statement, please feel free to contact our facebook page, or us directly.