Starting this fall, The Lighthouse Mission will open its drop-in center as a 24/7 shelter to help address an increased need for people experiencing homelessness.
For months, the mission has been working with the city of Bellingham to find a place to house people in a “low-barrier shelter,” that is, with minimum requirements, such as not testing for sobriety before entry. A location near the airport seemed like it might work out but fell through.
Meanwhile, the city still has an urgent need for housing that is accessible to people who are still sleeping on the streets, Mayor Kelli Linville said.
While a point-in-time count in January this year showed that homelessness overall has decreased 16 percent in Whatcom County since 2008, the total on the day of the January count this year was up about 10.4 percent over last year, with 719 people counted compared to last year’s 651.
The number of unsheltered people in the “point-in-time” homelessness census in January 2016 was up 40 percent over 2015.
The increase in people who were unsheltered – sleeping in cars, outside or in other places not meant for habitation – the night before the count was even more drastic, with an increase of 40 percent over last year.
Part of the reason for the increase may be that the city’s Homeless Outreach Team helped contact campers and others living outside for this year’s count, but the Whatcom Homeless Service Center notes that “point-in-time counts generally underestimate the number of those who are homeless” because they may not capture people cycling in and out of homelessness during the year, and it is hard to find where all unsheltered people are living.
To address that immediate need, the mission will change the way it runs its drop-in center.
Currently, the building at 1013 W. Holly St. is open from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday as a place to stay warm and dry, read, play games, have refreshments and hang out.
“If you’re homeless and come down, that’s usually your starting point,” said Hans Erchinger-Davis, executive director of the mission. “It’s where we target the homeless that are low motivation, that don’t want to change yet, and we motivationally interview them to get at the root of why they are homeless.”
As soon as October, the plan is to staff the center 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and potentially house up to 80 people there on mats at night, Erchinger-Davis said.
For the donor-based organization, the increase will be significant, Erchinger-Davis said. On an average night, the mission currently houses about 150 people through various programs already, and this will add capacity for about 80.
“It’s a significant load for us; we will have to staff it, so it’s costly for us,” he said. “I’m really having to pitch this to the community.”
When they come in, it’s a good opportunity for us to meet folks and dispel misconceptions they might have. We haven’t required chapel service in 12 years, but a lot of people still think we do.
Hans Erchinger-Davis, executive director, The Lighthouse Mission Ministries
Getting people through the door can be the first step to getting them services, such as health checkups, and give staff the chance to make a connection with people.
“A lot of folks like being autonomous. When they come in, it’s a good opportunity for us to meet folks and dispel misconceptions they might have. We haven’t required chapel service in 12 years, but a lot of people still think we do,” Erchinger-Davis said. “Yes, we are structured, and a lot of people need that, but we’re in the business of restoring people. We’re not here to make you feel less than.”
While the mission will hire staff for the center and won’t receive money from the city to run it, the long-term goal is to find a way to partner with the city in a another location, he said.
I want to emphasize this is the community’s drop-in center and it’s the community’s responsibility to work with people in need, so please support us.
Hans Erchinger-Davis, Lighthouse Mission
Access to the interim shelter will be based mostly on behavior, Erchinger-Davis said. Fighting and violence won’t be allowed, nor will drug or alcohol use inside the building, but people won’t have to pass a urine or breath test like they do with some of the mission’s other programs.
How to help
Aside from donating financial support, there likely will be many more ways to volunteer time or services.
“I want to emphasize this is the community’s drop-in center, and it’s the community’s responsibility to work with people in need, so please support us,” Erchinger-Davis said. “Our programs are only as good as the support we get.”
Until now, the mission has often had more people hoping to volunteer than actual opportunities to use them, said Erchinger-Davis, who has worked with the organization for more than a decade.
“Well, this will open us up 24/7 for volunteers, especially when it comes to wintertime,” Erchinger-Davis said. “There are a lot of physical, emotional and spiritual needs.”
The Lighthouse Mission offers volunteer training, which covers engaging with people in safe ways, deescalating scenarios where someone may have an outburst, and there are plenty of “low-key” ways to volunteer, Erchinger-Davis said.
Information about how to get involved can be found at the nonprofit organization’s website, TheLighthouseMission.org.