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Homelessness can ‘seem scary and daunting.’ But this small church steps up anyway

Food and personal hygiene items sit on the kitchen table at Grace House in Blaine. Concerned about homeless families in their community, members of Grace Lutheran Church in Blaine bought a house and turned it into transitional housing. The first family is expected to move into Grace House in this month. The effort to help homeless families is being done in partnership with Interfaith Coalition of Whatcom County.
Food and personal hygiene items sit on the kitchen table at Grace House in Blaine. Concerned about homeless families in their community, members of Grace Lutheran Church in Blaine bought a house and turned it into transitional housing. The first family is expected to move into Grace House in this month. The effort to help homeless families is being done in partnership with Interfaith Coalition of Whatcom County. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Concerned about homelessness in their community, members of a small church in Blaine are doing something about it — one family at a time.

The congregation bought a house and then some 50 volunteers cleaned, painted and moved furniture into the building. They donated beds and bedding, dish soap and toilet paper. They took out carpet and put in vinyl flooring.

Grace Lutheran Church will open its new Grace House to a homeless family this month. The four-bedroom, two-bath house is the only transitional housing for homeless families in Blaine.

“People really stepped up and contributed a lot in time, talent and treasure to make this happen,” said Gretel Conaway, the church’s project coordinator for Grace House. “I’ve been blown away, amazed at the generosity and the effort — that a small group of people can make such a huge difference.”

The project is a partnership with Interfaith Coalition of Whatcom County, which has a history of helping homeless families. In Blaine, it will interview referred families and provide case management for Grace House.

Church members are responsible for the home’s maintenance.

The goal is to help Blaine families and the community’s homeless school children.

“That’s on the heart of everybody here,” Conaway said.

A total of 79 students in Blaine were homeless in the 2017-18 school year, according to the most recent figures from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

That’s a little more than 3 percent of the Blaine School District’s 2,514 students.

The house also has an attached, studio-style space with a bedroom, bath, kitchen and separate entrance. Church members hope to renovate it at a later point to provide transitional housing for a smaller family.

The church isn’t revealing the location of Grace House to protect the anonymity of families living there.

Families will be able to live in Grace House for up to a year. They will pay below-market rent that will be based on their income.

The goal is to allow families to stabilize and to save up enough money to move into permanent housing, according to Laura Harker, executive director for Interfaith Coalition.

“When you have more time, you can really make some big changes in your life without that constant worry of, ‘Oh my goodness, where am I going to be? Where am I going to live tomorrow?’ ” Harker said.

Grace House is opening at a time when the number of people who are homeless in Whatcom County has increased by nearly 10 percent in a year to 815, according to the latest data from the annual census of the homeless.

The Point In Time Count, as it’s known, provides a snapshot, and advocates have said that the actual number of homeless is higher.

To Harker, it’s important for the community to know there are solutions to homelessness, that something can be done.

About 85 percent of families helped by Interfaith move on to stable housing, according to Interfaith.

“So many good things are happening like this in our community,” she said.

Grace House is being launched without government support.

“The problem is huge in our community. We feel that it’s not just the government’s role to help support our neighbors,” Harker said. “If all of us can work together, we can make so much more of a difference than we can individually.”

Conaway shared similar thoughts, saying homelessness can “seem scary and daunting.”

“We have homeless people attending our church,” Conaway said. “When you learn about it, you learn this is people just like me who’ve had a hardship.”

Although faith-based organizations are behind the effort, people will be helped without regard to religious affiliation, Harker said.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.


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