Op-Ed

‘Don’t look at the mess: look at the people. Notice the depth of their struggles.’

Homeless people wait for lunch outside the Lighthouse Mission Drop-In Center in Bellingham, Sept. 15. The mission maintains the patio area and portable toilets. The Drop-In Center is designed to be motivational space where chronically homeless women and men can engage various service providers and take early next steps into total life-recovery.
Homeless people wait for lunch outside the Lighthouse Mission Drop-In Center in Bellingham, Sept. 15. The mission maintains the patio area and portable toilets. The Drop-In Center is designed to be motivational space where chronically homeless women and men can engage various service providers and take early next steps into total life-recovery. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

As the executive director of Lighthouse Mission Ministries, I get asked a lot about the uptick in Bellingham homelessness: “Why are there so many more people on the streets?” “Is Seattle using ‘Greyhound Therapy’ to get them here?” “Is it because the mission is the Taj Mahal of homeless shelters?” “What do you do about the makeshift tents popping up nearby?” “How do you fix these things?”

In my experience, how we define the problem is how we treat it. Too often we look only at the material needs of the chronically unhoused. I’m not referring to homelessness due to domestic violence or a house burning down. I’m talking about the people on the streets holding signs and pushing carts. We give them money, put a roof over their head, give them a meal: problem solved.

Broken lives

But if we look deeper into that half-drunk person sprawled out on the sidewalk as actually drowning in the pain of a relationally broken life, we begin to see homelessness as symptomatic of something deeper. We find a people that have lost their sense of identity, their sense of calling. We find people upended in a spiral of spiritual, social, physical, emotional and economic dysfunction, with relationships being impacted.

They didn’t become homeless from running out of money. They became homeless from running out of relationships. No wonder they self-anesthetize.

Expanding the Mission’s Drop-In Center on Holly Street last fall to include an additional 80 beds and 24/7 accessibility was our privately funded, City of Bellingham sanctioned response to the 30 percent increase in homelessness over the last three years. With these additional beds we now shelter 230. The interim Drop-In Center is our expanded outreach, designed to be motivational space whereby chronically homeless women and men can engage various service providers and take early next steps into total life-recovery.

Of the 900 unique individuals that have accessed the Drop-In Center since October, about one or two per week temporarily lose services due to unsafe behavior. We have a DIC Reconciliation Committee creating safety plans to help reestablish their good standing. It’s a team approach consisting of staff, advocates, mental health professionals and service providers.

We also work closely with the Bellingham Police Department to ensure neighborhood safety. They have been an enormous resource to the mission with quick response times, de-escalation training for our staff, advice around crime prevention and more.

Inching closer

You’ve likely seen tarps and tents cobbled together in the blocks surrounding our buildings. These camps are more visible than those in the parks or near creeks. Some of the individuals using these camps refuse to access our services, yet they feel safer being close to the mission. Some haven’t slept indoors for 10 or 20 years. Inching closer to the mission is progress for them.

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People wait for lunch outside the Lighthouse Mission Drop-In Center in Bellingham Sept. 15. The last homeless count shows 72 percent of the county’s homeless people listed Whatcom County as their last stable housing. Philip A. Dwyer pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Earning people’s trust takes time, especially considering the trauma and relational isolation of the streets. People first need to know they are safe, accepted and loved unconditionally if they’re to have hope for change.

It’s still a challenge. People laying on the sidewalk understandably distresses our neighbors, as it does us. We created a neighborhood liaison position to specifically address these concerns and work with our guests to pick up litter. They’re wearing “Lighthouse Mission Good Neighbors” reflective vests.

They didn’t become homeless from running out of money. They became homeless from running out of relationships.

Hans Erchinger-Davis, executive director of Lighthouse Mission Ministries

Our current location is bursting at the seams and not ideal for the long-term. The hope is that a new shelter site, that we’re working closely with the City of Bellingham on securing, will have sufficient outdoor space to help maintain neighborhood decorum. In the meantime, I anticipate outdoor lounging concerns will dissipate with the coming rains.

No, the mission’s Drop-In Center is not the Taj Mahal of homeless shelters. People rarely relocate from other areas to get a simple mat on the floor. The last homeless count shows 72 percent of our homeless population listed Whatcom County as their last stable housing. The local increase in homelessness is simply matching the increase in rental costs and the overall homelessness of the West Coast.

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People wait for lunch outside the Lighthouse Mission Drop-In Center in Bellingham. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

With the support of this community over the past 94 years, Lighthouse Mission has been caring for our unhoused neighbors and helping them flourish. Why? We seek to follow Jesus and show his immeasurable love for the poor and the outsider.

So, the next time you drive by the Drop-In Center and see people lined up, don’t look at the mess: look at the people. Notice the depth of their struggles. Perhaps they are hearing unseen voices, have a physical disability or are in active addiction. They haven’t found acceptance elsewhere.

More people are gathering at the Drop-In Center because they know they’ll be loved and that the volunteers and staff care. People at the mission are getting the chance to change. And that’s something rare and worth fighting for.

Please be a part of the solution. We’re privately funded by people like you.

Hans Erchinger-Davis is executive director of Lighthouse Mission Ministries.

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