This piece was first published in the Bellingham Herald.
Life on the streets is horrific. I’ve seen it firsthand. Women have told me how they were sexually assaulted in their tents. I’ve received calls from funeral directors telling me how someone died in an outhouse. It’s a lifetime of pain and vulnerability.
You’re invisible, victimized, marginalized, people hide their kids from you, and it chips away at your heart. You’re dealing with a mixture of adverse childhood experiences, lack of education and job skills, wage disparity, serious behavioral and physical health concerns, alcohol and drug and cannabis addiction, human trafficking, mental illness, family dysfunction, young people aging out of the foster care system, lack of affordable housing, and so much more. Layer on COVID-19, with its reduction of services and additional job losses, stress, and isolation, and you have a recipe for disaster where the poor suffer most.
People who are homeless are more than their problems. They’re fellow human beings, each with a calling, hopes and dreams, a family, and things to offer. Lean a little closer in and you see my best friend from high school and his withdrawal pains as no worse than his lifelong torment of feeling worthless.
He isn’t asking questions like; can you get me a job or an apartment? Or even; can you stop the voices in my head? The heart-cry I hear is, “I just want my family back. Give me the opposite of this, give me connection, give me friendship, give me something to fight for! — I know I’m a mess, just accept me. Love me. Even when I blow up on you, I need to know that I’m not a mistake, that I actually matter. Give me a better story of who I am, cause this one isn’t working out.” The answer to that requires a different kind of intervention.
Lighthouse Mission Ministries’ Drop-In Center move to Bellingham High School in March was a big win for Bellingham. It met an immediate crisis need and kept upwards of 600 unique individuals that came through the facility out of the ER, with zero positive tests for COVID-19, and kept the entire community safe at the same time. It also gave my friend and those with him room to breathe for the first time in a long time. Precious people were packed in like sardines at the old location and some nights up to 15 people had to be turned away due to capacity.
The July move to the old Public Market Building on Cornwall Avenue was a downright miracle. The Drop-In Center was re-named Base Camp and it’s now providing even more effective care and 40 additional year-round beds. It’s hosting 24% more people than it did this time last year, which means more people stabilizing and more people getting into our recovery programs. It’s the base level of the outreach, recovery, and restoration scaffolding Lighthouse Mission provides to achieve life transformation and the housing readiness we’re after. Unfortunately, it’s likely to be all the more necessary these next few years.
Even though Base Camp can host up to 190 people, we’re already turning folks away and it’s not even winter. Calls are trickling in from seniors priced out of their apartments. There’s a growing number of people coming in who are medically fragile. We’ve had more calls from families in cars needing a place to stay in the last month than the last three years combined. And the eviction moratorium lifts in January. There’s work to do.
Jesus’ big heart for the poor informs the emotional beats in my own life and puts the fire in me to do something about it. That’s why we welcome all and go after our precious marginalized neighbors without discrimination. My friend is someone who has hopes and dreams like anybody else, and I don’t want him ending up in an outhouse. We must break barriers, transform lives, and work together to build this community or our most vulnerable citizens will bear the brunt. The Base Camp project is one privately funded answer among many. And it’s a solid answer that’s doing its part to end homelessness, for eternity.
Hans Erchinger-Davis is Executive Director of Lighthouse Mission Ministries
As the second tier of Lighthouse Mission’s four intervention strategies, Base Camp is a 24-hour enhanced homeless services project designed to motivate and support people into next steps of life-recovery. It provides three meals a day, a safe place to sleep, restrooms, laundry facilities, showers, storage for belongings, important documents, and medications, mail services, emotional and spiritual support, and case management. It also has space for strategic non-profit partners to work, telehealth meetings for guests, and quarterly memorial services for people who die in our streets. It’s Whatcom County’s welcome mat for the marginalized. A temporary home where you’re welcome and wanted, and where we become friends.