A Place to Rest

Bellingham nonprofit strives to end homelessness

STORY BY ELANA PIDGEON | PHOTOS BY NICK DANIELSON

(above) Chalk written on the walls of the Lydia Place facilities by the children of families in the Lydia Place transitional housing program. Behind the housing unit is a yard with playground equipment for the Lydia Place children, which is often used while the current mothers at Lydia Place are in classes and meetings on topics such as professional development put on by the organization staff.

Around 10 a.m. one morning Rachael Brown, 21, woke up to sunlight streaming through the living room windows, exhausted from a night awake with her month-old baby. She sat up slowly on the couch, still in pain from a complicated cesarean section. She checked to make sure her son was sleeping peacefully in the makeshift crib next to her. That’s when she noticed her purse was missing. Panicked, she got up and checked the house. Her purse, her car, her money and almost all the food left in the house were missing — and so was her husband.

“That was the lowest point of my life: sitting there, finding all my stuff was gone, and I had this new baby,” she says. “I tried to think about who I could call, and I realized I didn’t have anybody.”

Brown is one of many women with children who have found themselves homeless, out of money and out of options. She and her son eventually found themselves at Lydia Place, a Bellingham nonprofit that serves homeless families. Children in homeless families face a different set of problems growing up and sometimes find themselves in the same situation years later.

Every year Whatcom County does a “point-in-time” count when, in one day, they go out and try to identify how many people in the county are homeless. In 2014, they counted 553 homeless people. Twenty-seven percent of those were children.

“That number got under my skin,” Emily O’Connor, Lydia Place’s executive director, says. “That’s one in four homeless people. We’re talking on the streets, in cars, in tents.”

After a year of planning, Lydia Place started a new program at the end of January 2015 called the Family Intervention Initiative. They’ve hired two people — a child therapist and a family intervention specialist/parenting educator — to provide flexible in-home support, therapy and resources for parents and children.

Lydia Place serves about 150 households at any given time. One hundred of those households have children.

The Family Intervention Initiative is now part of their Family Services Program, which is a focus on homeless households with young children. The new hires will cost Lydia Place an additional $90,000 a year. Starting the initiative was important to them because the case managers who work with homeless families don’t have the time they wish they had to focus on the kids.

Young children need extra attention to get a jump out of poverty and have long-term success, O’Connor says. Lydia Place wanted to find a way to do more for the kids in a preventative way.

“Kids are a big motivator for me. We want the children in our programs not to end up being our clients when they’re older,” O’Connor says. “We see that happen once in a while — this intergenerational cycle of poverty — and it’s just really heartbreaking.”

In 2008, Whatcom County streamlined access to homeless services (called coordinated entry), so instead of being on a waiting list for every housing program in the county, people can sign up for one master list, O’Connor says. Lydia Place is one of the providers on that list.

O’Connor estimates there’s an average of 300 to 400 people at a time on the waitlist.

A big problem is the lack of housing in Bellingham, O’Connor says. The vacancy rate is less than two percent so there’s not enough space and what’s left is too expensive for clients with little to no income.

“Even though we’re getting them housed stably, we’re not getting them out of poverty,” O’Connor says.

Brown grew up with her mother and twin brother in a trailer park in southern California. They moved to Washington in search of better job prospects when she was 15.

Brown’s mother struggled with drinking and, off and on, heroin and meth.

“We’d deal with her stuff to avoid the craziness that would come,” Brown says. “The freak outs were from what she was taking — all these anti-anxiety meds and other drugs. We’d find them and try to hide them or flush them, but sometimes my step-dad would say ‘just leave them there, I want to get some sleep.’”

Brown got straight A’s for a while and planned on going to college, but things changed when her mother had two children a year apart. With two parents working full-time and no money for childcare, the job of babysitting all day fell on Brown. Eventually, Brown was arrested for missing so much school.

“I’d kind of raised my siblings until they were 10, when I left, because my mom struggled with addiction,” Brown says. “There were so many nights where she was high as a kite on the bathroom floor.”

Brown ran away from home at 17. She was homeless for a couple months before joining Cascades Job Corps, a free career-training program, where she started working in construction. At Job Corps she met her now-ex-husband.

“There were some days that I didn’t want to wake up at all. I didn’t know what was going on with (my husband),” she says. “My fear was always there. I didn’t know if I’d get on the bus and he’d be there.”- Rachel Brown

Looking back, Brown says it was the structure of Job Corps’ classes and meetings that made their relationship seem healthy. Soon after Brown and her boyfriend graduated she guessed that he’d started using again — she knew he had struggled with heroin. Brown had taken the only job she could find after graduating: a night shift at Icicle Seafoods. They were both working full-time but somehow the money was always missing.

“I’d go to this imitation crab factory every night, and I’d come home and there’d be some druggie taking a nap on our couch,” she says. “I just didn’t notice what the signs were — what his addiction looked like. After a while you start figuring it out.”

She called her husband’s mother for help, who said, “We all have problems” and told her to stick it out.

“I was so embarrassed,” Brown says. “I didn’t want to tell anybody about my new husband’s drug problem.”

Brown and her husband were homeless off and on for a year. Brown was working in construction when she realized she was pregnant. She hid her pregnancy until she was unable to do any heavy lifting and was forced to quit.

Without any money or place to go, she and her husband ended up living in their car. Brown, 21 years old and pregnant, spent her days at The Lighthouse Mission in Bellingham, where she volunteered and could get a free lunch. Once in a while she’d get vouchers for rooms in hotels near Samish Way.

“They weren’t very good (rooms) but you could still get a shower, you know?” she says.

Brown’s son was born after a complicated C-section that kept them in the hospital for a week. A month after he was born, Brown woke up to find that her husband had left with all their money, food and her car. He was gone for three days. When he came back, he was high and started tearing through their things.

A few minutes later a nurse assigned to check in on Brown every few days showed up and knocked on the door.

Brown’s husband yelled at her to get upstairs and Brown, still weak from surgery, half-crawled up the stairs to her bedroom she hadn’t been in since before her son was born. The room was trashed — covered in burnt tinfoil with clothes and purses she didn’t recognize scattered on the floor.

Her husband followed her upstairs, started yelling, “You’re doing this on purpose,” and dragged her back down the stairs.

Brown blacked out and woke up in the hospital next to her son. The nurse, who had been outside the whole time, had called the police.

“She heard the baby crying upstairs and heard me getting dragged down — she was right outside on the phone with the police department,” Brown says.

Brown’s husband was taken to jail for a year. Brown and her son were released from the hospital to the Womencare Shelter in Bellingham. She was given about a month to find a place to go and, after calling every shelter around, was told that Lydia Place just had a room open up in their transitional housing facility.

The building that houses Lydia Place’s offices is also home to their transitional housing program for women with children. There’s usually about eight women plus their children living there at any given time, O’Connor says. It’s ideally a six-month program, but the families can stay longer if they need to.

When Brown first got to Lydia Place she was struggling with post-partum depression and recovering from surgery. She was scared for months after she got there that she’d run into her husband any time she left the house.

“There were some days that I didn’t want to wake up at all,” she says. “I didn’t know what was going on with (my husband),” she says. “My fear was always there. I didn’t know if I’d get on the bus and he’d be there.”

The people at Lydia Place gave her the push she needed to go to a rehab program, file for divorce and work out a parenting plan, she says. A volunteer there helped her study for the math placement test at Bellingham Technical College, where she later graduated with an associate’s degree in welding.

A few months later, Brown left the transitional housing facility and Lydia Place set her up in an apartment right by the Farmer’s Market in Bellingham.

“It had big beautiful windows — it was the nicest place I’ve ever lived in in my life because I grew up in trailers,” she says. “I had all these new things people had donated to Lydia Place and it was a real home.”

The rooms in Lydia Place’s transitional housing are fine in terms of paint and flooring, but some of them need new furniture, lighting, window coverings and art, says Shultzie Willows, Lydia Place’s development and outreach director. This year they plan on asking people to “Adopt a Room” and partner with them to renovate the eight rooms there to make them feel more like a home.

Lydia Place has partnered with the Bellingham Housing Authority to offer 79 apartment units to homeless families as well as case management to them in their homes.

They also have a rapid re-housing program where their clients’ case managers advocate for them to private landlords. Once they’ve found a home, Lydia Place helps them with a rental subsidy. With this they serve about 60 households at a time.

“We want to work ourselves out of a job,” O’Connor says.

Lydia Place hosts two major events annually — Hearts for Housing in the winter and Handbags for Housing in the spring — as well as several smaller ones throughout the year. They take hundreds of volunteers a year.

“In everything we do we have to partner up with people — it’s essential,” Willows says.

The volunteers’ jobs range from fundraising for Lydia Place events to watching kids living at the house for a few hours so their mom can take a break. Their thrift store, Wise Buys, is completely volunteer-run except for one full-time store manager.

“We are committed to seeing an end to homelessness,” O’Connor says. “That doesn’t mean that nobody will ever be homeless again. It means we want to build a system that has enough capacity so that when someone finds that they have a housing crisis, they don’t have to wait weeks, months or years to get services. We can help them right away.”

Brown, now 30, lives in Everett with her son. She’s been in a healthy relationship for two years, and she, her boyfriend and her son like to go four-wheeling together and go to her son’s ice hockey games. She’s forgiven her mom.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for these ladies (at Lydia Place),” she says. “They pointed me in the right direction. They saw something in me that I didn’t see.”

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