BELLINGHAM – Despite a fire that wiped out its thrift store last fall, Old Town Christian Ministries (OTCM) has announced the opening of a new teen drop-in center on Dupont Street for wayward street kids.
Amy’s Place will open in the midst of the county’s annual Point in Time Homeless Count – a multi-organizational effort to get a clearer picture of how many homeless individuals live in the area and who they are. One striking fact revealed by last year’s study was the high number of homeless teens wandering the streets of Bellingham and other Whatcom County cities. In last year’s study, out of the 839 individuals counted, 40 percent were under the age of 18 – either surfing on friends’ couches or on the street.
Though the adult homeless population has several options for assistance and housing in the area there is limited assistance for the teen population – a population least likely to look for help.
“Our vision is to build strong relationships with kids,” OTCM’s Heidi Unick said, “where they feel safe, they can make a choice to get off the streets and out of a lifestyle that is ultimately destroying them, and get into services where they can get help with substance abuse.”
According to OTCM, as of Aug. 31, 2006, there are no longer any agencies providing direct outreach to homeless youth in Whatcom County. In 2005 Whatcom County reported 502 runaway youth and 437 “unaccompanied homeless” youth in Bellingham.
Before the old OTCM thrift store on Holly Street burnt down, kids would come by and ask if they could hang out – they would come in and hang out on the couches until the store closed, Unick said.
“Without a support network, these youth are often drawn into shoplifting, survival sex or dealing drugs in order to earn money for basic necessities,” she said. “These are chemically dependent kids who are out on Railroad Avenue and who are driven to get their high. They’re being exploited by predators, they’re shoplifting – doing anything to get their drugs. We’re saying, hey, this community needs to do more to help them.”
Currently, Amy’s Place is a modest building with couches, a pool table and television. The kids come in and are allowed to take owner ship of the facility, to make it their own. On any given evening there are upwards of 15 teens at Amy’s Place. Some are playing pool, others talking or watching T.V. Some are just happy to be warm and fed.
“Amy’s Place should be used as a sanctuary,” one teen said. “Kids have to feel comfortable before they can be prepared for any assistance.”
“It is a safe comfortable kid-friendly place to get a meal, clothes, hygiene supplies, shower and a bus voucher,” Unick said. “It’s a place for street youth to check their emails, access needed services, participate in healthy enjoyable activities and build relationships with healthy, sober peers and adults.”
But these services come with a price tag. Currently OTCM has allocated $45,000 to start Amy’s Place and are seeking roughly $70,000 from community partners to help sustain the project.
And some of that help may be in the offing. Jackie Mitchell, Whatcom County Substance Program Specialist, said in a statement to OTCM, “Whatcom County Substance Abuse Program is interested in providing outreach to youth including services to homeless youth.” Unick responded by saying, “OTCM hopes to partner with the Whatcom County Substance Abuse Program to get some services to help local vulnerable, street involved, chemically dependent, runaway and homeless youth who come to Amy’s Place for assistance.”
“With more than 25 years experience in homeless outreach, OTCM is poised and ready to direct our attention on the homeless youth of Whatcom County,” said Unick.
OTCM will present “Swing For The Soul” at 6 p.m. Friday Feb. 2 at Hampton Inn’s Fox Hall. The night of dinner and entertainment will be emceed by Mike Kent and will feature performances by the Halleck Street Ramblers swing band and the WWU Swing Kids. Proceeds will go toward funding Amy’s Place’s continued teen outreach program.
Donations of time, money and supplies are also welcome. Contact Amy’s Place at 671-5567, or by mail or visit to 1200 Dupont St., 1-E, Bellingham WA 98225. The group is looking for donations of pizza, which they offer to attract homeless teens, for people willing and able to spend time building relations with the teens, for a VCR, and for games of all kinds.
Rules for Amy’s Place, as written by the kids.
- Please don’t come under the influence and make a scene.
- No drugs or deals.
- No blades six inches or longer (keep hidden).
- Please use appropriate language.
- Respect yourself, others and property.
- You may bring music and movies! Something appropriate that everyone can agree with.
- Animals are allowed but must be on a leash and collar.
- No firearms.
- Rotate chores.
- No racist comments.
- No discrimination.
- Have Fun!!!
Originally published by Whatcom Independent, online copy available here