It’s Saturday night at 1200 Dupont St., and inside the cramped front room gathered around a pool table and crammed on the room’s one couch are Bellingham’s forgotten youth.
This is Amy’s Place for Youth, a project of Old Town Christian Ministries.
It is Bellingham’s only drop-in center for homeless, abused and chemically-dependent teens.
From far right to left, Amanda Benson, 15, shoots pool with friends Cynthia Otero, 14, and Brittany Holien, 14. Volunteer supervisors watch from across the tables. Photo by Kathryn Bachen.
Amy’s Place was in December 2006 and is open Friday and Saturday nights to offer a sober environment to teenagers in need of help, or simply a safe place to hang out and enjoy free pizza and soda.
Heather Hovater, a student at Bellingham Technical College who volunteers at Amy’s Place and is a member of the board of directors, said although the space isn’t ideal, it is a much better alternative to hanging out on the streets.
“All of these kids would hangout downtown on Railroad [Avenue],” Hovater said. “They’d be using and drinking and they come here and they’re clean and sober and there’s food.”
In addition to free meals, program director Heidi Unick said Amy’s Place offers access to counseling for alcohol and drug abuse, mental health issues and sexual abuse.
There is also access to the Internet and phone, televisions, video games and board games.
Unick said the center also has bi-monthly presentations from local Narcotics Anonymous counselors, as well as presentations and discussions led by representatives from the Bellingham police department and other community institutions.
Unick said they’ve also recently started holding optional Bible study sessions on Saturdays.
Unick said nearly 300 different youth have come to hang out at the center at least once, with an average of about 28 kids showing up every Friday and Saturday night.
Sergio Quiroga, a junior at Bellingham High School, said he has come every week since the middle of summer when a friend told him about Amy’s Place.
“If I wasn’t here, I’d be going with my friends doing something stupid,” Quiroga said.
D.J. Romond, who helped start Amy’s Place, said most kids who come once end up coming regularly.
Romond said he and Unick started Amy’s Place because street kids would hang out for hours on the couches at a thrift shop run by the ministries, of which Romond was the director.
“There would be five or six kids there just hanging out because they had no place to go and it was cold,” Romond said.
Unick said although only about one third of the kids who frequent Amy’s Place are technically homeless, the vast majority of them are in need of help.
“Ninety percent of them have issues with drugs and alcohol,” Unick said.
Unick said many of the kids have home lives in which they are abused and neglected, and need somewhere else to go.
Unick said she tries to make it clear that Amy’s Place is not a recreation center for kids with stable lives to come hang out.
“That’s not why we’re here,” Unick said. “We’re here to help those who have issues with mental health and drugs and alcohol.”
Unick said the name Amy’s Place is an acronym for Assistance, Mentoring and Youth-driven.
Chris Marisette, 18, naps on a couch, while David Siftsoft, 18, plays a guitar at Amy's Place on Saturday night. Photo by Kathryn Bachen.
Will Point, 19, said he has been coming to Amy’s Place since it opened.
Point said the emphasis on community and mutual support at Amy’s Place is key, a viewpoint shared by Quiroga.
“We all have problems,” Quiroga said. “We come here and we talk about it. We may be happy or upset, but at least we're doing it together.”
Both Point and Quiroga said it is nice to have a place to connect with people who have the same experiences, and where they are respected.
Respect is something Unick and Romond said Amy’s Place needs, especially from the local community.
“The youth have embraced it,” she said. “But that community hasn’t.”
Romond said there is nowhere else for teens to go because the Lighthouse Mission, which serves meals to the homeless, doesn’t serve people younger than 18 unless they are with a parent.
Unick said Amy’s Place received a grant two weeks ago to hire both a mental health and a drug and alcohol counselor. Unick would not disclose the exact figures or source of the grant, but said it only covered about one third of the center’s projected annual need.
Unick said prior to receiving the grant, Amy’s Place was down to its last $100.
“We thought we would have to close for good,” Unick said.
Romond said that financial support from the community is desperately needed. He said that if 100-200 community members would commit to donating just $10 a month the program could be much more effective.
“We’re just working people,” Romond said. “We’re trying to pay our own bills, too.”
Unick said that every week five or six new kids show up to Amy’s Place. She said the center has tried to spread the word with fliers and with advertisements on buses and at the juvenile detention center.
Unick said Amy’s Place is trying to find creative ways to fund raise. Teens from Amy’s Place are scheduled to perform music at 8 p.m. Mar. 11 at the Three Trees Coffeehouse downtown.
“The kids that come here, some of them are really talented.” Unick said.
Unick and Romond said hopefully with more donations and support they will be able to expand the program.
Unick said by April she aims to have the center open four nights a week instead of just Friday and Saturday.
Unick and Romond said their main need is a larger space to operate in.
“You can’t have 40 kids in this tiny room having a discussion,” Romond said.
Point said he would like Amy’s Place to be able to operate out of a house where group meals could be cooked and there could be more separate areas to conduct different activities simultaneously.
Romond said a Whatcom County Health Department official told him the city would discuss funding for a teen center in about three years, reiterating the importance of Amy’s Place as Bellingham’s only teen drop-in center.
“It’s not needed three years from now,” Romond said. “It’s needed right now.”
Unick said she shares the urgency for community aid that Romond expressed.
“How can we get the community to embrace it?” she said. “I don’t know. We’re trying.”