A group of teenagers mill about on a Girard Street sidewalk on a Tuesday school night. They smoke, tell stories and make fun of each other in the comfortable manner where insult equals affection.
These are Bellingham’s street kids. These are the nameless youth with backpacks and nose-rings most people cross the street to avoid.
On this night, however, these kids are not bumming change on Railroad Avenue and Holly Street. Tonight, after they finish their cigarettes, they will have the rare opportunity to do something different – go inside.
These kids are part of Amy’s Place, a nonprofit organization started by Old Town Christian Ministries to give homeless and wayward teenagers a place of their own off the streets.
When the WI first met these kids roughly a year ago, Amy’s Place was new, the ministries’ thrift store had recently burned down, there were only a handful of youth hanging about, and funding was a constant issue. So Amy’s Place Director Heidi Unick and some volunteers started making calls and filling out grant applications.
Last Friday Congressman Rick Larsen stepped through the front door of Amy’s Place, sat down with about 15 kids and staff, and congratulated them on receiving a $60,000 grant from the federal government to expand their youth shelter.
“I came in the door to congratulate you all on getting this grant,” Larsen said. “It’s not easy getting money from the government, and especially this much. But for all the money, what is clear at Amy’s Place is that it works because of all of you.”
What’s clear when talking with the kids at Amy’s Place, and just looking around the room, is that they need more space. On some Saturday nights, upwards of 35 to 40 youth visit the place to hang out, talk, and get out of the cold. That’s 35 to 40 teenagers in a place the size of an average one-bedroom apartment.
“We need to move to a larger location desperately,” Unick said. “But there is a huge apprehension by landlords to rent to us.”
While the grant money will go a long way for Amy’s Place, homeless youth in Whatcom County still face some daunting realities.
According to 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 – more than 40 percent of homeless people in Whatcom County are under the age of 18. And although the adult homeless population has several options in regards to shelters and treatment, there is little assistance for the teen population – a population less likely to look for help.
“The worst is when there is nowhere to go,” said Rachael, a 16-year-old at Amy’s Place. “We just sit outside the Horseshoe and go do stupid things and get drunk.”
Seventeen-year-old Sergio agreed.
“It sucks when you got nowhere to go and you can’t go home, and we have nowhere to hang out, and we just are sitting planning on getting high,” he said.
Unick said her biggest concern is that the teenagers are vulnerable to sexual predators at night.
“Here in Whatcom County there really is nothing for the youth,” she said. “We have all these kids that come (to Amy’s Place) and at 11 o’clock they have to go and most of them don’t have anywhere to go.”
Unick said the county needs a shelter that can provide treatment and counseling to these teenagers and does not turn them away because of drug use.
“It breaks my heart to see kids in the severe stages of addiction with no place to go,” she said. “Some kids are so toxic and could be really only one more hit or drink away from death. These kids are worth whatever it takes to give them relief and a life.”
While talking with these kids about life before Amy’s Place, one gets a sense of a dark past. The stories are told with little animation or zeal.
When asked about recent events, however, they nearly stumble over each other to be the first to talk about going on a boat at the lake with Unick and the volunteers, or how a few weeks ago, several youth from Amy’s Place put on a 40-minute show at the Three Trees Coffee House and raised $108. Or even how they played badminton at the park but the net wouldn’t stay up, so they had to pretend it was there.
They seem to be grabbing onto something that’s been missing – a sense of family.
“I get to know the people here as friends,” said one girl everyone calls Preppy. “We hang out as friends, and I can open up to them, when I know them as a friend and not just some counselor.”
In addition to the federal grant, Amy’s Place also received a $5,000 donation from the Bellingham Bay Rotary Club last Friday. The Rotary gave to 13 different nonprofit organizations, totaling $49,000 in donations so far this year.
Rotary President Orphalee Smith, along with the 104 members of the BBRC, saw Amy’s Place as a good investment in the community.
“We have a pretty good screening process,” said Roger Long, Chairman of the Charitable Giving Committee for Rotary. “We like to fund new programs and capital-type expenditures. Amy’s Place was a new program for us and something that was needed in the community.”
Through a little dedicated work, Unick’s concerns have reached some pretty important ears.
“A few years ago Congress passed a bill that looked at meth amphetamines and at enforcement only,” Larsen said. “What we need is preventative treatment.”
Larsen said he is taking a broader perspective that looks at the full continuum of activities that need to be funded.
“Amy’s Place neatly fits into this education as an early investment in the kids and the problems they are facing,” he said.