Drive by 1200 Dupont Street on a Friday or Saturday night and you’ll see them. Outside on the curb they smoke cigarettes, horse around, and generally act like teenagers. You may see them, but you also might not notice them.
They are the frequent visitors to Amy’s Place – the marginalized teens of Whatcom County - and without the aid they urgently need, they could be left with nothing but the streets. Inside the cramped one-room office of Old Town Christian Ministries, they play pool, watch TV, and enjoy the table full of snacks despite the anvil that seems ready to drop on their favorite nighttime hotspot.
Opened in 2006, Amy’s Place provides food, clothing and other supplies as well as a healthy and sober environment for local disaffected youth. They began with only 6 kids. Today the drop-in center averages about 30 to 40 kids from all different backgrounds and income levels and has welcomed 553 unduplicated youths. It is the only center of its kind in the Bellingham area. The youngest in their ranks is just 11; the oldest, 21.
Amy’s Place is able to operate on federal grants but Director Heidi Unick fears that when the current grant expires in late Sept., they will be forced to close down. According to a 2007 study, 104 unaccompanied homeless minors lived in Whatcom County. With no teen-specific shelter in the area they are forced to fend for themselves.
“What Amy’s Place is, is a place to offer teens an environment that fosters change, so youth a life of recovery and a life off the streets.
Unick believes that a lack of public awareness is the main cause of lacking donations and support.
“The community is not aware that it’s a crisis out there. They need to get behind us and they need to get behind this,” she said.
Many of the teens that visit Amy’s Place are living on the streets. Railroad Avenue, is a popular spot for most, but the downtown area proves to be as treacherous as any in Bellingham. Drugs, fights, and bad weather are par for the daily course.
Ernie, an 18-year-old who has lived downtown for about six months, admits that without Amy’s Place he’d be lost.
“[Living downtown] is tougher than it should be. Amy’s Place is the only place that helps,” he said.
He also attests that much of the problems downtown stem from the miscommunications between Western students who frequent the bars and the homeless population.
“They think they’re better than everybody,” he said.
Sergio, a teen who has been coming to Amy’s Place for almost a year, echoed the negative outlook of many citizens of Whatcom County.
“We are the forgotten youth. We are nothing but scum to them,” he said.
Wearing a black shirt that says, “Satan loves me,” and adorning a green ponytail, it’s easy to see why some might be intimidated by Sergio’s presence without ever discovering his dashing intellect.
Sergio’s mother passed away at the age of 9, leaving him in the custody of his grandmother. During his time at Amy’s Place he has worked to try and wean his fellow teens from the drugs and survival sex which often prove to be obstacles in their daily lives.
For Sergio, Amy’s Place is more than just a cool place to hang out and get off the streets.
“This place is a home. We are a family,” he said.
On July 22, he was one of the many representatives on behalf of Amy’s Place to speak to the County Council during the mental health and substance abuse tax hearing. Sergio was very pleased to hear the news of its ratification on July 28.
“With this tax raise, Amy’s Place has a chance to stay alive. We don’t have many places to go,” he said.
Perhaps the most difficult job at Amy’s Place belongs to Roy Holman. He is a youth mentor working every day but Sunday to provide the county’s street youth with otherwise inaccessible opportunities.
“I’m the guy that walks the streets. I check the cars and under the bridges. I try to connect with the kids any way I can. What I do is right; they’re all my kids,” he said.
In his experience, the most common issues among the teens living on the street are drugs and rough home lives.
“Everyone has a reason for being here. These kids are hurt. Their parents are in pain,” said Holman.
Sarah, 17, can tell you her reason for being homeless in one word: “drugs.” Sleeping under bridges and coming to Amy’s Place for help, Sarah has been in and out of homelessness for just over a year. According to her, another difficulty arises when police try to intervene.
“We’re just trying to sleep and they tell us to get out from under the bridges. We don’t have any other place to sleep,” she said.
In addition to ending the harassment, she feels that more facilities are necessary to alleviate the problem.
“They should make a place for all teens. Just a shelter where any teen can stay overnight. That would be great,” she said.
Some are not receiving medical care they desperately need. One young lady, dubbed “Junebug,” by her fellow teens will be traveling to Thailand at the end of August. She’s suffering from gallstones and could not get her family to cosign so she could receive treatment. The Seattle native is forced to travel across the world where the level of care is not as expensive, but also not as advanced.
Amy’s Place does all they can, but working on limited resources only allows them to help so much.
“A-M-Y. Assistance. Mentoring. Youth. It’s more than just a cute name,” said Roy.
Even despite the mounting odds and dwindling funds, the teens remain optimistic. Eric 18, loves to write music and play the bass guitar. In a few months he’ll be heading to Little Rock to begin a job in landscaping. Some day he hopes to start a band like his idols from Nine Inch Nails and Velvet Underground.
“My band’s going to be successful,” he said with an assured smile.
Likewise, Unick is far from prepared to give up on Amy’s Place.
“We aren’t getting ready to close,” she said. “We’re getting ready to expand.”