Assistance Mentoring Youth: Amy's Place
by Saturday, September 20, 2008
Drive by 2006 J St. on a Friday or Saturday night and they’ll probably be seen outside on the curb, smoking cigarettes and joking around.
They might also go unnoticed. After all, they are some of Whatcom County’s marginalized teens. They frequent Amy’s Place, where they receive the aid they need that helps them survive without homes, living in the streets.
Created in 2006, Amy’s Place is a non-profit organization providing food, clothing, supplies and a healthy, sober environment for youth. Some teens supported by Amy’s Place are homeless, runaway youth, or throwaway youth— young people who are forced to leave their homes by their parents or guardians.
“Amy’s Place offers teens the chance to change,” director Heidi Unick said. “For those who drop out or are thrown out, we can provide direction.”
The organization started off with only six teens. Today, the drop-in center averages about 30 to 40 kids from all different backgrounds and income levels, the only center of its kind in the Bellingham area.
The youngest member of Amy’s Place is just 11; the oldest is 21.
Although Amy’s Place is able to operate on federal grants and donations, Unick fears that when the current grant expires in late September, the organization will be forced to close down. With no teen-specific shelter in the area, most Amy’s Place teens could be forced to fend for themselves.
A 2007 study published by the Whatcom Health Department indicated there were 104 unaccompanied homeless minors living in Whatcom County. The adult shelters in Bellingham do not allow unaccompanied minors, leaving teens with few options.
Unick said she believes a lack of public awareness has led to the low amount of donations and financial support. She estimates it will take about $50,000 to keep Amy’s Place alive through the end of the month.
“The community is not aware that it’s a crisis out there [for homeless teens],” she said. “[The community] needs to get behind us and they need to get behind this,” she said. Most of the teens who visit Amy’s Place are living on the streets. Railroad Avenue, a popular spot for most homeless youth, often proves to be unsafe. Drugs, fights and harsh weather are
daily obstacles in the downtown environment. Roy Holman, a youth adviser who spends every day but Sunday helping homeless youth, said his job is difficult but also rewarding. He appreciates every opportunity he has to instill positive values in teens.
“A-M-Y,” Holman said. “Assistance. Mentoring. Youth. It’s more than just a cute name.” Ernie* is an 18-year-old who has lived downtown for six months and said that without Amy’s Place, he’d be lost.
He said some problems with living in the downtown streets stem from the miscommunication between Western students who frequent the bars and the homeless population.
“[Western students] think they’re better than everybody,” he said. “They come down here and tell us to get a job.” Sergio* is a teen who has been coming to Amy’s Place for almost a year and had the same negative outlook toward many downtown visitors.
“We are the forgotten youth,” Sergio said. “We are nothing but scum to them.” On July 22, Sergio was one of the many people who came on behalf of Amy’s Place to speak to the county council during the mental health and substance abuse tax hearing. Council members deliberated on a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase to pay for mental-health and substance abuse treatment programs. The proposal was ratified July 28, much to Sergio’s happiness.
“With this tax raise, Amy’s Place has a chance to stay alive,” Sergio said.
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,” he said. “We are a family.”
During his time at Amy’s Place, Sergio has worked to try and wean his fellow teens from drugs use, which he said is all too common among homeless youth. For example, he’s tried helping teens like Sarah,* 17.
Sarah said drug addiction has contributed to her being homeless for more than a year. She lives day to day sleeping under bridges and coming to Amy’s Place for help.
Amy’s Place does all it can, but limited resources and funding can only go so far, Unick said. Keeping the place going is exhausting, she said. It’s important to have faith, to keep believing in the organization and what it stands for when times get tough, she said.
But sometimes keeping the faith really works.
Amy’s Place teens received good news a while ago. On Sept. 1, the organization relocated to its current space on J Street. Money remains tight, but Unick is far from prepared to give up.
“We aren’t getting ready to close,” she said. “We’re getting ready to expand.”