In Bellingham, WA, a church spends $1 million to build a day center to help homeless youths
A day center for youths who are homeless and at risk will open in a renovated space in the basement of First Congregational Church of Bellingham, likely in January.
The project is a partnership of the church and Northwest Youth Services, a nonprofit that provides services and housing to young people who need help, including runaways.
Called The Ground Floor, the space will give youths 24 years and younger a place to get out of the weather, do laundry, shower, cook meals, use computers, store their stuff, pick up mail and access services that include case management, employment services and education.
Northwest Youth Services already provides some of that in a limited capacity in a much smaller space, essentially its lobby in its building at 1020 N. State St., requiring it to make do.
“We’ve been Band-aiding it, MacGyvering it,” Riannon Bardsley, executive director for Northwest Youth Services, told The Bellingham Herald. “We’re done MacGyvering, thanks to First Congregational Church. They’re amazing.”
The Bellingham Herald gathered information for this story from phone interviews this week, previous Herald stories and project websites.
At nearly 3,500 square feet, the larger custom-built space provided by First Congregational Church will allow the nonprofit to do more to help youths.
That includes more space to take showers and do laundry.
“Young people aren’t going to be successful at gaining employment or seeking housing if they don’t have some basic hygiene care, nor do they feel very dignified,” Bardsley said.
First Congregational has been raising a little over $1 million to renovate the space at its 2401 Cornwall Ave. church.
It will provide that space rent-free to Northwest Youth Services, which will oversee programs for youths there.
When the nonprofit no longer needs The Ground Floor, another organization in the community will be able to use it.
“We are the host, and they are the program,” explained Rev. David Weasley, the church’s pastor for Youth, Young Adults and Mission, of how the partnership works. “We’re delighted to have them come use it however they want.”
Weasley said the church and its congregation have long wanted to use the space for the good of the community, and they were happy to offer it to Northwest Youth Services to do the “wonderful work” that’s being done in its tiny space on North State Street.
They wanted to help Northwest Youth Services grow the work they admire, he added.
“We know a lot of these young people are very excited to be part of a neighborhood,” Weasley said of those expected in The Ground Floor.
First Congregational Church also wanted to support those who were LGBTQ.
“We know that young people who experience homeless are disproportionately LGBTQ,” Weasley said.
Nationally, up to 40 percent of homeless youths identify as LGBTQ, according to a number of studies.
Part of the work around The Ground Floor included meeting with neighbors about the project and hearing their concerns, Weasley said, adding that a hotline was provided to them.
And while The Ground Floor is at the church — “Our faith is leading us to host this program,” Weasley said — there will be no religious programming, those involved with the project stressed. Access will be from a separate entrance on the side of the building.
The Ground Floor will open at a time when homelessness has been increasing in Whatcom County, although it is holding steady among youths, according to Bardsley, saying that Northwest Youth Services’ outreach team sees on average 350 to 420 young people a year.
Although the November opening of 40 studio apartments for homeless adults and youths has helped — a five-story building in Bellingham called 22 North — the lack of affordable housing remains a problem.
“The amount of young people is not necessarily increasing but the intensity of need is increasing because they’ve been outside for years,” Bardsley said, adding that the longer they’re homeless, the harder it becomes to engage youths and the more acute their behavioral, medical and other issues become.
The Ground Floor will provide a place for young people to create their own community, Bardsley said.
“They deserve to be safe and have the opportunities to strive and be healthy. Young people, when given the opportunity, they often want to be engaged in the community, they want to be seen as valuable, they want somewhere to feel safe,” she said. “When we show them and tell them that we care about them, they in return care about us and care about their community. When they’re living in crisis and feeling isolated and invisible and their basic needs aren’t met, then that’s where hopelessness lives.”