Homelessness is one of the biggest issues facing Whatcom County. According to the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness 2017 Annual Report, at least 742 people experienced homelessness last year and there were 520 homeless households. With rising home values, the population is likely to grow. To combat a problem, you need to start at its core. This is exactly what Lydia Place and its partners, like Peoples Bank, aim to do.

Derek Thornton and Emily O’Connor stand in front of the Lydia Place office at the Gladstone House property. Photo credit: Kenneth Clarkson.

It can be challenging for non-profit organizations to get the same types of funding and exposure that bigger for-profit companies acquire. This is why it’s so beneficial when companies like Peoples Bank help with financial advice, exposure and sponsorship for fundraising events.

Derek Thornton, Peoples Bank Senior Vice President and Director of Finance and Accounting, says it makes sense to use the Bank’s diverse skillsets to help non-profits succeed. “In general people want to do what’s right,” Thornton says. “Not just what’s right for our community, but for the purpose of doing good. That’s why we help out in whatever way we can. When we see a need, we try to meet that need.”

Recently, Thornton helped Lydia Place make an important financial decision to expand one of its buildings. He’s practicing what he preaches: seeing a need and meeting it. And helping Lydia Place goes beyond his work with Peoples Bank. Thornton is also the treasurer on Lydia Place’s Board of Directors.

“Homelessness is a huge issue,” Thornton says. “We’re not immune to it by any means in Bellingham. Around 23 percent of homeless individuals in Bellingham are children, which is why places like Lydia Place are so essential in helping the community.”

Children can play in the small playhouse that sits behind the Gladstone Property. Photo credit: Kenneth Clarkson.

Emily O’Connor, Lydia Place Executive Director, says its main focus is helping individuals and families create sustainable systems for themselves, systems they can use to live independently again. Lydia Place helps families break the cycle of homelessness by first alleviating some of the toxic stress created when basic needs are not met, and then supporting them in dreaming big and building toward those dreams.

Lydia Place assists clients with financial budgeting, furthering their education, re-entering the workplace, mental health counseling, parenting support and creating community connections that can help them maintain stability. “If we are flexible and responsive, and if we invest in families early on, we can have an impact that lasts for generations,” O’Connor says.

On average, Lydia Place serves 400 adults and 400 children each year. These individuals are split among the three properties Lydia Place owns, 79 housing units operated by the Bellingham Housing Authority and private sector housing units owned or managed by property management companies or private landlords.

There is no time limit at Lydia Place. Tenants are given what they need and can stay for as long as is necessary. According to O’Connor, some have stayed for as short as two months and others as long as five years.

The community gardens at all Lydia Place properties are 100 percent volunteer-run. Photo credit: Kenneth Clarkson.

The three properties Lydia Place owns are each located in a different part of Bellingham. The Baker Place Campus is in the Birchwood neighborhood, the Gladstone House is in the Puget Neighborhood and Bell Tower Studios is located in downtown Bellingham. Bell Tower Studios is the newest property, purchased in late 2016 with mortgage support from Peoples Bank.

“For us, helping people is just what you do,” Thornton says. “Help out where you can and when you can, that’s how I view it. We want people to have a better life, the community to benefit and Bellingham to be a safer and healthier place.”

This year, Lydia Place also partnered with Landmark Real Estate Management in an initiative that aims to house every family with children on the Bellingham community’s housing waiting list by the end of 2018. “It’s all about the kids,” O’Connor says, as she bounces her own small child on her lap. “We will have been around for 30 years next year, and we continue to grow and help more people every day. Our mission is to disrupt this cycle of homelessness.”

O’Connor’s office is at the Gladstone House which, in addition to serving as a hub for Lydia Place staff, also houses five mothers and their children. The house is quaint and borders a multi-acre lot. On the property is a volunteer-run community garden, a spacious play area equipped with a playground, and plenty of forest for kids to explore. The Gladstone House feels like home. It’s hard to think of a better starting point for these families to get back on their feet.

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