It’s been a year since the Lighthouse Mission launched its Street Connect program – and it has proven essential in linking the Mission to those who might otherwise receive few or no services, for a variety of reasons.

Hans Erchinger-Davis, executive director at the Lighthouse Mission, explains how the program bridges their in-house services with immediate care. He goes on to detail how many homeless people have faced institutional breaches of trust in the past or may have medical conditions that increase paranoia, making it difficult for them to take the important steps toward receiving help.

“We decided to reach out and engage those folks where they’re at and give them an opportunity to engage with meeting basic needs,” Erchinger-Davis says. “But with the purpose of cultivating a consistent friendship and presence for those folks on the street so [that] when they are ready, when they do want to come in and get help, we’re the first people they call.”

Hot water in a Cup O’ Noodles provides much needed energy and warmth in the cold. Photo courtesy: Lighthouse Mission

About eight volunteers go out with the team on the nights they run. “It’s a powerful thing for the community at large,” says Erchinger-Davis. “They become champions of the issue after they see such suffering and people out there who could die.”

Relationship building is the first and primary role of the Street Connect team. To that end, program hours were expanded during the last cold snap to get volunteers out on the streets, connecting and building relationships during the important period of day when a person on the street is most likely to decide whether or not to come in for the night. This helps provide encouragement and trustworthy faces on the spot, ready to bring people into the warmth of the Mission at a critical time. Volunteers even drive in those who need it. “It’s easier to come in when you have a friend there who is encouraging you to take care of your own safety and preservation,” Erchinger-Davis says.

The team often consists of two staff members and eight volunteers. Photo courtesy: Lighthouse Mission

The homeless sometimes feel like a burden or that they are unwanted wherever they go – in coffee shops, the bus station, or even at the hospital. But the Mission works to correct that; there, they are welcome. And moreover, there, they build a relationship that lasts long after homelessness ends. “This relationship is for life,” says Erchinger-Davis. “We are gonna walk alongside you for life.”

The Street Connect team also provides some basic needs. In the cold, this can mean blankets and sleeping bags, hand-warmers and such. But it also means portable hot water and Cup O’ Noodles, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for energy needs, and hot cider to warm cold hands and bodies. If they have them, the team will also hand out toiletry items, coats, and socks.

Thankfully, many businesses and volunteers support the work of the Lighthouse Mission. “We have been a longtime supporter of the Lighthouse Mission because their organization makes real impacts in our community and on the individual lives of so many,” says Jake Bassett, director of marketing and communications for DeWaard & Bode. “Programs like Street Connect are critical for reaching out to folks who need resources.”

The team treks into alleys but also into known out-of-the-way places where camps are set up to check on people. Photo courtesy: Lighthouse Mission

The Mission has been in Bellingham for 95 years – because homelessness is nothing new. In fact, according to Erchinger-Davis, homelessness has grown by 10 percent every year for the last four years. The need is great and growing greater by the moment. One year ago, there were 815 homeless in Bellingham; if those statistics remain steady, in three years we will pass 1,000.

The street team engages with about 75 homeless people every night they are out, in addition to the 325 engaged by the Mission for sleeping, programs, or at the drop-in center. Last summer, the Street Connect program launched its shower trailer, which has been a tremendous success and now boasts several locations on different days, making the service available throughout Bellingham.

The Street Connect van now has extended hours to reach people during critical periods. Photo courtesy: Lighthouse Mission

But a key component of Street Connect has less to do with the homeless and more to do with the community that surrounds the homeless. Allaying fears and dispelling myths in the housed population ultimately creates a better integrated sense of community connection for both the housed and the homeless.

Building awareness and relationships is key in helping to solve the crisis of homelessness in Bellingham. “People don’t become homeless because they run out of resources,” Erchinger-Davis says. “People become homeless because they run out of relationships.”

Volunteers can sign up to help on their website. The Mission is always in need of items such as towels, blankets, and much more to support their programs, including Street Connect. A full list can be found on their donations page.

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