Building up!

New structure for the Lighthouse Mission to bring place and promise to help people out of homelessness

The physical transformation of Lighthouse Mission Ministries, at the corner of Holly and F streets in Bellingham, has begun. The old, concrete, Spanish-style building — with the iconic big-block letters spelling out the name — has been razed. A new structure will go up, to be completed in 2024.

In talking about the new building, Hans Erchinger-Davis, president and chief executive officer of Lighthouse Mission Ministries, never forgets about the lives he hopes to see transformed inside. His core of staff and volunteers are one of the most visible forces in Whatcom County, with a credible record of helping those in homelessness recover from addiction and engage with specialized intervention services to forge new lives. (A record of how many guests receive a selection of services — emergency shelter, for example — is posted daily at https://www.thelighthousemission.org/what-we-do/base-camp/.)

“One of our most successful case managers came from the streets,” Erchinger-Davis said. “He had tracks up and down his arms from drug use. He found recovery at Lighthouse. In turn, for the last 10 years as case manager, he has helped so many people transform, too.”
This interview happened days before the mission’s annual gala, with June 9 marking 100 years of service from the largely privately funded, Christian-based charity. Even with a regular workload topped off by a special event, staff dipped in and out of the conference room to say hello, make sure bottled water was offered, and pass along tasks and phone messages to their CEO. The radical hospitality, something Lighthouse strives to be known for on the street, extends to all who come through the organization.

Erchinger-Davis, who worked for 10 years as the Lighthouse chaplain and has worked for the past seven years as CEO, shared graphics of the new building, along with charts of fundraising sources. He and his staff fluently described complex systems of how to build a new $25 million structure with community support. But in describing the work, they always came back to the accounts of how people move from desperation to recovery, a distance that seems great but also possible. The new Lighthouse building is a place and a promise — for guests, staff and supporters — to continue the work of a 100-year-old mission.

Where you’ve been
BP: Before talking about the new building construction, can you explain why you and your team use specific words for your guests, those who live in homelessness?
Hans: We use “guests” instead of “clients.” We care for our “neighbors,” not “others” or “street people.” We have a significant record of helping many “people in homelessness” move into recovery and full, vibrant lives.

In our spoken words, the person always comes first. How we talk with those we care for, our guests, deeply affects how they feel. We emphasize the mutuality of people instead of power dynamics. Our words allow people to realize we’re walking with them and not over them.

Some community members see those in homelessness as not wanting help and not wanting work.

People don’t become homeless due to lost resources. They become homeless due to lost relationships. If you or I encounter addiction or job loss, we would find solace and shelter with our family and friends.

The opposite of addiction is connection. In positive relationships with the Lighthouse team, our guests scramble to get jobs, fight to get their children from Child Protective Services, want to be whole. Fueled by our gospel-centered mission, each guest sees that he or she is a child of the King, not a piece of dirt.

BP: How does the work of recovery begin?
Hans: Those in homelessness have lost family, friends, all sustaining relationships. They don’t have anyone, and they don’t trust anyone. Typically, many have suffered severe childhood physical and sexual abuse. They’ve been told they are worthless. They mistake homelessness as penance and abandonment as their earnings. They get eyed a lot — gawked at — and they feel badly in their hearts. If you believe you’re a drunk or a drug addict, you live that out. Those in homelessness carry these damaging beliefs in a kind of horrific backpack.

On the street, in our shelter, in our recovery programs, every Lighthouse team member helps dismantle the debilitating belief system to remove that backpack. Identity and vocation are where we focus. We help guests identify who they truly are — cherished — and then possibilities for vocation — their purposes and gifts. This is often a year-and-half process.

Where you’re going
BP: Describe the structure to be built as the new Lighthouse Mission. How will services expand?
Hans: The old Lighthouse Mission structure, at the corner of Holly and F streets in Bellingham, was razed. The new building to be completed in 2024 features five floors, 400 beds that will double the impact of our services, different shelters with specialized interventions based on unique needs, and workplace development opportunities.
More square footage is important; we serve about 2,500 people a year. We work with roughly half of those who live in homelessness in Whatcom County.

BP: What issues have you encountered as you’ve proceeded with building plans?
Hans: There’s a lot to permitting. That city group had been short-staffed but were also intentional about not creating a backlog. We had a few challenges that got worked through.
Also, Lighthouse applied for a land use variance to be able to host more people, which justifiably included public comment. In doing this work, you encounter detractors and negativity, which is basically fear. I get the fear. I understand neighbors who fear trespassing or theft. At Lighthouse, we’re always going to advocate for our guests while at the same time working hard to be a good neighbor in the city.

BP: Within the new building, there will be an industrial kitchen. Can you talk about the importance of this feature and your hopefulness at the county providing these funds (after first declining)?
Hans: Meeting a person’s hunger is their ticket to our door. Seeing opportunity and sensing hope? That starts with a meal.

The mission will receive $750,000 from Whatcom County for an industrial kitchen in the new building. Those funds come from federal COVID-19 relief dollars. We currently serve 750 meals a day, but that capacity will double to 1,500 meals.

The kitchen will also be a space of study and hands-on learning for people interested in entering the culinary field, part of workplace development.

The iconic building — now torn down and to be replaced — is seen as the Lighthouse Mission. But the new building is part of a campus, adjacent to other structures that house services for a very deliberate path, from street to recovery.

We deliberately scaffold our services so that moving from chaos on the streets to recovery and shelter is a step-by-step process.

  • Outreach: On the street, Lighthouse staff build trust by offering sandwiches, toiletry kits and invitations to check out Base Camp. (Importantly, we do not offer propane or tents, or anything that might keep someone stuck in the woods.) Our motto is reach out, invite in.
  • Base Camp: Here we stabilize incoming guests. They have been on the street, trying to survive hour by hour. At Base Camp, we help guests get quiet, with shelter, food, showers and laundry services. Pets are welcome. Guests can access a medical clinic, Café Renovare (our on-site coffee shop), pathways to establishing identifications, housing referrals, memorial services, voluntary prayer time, worship and Bible studies, case management and 15 partner agencies. Base camp is a first-step transition space. Staff need to be “Mo-Chuck,” combining the compassion of Mother Teresa with the street smarts of Chuck Norris. (With the demolition of the old building, Base Camp is currently in the old Public Market building at 1530 Cornwall Ave. Base Camp will return to its original location, in the new building on Holly Street.)
  • Agape Home: A place to find healing and connect to even more resources, this is the faith-based residential recovery program for single women and women and their children.
  • Ascent: In a separate building, this is the faith-based residential recovery program for men.

BP: Sometimes, it might be easier to focus on the new building. But you are deliberate in emphasizing that the work of Lighthouse is in relationship.
Hans: One of our sayings is “housing next” and not housing first. Through our scaffolding of services, we help move people forward to housing readiness, on their timetables. We’re seen as warm demanders and compassionate growth assistants. We are not doing only mercy work, what’s known as “three hots (meals) and a cot.” Our work is human connection and maturation: healing the whole person spiritually, relationally, emotionally and physically; providing a place to work on the issues that propelled folks to homelessness. When guests re-engage with the world and get their own places, they have been given a fighting chance.

In community
BP: Can you talk about the undertaking of securing grants and fundraising?
Hans: Lighthouse has raised $19.5 million for its new $25 million shelter. To retain its Christian-based mission, Lighthouse is largely privately funded.
Supporters, donors, public servants and first responders want to see intervention that is effective. That is what they see in Lighthouse. We know how to be in relationship with those touched by homelessness and addiction. Our faith conviction is God’s care and concern for the poor.

BP: What precautions and guidance have been put in place to help downtown businesses feel safe and positive about Lighthouse Mission Ministries and its programs?
Hans: Lighthouse is intentional about giving every area stakeholder a voice. Monthly, we host a neighborhood advisory group, which includes a representative from the Whatcom Transit Association, local property owners, police and city representatives.
We also sponsor the Good Neighbor Project to provide resources and support for local businesses as they interact with our neighbors. We offer training to de-escalate volatility and increase compassion. Business owners faced with requests for handouts have coffee tickets: I can’t give you anything, but here’s a ticket for a cup at the Base Camp coffeehouse.

BP: What gives you hope?
Hans: We work in partnership with churches, agencies and individuals from every ideological perspective who see our success and are incredibly supportive and generous.
There are some who have written off people who live in homelessness. Try not to forget, these are human beings, with parents and families and dreams. They’re made in the image of God and therefore worth every effort to bring to health. How we treat our poor is a reflection of our soul. And at Lighthouse Mission, we’re after the soul of this city. ■