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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

A glimpse into homelessness

By Dan Thomas and Michael Nguyen


The constant rain and freezing temperatures of Bellingham during the unforgiving winter can be potentially devastating for people who experience homelessness.

Sunflower, a current Whatcom Community College student who has been without a home on-and-off for three years preferred not to disclose her full name.

“Think about it, your home is in your bag,”  Sunflower said.

The Whatcom County Annual Report on Homelessness identified 742 people in Whatcom County at the time of the survey last January.

Resources like the Lighthouse Mission drop-in center attempt to alleviate the strains for someone experiencing homelessness by allowing anyone in need of help to come and go as they please.

It’s also the only walk-in shelter between Everett and Vancouver, B.C. and can house 120 people each night.  

Hans Erchinger-Davis has been working at Lighthouse Mission Drop-in-Center for over 10 years, he believes homelessness is a symptom of something deeper in Whatcom.

“People don’t become homeless because they run out of resources, people become homeless because they run out of relationships,” Erchinger-Davis said. “So, a lot of what we are up to here is reconciling relationships.”

Houseless is when a person does not have a physical structure to reside, homeless is when a person does not have a space to call their own due to lack of relationships or resources.

Throughout Sunflower’s story she can personally speak to the complications of experiencing both homelessness and houselessness.

“I got kicked out, I had to move in with my mom, slept on her couch. I didn’t have a job, I had nowhere to live,” Sunflower said. “It was way more of a disappointment where, for the first time in my life, I feel passionate about education and because I didn’t have enough money, I couldn’t fulfill my dreams.”

Sunflower is a 26-year-old returning student at Whatcom Community College living in Bellingham.

Graduating from high school in 2009, Sunflower enrolled at the Art Institute in Denver, Colorado to study fashion design and retail management.

Sunflower is a Whatcom Community College student who has come to Bellingham for school. // Photo by Dan Thomas

“School was really great. It was the first time I was on honor roll, it was the first time I was ever just really passionate about what I was learning,” Sunflower said.
During her second year in 2010, the school informed her, without another cosigner to take out more loans, she would not be able to continue her education.

Looking to family members for help with cosigning, Sunflower called her father last where he told her no and to join the military as their family has deep connections with the Navy.

Sunflower’s father and mother got divorced when she was three. She had not had contact with him since sixth grade.

In hopes of finding her own place, Sunflower eventually got part-time retail jobs at Hot Topic and Joann’s. But with $50,000 in student loans and only minimum wage, she could not afford the deposit, along with first and last month’s rent.

“Eventually I did end up calling my dad again, and was just like ‘Look you wouldn’t help me out with college, you need to help me out getting an apartment because now I’m back home and I got nothing,’” Sunflower said.

Sunflower’s father ended up helping pay for the deposit so she could have a place to live for the time being.

The Francine, built in the late 1800s, was a series of five row houses in Lincoln, Nebraska. It became 15 apartments, then renovated into around 30 individual units.

“It was Nebraska, so it was really cheap. For like, a 600-square-foot efficiency apartment was like $300 a month. This was like a big room, a big kitchen, a bathroom and a walk-in closet. Like it was fresh, it was super fresh,” Sunflower said.

Mostly art students lived at The Francine in 2010 and were ranging from their 20s to 30s, Sunflower said.

“It was the coolest community ever and everybody who lived there were friends, so we would have a grill out in the back,” Sunflower said. “I hosted a few halloween parties, like kegs.”

Sunflower described coming to a breaking point in which physical and mental illness were contributing factors that stemmed from her childhood and young adult life.

“I was in the breakroom I had made this super dope squash bisque and put it in the microwave, and when I got it out the glass container it was in just cracked and all of it just went on me,” Sunflower said. “I just had a total break down. I was just like, ‘I quit, I gotta go home, ain’t coming back, I’m done.’”

From there, Sunflower moved into an activist/punk house and got a job cold calling for a political candidate to pay the bills.

After a while, realizing the job was not a fit for her in where she felt pressured to not take no for an answer from the potential donors/supporters, Sunflower quit and moved forward.

She moved into a new room she describes as “basically storage,” paying $100 a month.

It was also around this time her interest in traveling was rekindled through various friends and mutual friends, Sunflower said.

Growing up as a self-described military brat and traveling since the age of three, claiming that traveling was in her blood.

In 2012, at the age of 21, Sunflower traveled to the national rainbow gathering in Tennessee. She described the event as people with a vision of sustainable living coming together and living communally where everybody has a role and takes care of others.

“We would have kitchens that would feed so many people, nobody was hungry,” Sunflower said.

Sunflower elaborated that due to past childhood experiences she did not learn the grace for quality judgements and proper discrimination toward people and ended up with a crowd that drank all the time.

“I got into the group of people that just drank all the time. It was just straight sex, drugs and rock and roll. Everybody was getting high, everybody was dropping acid, everybody was makin’ music and fuckin’ each other,” Sunflower said. “For whatever reason, I trusted these people, they were my people, they got it.”

Sunflower drove some of her new friends back to Nebraska with her.

“Looking back, I really wish I would’ve had more confidence in standing up for myself. In my childhood, I would constantly get walked over for fear for my life,” Sunflower said.

She said the constant cycle of not being able to reject or say no to others affected her decision making which led to times where others took advantage of her.

“They trashed my shit, they trashed my car and I was a bitch for calling them out on it,” Sunflower said.

From Tennessee to Nebraska, Sunflower described the experience as living with a bunch of alcoholics.

“There was this dude who would wake up with the shakes. There was this one morning where he couldn’t get alcohol fast enough and he started throwing up and almost seizing because he didn’t have alcohol,” Sunflower said.

This first portion of the story only begins to set the scene for the next few years of Sunflower’s life. In total, she traveled across the country from the west to east coast from 2011 to 2014.

Visiting upward of 20 states such as Iowa, Arkansas, Missouri, Colorado and Oregon.

“I really feel your early 20s are all about self discovery. This was my journey in discovering who I was,” Sunflower said.

Currently settling down in Bellingham after the third time being in the area, Sunflower plans to finish her education in areas of early childhood development, early language learning and education while tying in her background with caregiving.

“When the stars align it might not always be pretty but it’s to move yourself forward,” Sunflower said.


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