Illustration by Nicole Swift
By Mitch Farley
The First Congressional Church of Bellingham is opening its basement in partnership with Northwest Youth Services as a safe place for young people ages 13 to 24 who are experiencing homelessness, according to a press release sent out by Rev. David Weasley.
The project, known as The Ground Floor, had its opening ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 10, in the basement of the church on Cornwall Avenue.
Emerson McCuin, a volunteer with Northwest Youth Services, said the new space provides some relief to the organization, whose only other Whatcom County location was a cramped space on State Street.
Those seeking assistance are asked to sign in when they arrive, where they are given access to all of the facility’s amenities, McCuin said.
“We want to have as low of a barrier as possible,” McCuin said.
Amenities include laundry, showers, couches, nap areas and a lounge with games like foosball. McCuin said the goal is to provide a place where people feel comfortable; whether they choose to use any of the amenities, that’s up to them.
Northwest Youth Services Board President Ellie Posel said the young community members will also have access to a number of services at The Ground Floor. Posel said there is counseling available with housing directors who are ready to help people in need find housing, as well as vocational and academic advisors and access to donated clothing.
The project comes out of a broader vision to make a difference in the lives of youth in crisis, Posel said.
Retired chaplain and previous board member at Northwest Youth Services Dick Cathell said one goal of the project is to put a special focus on homeless youth who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community and to help this community gain trust in the church.
“Forty percent of homeless youth in Whatcom County come from conservative-churched homes where they’re told being LGBTQ+ is not okay. We want to do the opposite of that here,” Cathell said.
Cathell said the church wants people to know they are providing a space where people from all backgrounds can come to feel safe and supported.
Weasley said this project has been long in the making. Twenty years ago, this space was built with a project like this in mind but it wasn’t until five years ago when the church began meeting with nonprofits that they realized that Northwest Youth Services was the right partner for them, Weasley said.
“There is a lot of overlap between our organizations in terms of style and mission. The church fell in love with what they [Northwest Youth Services] do and they’ve been involved with the entire process ever since,” Weasley said.
Northwest Youth Services helped design the space, which has been provided to them rent-free for as long as they need, Weasley said.
Sharry Nyberg, who has been with the church for 19 years, has seen the project come fully into fruition. Nyberg credits part of the project’s success to the community and church members, who raised $1 million in three months to support the project, Nyberg said.
“Our commitment is welcome and inclusion,” Weasley said. “And we couldn’t have asked for a better partner [than NWYS].”
For more information on Northwest Youth Services, visit the organizations website: https://www.nwys.org/.