by Kathryn Fentress
Amy’s Place is a drop-in center on Friday and Saturday nights for homeless youth. Those attending are given a meal and a safe and welcoming place to hang out. Carrie Unick is a volunteer, and her mother Heidi is the director of the program.
Kathryn Fentress: Please tell us about yourself and how you came to volunteer at Amy’s Place.
Carrie Unick: Amy’s Place is named after my sister Amy. A is for assisting with advocacy, M for mentoring and Y for youth driven. When we were younger, we gravitated to the downtown area and ended up in some bad situations and then into foster care. My mom saw all the people downtown that had no place to go so she wanted to open a place for young people to have a safe place to spend their Friday and Saturday nights. My mom has a very big heart and wanted to make a difference. I have been clean and sober for the past two years, and it is very hard, but I am on the other end of it now. I run errands and help mom with the newsletters and other projects behind the scenes.
Heidi Unick: Carrie’s support and contribution to Amy’s Place is amazing. She has been there. The kids we see are usually between 13 and 24 years of age. She can relate to these kids and understands what is going on with them. When I share with her what I hear the kids saying when they are here, she is a wealth of knowledge and can explain to me what is going on. Operating Amy’s Place is a struggle; it takes a community to do this. We began on Dec. 23, 2006. My sister, brother-in-law, their two boys and Carrie and I invested a lot of time and energy. We started with six kids, and since then we have helped over 5,000 kids. Some of these have gotten off drugs and off the streets. Some of them have gotten mental health help and gotten on medication.
We make Christmastime a big deal; holidays are hard for kids on the street. I want them to feel wanted and cared about. The kids receive new sleeping bags, new blankets and toiletries at Christmas. Handing out these gifts is a shining moment. We have a dinner, and we are lenient about who attends. We celebrate the Friday before Christmas. The community can really step up and help out with this event.
You have been on the streets and listened to lots of stories. What sends the kids to the street in the first place?
Carrie Unick: A variety of reasons: I was curious, and there is the appeal of no responsibility, the freedom, and no one to account to. I was drinking heavily when I was younger. I also felt like I fit in and had found my people. The other users welcomed me with open arms. Some of these people in the scene are a lot older and take advantage of the younger ones. There were a couple of times when I was treated badly, but drugs and alcohol were always available.
I understand that sometimes kids go to the streets to escape an abusive family situation. There are girls and boys who are being sexually abused by a family member or one of their mother’s boyfriends?
Carrie Unick: Yes, this is very often true. Home life is so bad that kids leave searching for another family. If there is nowhere else to go, they sometimes find a tribe on the street that provides some kind of “family.” You want to numb out and don’t want to feel the pain, and drugs and alcohol are offered. Some of the older ones abuse the younger ones, helping them become addicted. Once you have been violated, it gets easier to give sex for drugs or a bit of money. The main providers of the drugs are the users, pushers and predators. Downtown we have gangs here now: the Crips and Bloods. They provide that sense of tribe. Once kids get involved with the gangs, they have a hard time leaving. Here at Amy’s Place we are offering them something different. The only things mom requires are to respect everyone and to help with a chore occasionally. When they come here, they are greeted by name and treated kindly. Respect and kindness are a welcome change from the street.
So what happens here on Friday and Saturday evenings?
Carrie Unick: The kids start trickling in around 5 p.m. At 5:30, mom gathers everyone for a meeting. It is like a support group, and the kids that come decide themselves what topic they want to talk about. Dinner is served at 6, and then mom distributes the resources at 6:30. We offer them gently used clothing and shoes and bus passes. Then it is free time so the kids will hang out, use the computers and play pool or other games.
How do the police relate to the street kids?
Carrie Unick: I have had a bad relationship with the Bellingham police. I have been brutally attacked by the police. I have had to pick gravel out of my face. They almost broke my jaw when I was 14 years old and 120 pounds. They slammed me into the ground, and I’ve had trouble with my back since then. They used so much hate and brutality when they arrested me. They are like the guys who were picked on in school and now have become the bullies. They are not there to protect and serve; they are there to make life a living hell for kids downtown. They actually give tickets to the kids if they sit down. They treat us like we are the scum of the earth. The message is that we don’t have the same rights as the people who are going into the shops. The police are there to protect the customers from us. So it increases the gap between the kids and society, reinforcing the message that we don’t belong. Some people think that living on the streets is a choice, but homelessness is not a choice for the majority of people on the streets.
This is hard work. What do you do to keep your spirits up?
Carrie Unick: I have a counselor and medication to help with my trauma history. I have a relationship with my Higher Power, and now my mom is my best friend. I also get support from my grandmother, who is 96 and still going strong. For all the difficult kids and losses, the others who are working the program and want something different keep us going.
What are your plans for the future?
Carrie Unick: I am 24 and attending Whatcom Community College. I hope to attend Evergreen College after I graduate with my AA degree. I want to eventually work with either veterans or the elderly.
What are your most pressing needs for Amy’s Place?
Heidi Unick: At the top of our wish list would be financial aid for the operational expenses of the program. Foundations will not cover operations, only the rent and youth supplies. We need volunteers to do food preparations and make meals. Our grant writer is retiring at the end of this year, so we need a grant writer/fundraiser person to keep the place going financially. We welcome volunteers who could serve as mentors, offer skills, art or music on Friday and Saturday nights.
Thank you both for your hard work and long-standing dedication to our community’s street teens. I truly hope more support will come your way for this important issue. Best wishes, Carrie, for your continuing education.
Heidi Unick, M.A., is the director and only paid staff for Amy’s Place. She is one of the original founders of the Old Town Christian Ministries established in 1980. In operation since 2006, Amy’s Place is located at 1704 N. State St. (upstairs).
Check www.amysplaceforyouth.org or call 360-671-5567 for more information and
ways to contribute.
Kathryn Fentress and her husband moved to Bellingham 20 years ago for the water, trees, fresh air and mountains. She is a psychologist in private practice and believes that spirit is in everything. Living in harmony with nature reflects a reverence for life. She delights in finding and meeting those people whose stories so inspire all of us.