A most interesting job - Salish Current

Sandy Hart, chatting here with Base Camp resident Craig Stephenson, estimates she has gotten to know some 300 homeless people in her year as a crisis services associate at the Bellingham shelter for unhoused people. (John Dunne / Salish Current photo © 2022)


Officially, Sandy Hart is a “crisis services associate” at Base Camp, the shelter for homeless people on Cornwall Street in downtown Bellingham run by the Lighthouse Mission. What she does is spend most of her day wandering the facility, talking to the residents, getting to know them and their situations. 

Over the past couple of years, I have gone out of my way to talk to homeless people because I find them interesting. During that time, I have had conversation with more than 20 people without homes. I have written profiles of some of them for the Salish Current. However, during the year that she has worked at Base Camp, Sandy has gotten to know more than 300 homeless people. I doubt there is anyone else in Bellingham who has had that experience.

I asked Sandy what drew her to this job. Although she said she has a brother with schizophrenia who is now in a group home after being homeless, it was Valerie, a woman at her church who inspired her. She and Valerie would take meals to homeless encampments as part of their church outreach program. Sandy was very impressed with the comfortable way Valerie interacted with the people at the encampments. 

When her children, now 9 and 12, were old enough  for her to return to working, this was the kind of job she was looking for. Sandy immediately gravitated to mingling with residents full time. Base Camp has a capacity for 150 men and 50 women but there are always new people to meet as others leave.

She loves getting to know them and has developed close relationships with some of them. She is especially troubled about some of the residents who really should not be there. For example, she talked about a homeless woman who was discharged from St. Joseph’s Hospital with metastatic cancer and who is in constant pain, someone who Sandy thinks ought to be in a step-down medical facility. 

The planned new Lighthouse Mission facility on Holly Street will have a step-down unit, staffed by Unity Care, to better handle discharged patients needing continuing care but have no other place to go. Many who are disabled are not receiving enough in disability payments to support themselves. 

She recalled an older man whom she encountered on her first day. He had perpetually sad eyes. As she was talking with him, he expressed he had no friends and asked her, plaintively, if she would be his friend. How could she say no to a request like that? That started an enduring friendship. Not all relationships have happy endings. The hardest part of her job is coping with the death of a resident with whom she has built a caring relationship. 

Another group that she is concerned about are residents with serious mental illnesses (SMI), like her brother. Too often they create a public disturbance and end up in jail where they languish, waiting for a mental health evaluation to determine if they qualify for involuntary treatment. Many with SMIs are ejected from other more suitable programs because they have refused treatment or to continue their medications. 

Once on the street and homeless, they gravitate to Base Camp if they can avoid being arrested. One man she described has mental health problems as well as being a methamphetamine addict. She loves talking to him; he always makes her laugh. One day on her way to the laundry he looked troubled; she told him that she wanted to talk with him but could not just then. When she returned to talk with him, he was in tears. He said that no one has ever wanted to talk to him because he is so weird.

There are certainly problems, such as when a couple of men start fighting or a woman gets agitated and starts screaming. She and the rest of the staff have become adept at spotting these escalations and intervening before anyone gets hurt. She has never been assaulted and has never felt threatened by any of the residents. Long-time residents who have grown to care about her rally to her defense if someone starts to escalate. She loves her job even more now than when she first started.

When she first took the job, her family was a bit cautious, especially her mother. They held the common misconception of homeless people as somehow threatening. Sandy’s experience has certainly been far from that stereotype. Last Christmas, her first working a Base Camp, her two children and husband brought doughnuts to distribute to the residents. Both children felt that that had been fun and her daughter, 9-year-old Lexi, now wants to work at Base Camp when she grows up.

—Contributed by John Dunne

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