People experiencing homelessness in Bellingham tell their own stories

By Julia Furukawa
The Western Front

Brian Davis

Brian Davis, 56, said that despite earning a college degree in communications, he still can’t find a job in Bellingham. // Photo by Mathew Roland

Brian Davis, 56, is a veteran, college graduate, former social worker and now, homeless.

Davis said he served in Korea, did two tours in Iraq and worked on Operation Desert Storm.

Davis said he has dedicated his life to service and is proud of the work he’s done. He can’t seem to understand why he’s found himself sleeping at the Lighthouse Mission Drop-in-Center every night.

“I sometimes get the feeling: What did I do wrong?” Davis said.

Davis attributes some of his struggles to his childhood, which he said was far from normal.

He didn’t grow up with his biological parents. He said after bouncing around foster homes, he was adopted by a white family after meeting his adoptive father by chance when he was a teenager.

Now with a stable, consistent family and home, Davis said he was able to focus on school. He said he wasn’t sure if he would’ve made it this far without their generosity.

Despite this stroke of luck, he still struggled. He felt like he couldn’t keep up, Davis said.

“When my parents adopted me, I was reading at a fourth grade level, but I was a sophomore in high school,” Davis said. He knew he would have to work hard to graduate.

With the support of his parents, Davis graduated. Despite this accomplishment, he said he still felt as if he wasn’t truly a part of his family.

Davis sat his father down one day to try and explain this to his father.

“Tears in my eyes I said, ‘What am I, separate or equal in this family?’ And he told me, ‘Equal,’” Davis said. “I said, ‘I’ll never be equal because outside these doors, I’m nothing. You might love me, but I’m nothing.’”

Davis said those lingering doubts in the back of his head followed him to college.

Davis said he graduated from Judson University in Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in communications, but put his career on hold in order to serve in the military.

When he returned home from deployment, Davis said he started working with King County helping at-risk youth at high schools in Seattle make it to graduation. He said he wanted to be the one who provided the support that he so desperately craved when he was in high school.

However, after cuts to the King County budget, Davis said he was laid off from his job as a counselor. So he relocated to Sedro-Wooley to fill a similar position.

Then, his life seemed to repeat itself. The agency he worked for there became financially unstable.

“I was the last to be hired, so I was the first to go,” he said.

Davis said that being laid off a second time reignited turmoil in his family, particularly with his father. Davis had been helping his adoptive family pay rent, but now jobless, he couldn’t contribute.

Shortly after losing his job, Davis said he was run off of the road by another vehicle on his way up to Bellingham. The car accident left him with permanent damage to his back and left foot.

Not only was Davis already without a job, but with the severe injuries he sustained, he couldn’t return to the workforce. Then, when he sought out medical care, he struck out again. He said this was particularly devastating to him because he felt he’d earned the right to decent care after serving his country in the Army.

“The VA (Department of Veteran Affairs) did nothing for me,” Davis said.

Jobless and still struggling with medical ailments, Davis now stays at the Drop-in Center, but he said he feels like his life isn’t going anywhere, and that ambiguity is scary to him. He said the Mission doesn’t make an effort to help people experiencing homelessness get back on their feet.

“The Mission is just a holding cell for people,” Davis said. “It should be a transitional cell. ‘Drop-in?’ Well, if I drop in, how long am I gonna stay?”

Out of touch with his family, Davis said he has had to learn to invest in the relationships he has with others at the Drop-in Center.

“Right now, this is my extended family,” Davis said, gesturing around. “So, I have to embrace it because it’s part of my social network.”

Davis’ positivity has been tested by his life experiences, but he said those same experiences have helped shape him into someone who perseveres and someone who helps others do the same.

"If you can look up, you can get up"

“I’m still standing,” Davis said. “My adage is: if you can look up, you can get up.”

There are around 742 homeless individuals living in Whatcom County, according to a 2017 report from the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness. // Drone image by Nic Ulmer

Angelina Mak

Angelina Mak, 26, reads poetry from her journal. “This life isn’t easy, this life isn’t free,” she said. //Photos by Nic Ulmer

With a view of Bellingham Bay stretching out before her, Angelina Mak smiled.

“I always dreamt of having a little waterfront studio,” she said, laughing. “This isn’t exactly what I pictured.”

Next to Mak is the Lighthouse Mission Drop-in Center. She says she spends most of her days and nights at the Mission.

Mak, 26, has been homeless on and off for four years. She said she initially became homeless after leaving an abusive relationship with a past partner who got her into drugs.

Mak had moved to Oregon to be with her partner, but after they broke up, she had no one to turn to there. She was completely alone.

Being a Bellingham native, Mak decided to come back home. But her homecoming wasn’t as smooth as she had hoped.

“I was born and raised here,” Mak said. “I went to Lowell Elementary, Fairhaven Middle School and Blaine High School.”

She had a high school diploma, and after falling out with her boyfriend, she tried to attend college while homeless, but found it nearly impossible.

Finding time to study and work, while also sleeping at the shelter took its toll.

So she dropped out.

Mak also attributed some of her difficulties with school to her struggles with her mental health. She said she lives with bipolar disorder, which makes it hard for her to maintain healthy relationships and jobs.

“Honestly, being bipolar and dealing with the medical stuff I have to deal with, is a full-time job in itself,” Mak said.

With no job, Mak said she had nowhere else to turn but the streets.

Her struggle with mental health made it harder to stay away from substances, and Mak said she fell into a pattern of using. The high she used to get from drugs mimicked the feeling of her manic episodes, Mak said.

“A lot of people with bipolar love the up of it,” she said. “They love the high.”

Mak is now making a conscious effort to stay clean and sober, but living at the Mission and the Drop-in Center makes it difficult. While drugs and alcohol are not allowed at the Lighthouse Mission, she said there are always opportunities to use, but when there are, she tries to turn to religion to resist temptation.

“I was in a situation last night where I could’ve used,” Mak said. “For me, my faith is what keeps me going everyday.”

Mak taps into her faith in creative ways. She pulled out a yellow notebook covered with doodles. After flipping through the pages for a few seconds, she stopped at a poem she had written about her experience being homeless.

"Cold wind stings my face, hands trying to keep
warm as sweet words flow through my fold.
Memories of love, wondering where he’s at now.
A life-changing decision. Left without love.
Stranded with no one to hold on to."

For Mak, the experience of “having no one to hold on to” has made it hard for her to make healthy decisions.

She said men from the shelter have tried to pressure her into prostitution. Mak is in debt and said she couldn’t deny that the idea hadn’t crossed her mind.

“I feel like they look at me and they just see me as a walking target,” she said. “Like I’m vulnerable so they can easily take advantage of me.”

Her faith, coupled with watching the phenomenon from the other side working at a motel where prostitution has occurred, kept her from doing it.

Her perspective on the world has changed now that she’s the one in the vulnerable position, Mak said.

With that vulnerability comes a loss of confidence, she said.

Being a woman and homeless took away luxuries that boosted her self-image, ones that she once took for granted.

Pulling out a small bag with a toothbrush, chapstick and a pad, Mak said experiencing homelessness as a woman is particularly difficult. When Mak is on her period, she sometimes doesn’t have anything at all in the way of feminine hygiene products.

“You can’t shave your legs as a homeless person,” Mak said, laughing. “It’s embarrassing.”

With her dampened confidence, Mak said she struggles to stay positive sometimes. She said she even struggles to feel safe, despite being in a city where she was born and raised. She said detachment makes her feel isolated from a community she feels like she should belong to.

“We’re people,” she said. “People don’t look at us like we’re people anymore. It’s like we’re just bums on the side of the road.”

Mak said the frustration of being treated this way has made her determined to debunk stereotypes about people experiencing homelessness.

“I don’t want everything handed to me,” Mak said. “I want to get everything on my own, but it takes time. It’s not something that can happen overnight.”

For now, those nights will be spent at the Mission, but Mak said she’s confident that this is temporary. She said that at only 26 years old, she has her whole life ahead of her.

Marvin Broadus

Marvin Broadus, 34, said he feels like now that he’s finally getting back on his feet, he can focus on his emotional health and relationship. “The hardest part was learning how to show my feelings,” Broadus said. // Photo by Mathew Roland

As 50 Cent blared out of the speaker next to Marvin Broadus, 34, he danced along, smiling. Sitting outside of the Lighthouse Mission Drop-in-Center, Broadus took a drag from his menthol cigarette.

“So you really want to know about my life?” Broadus said, chuckling. “Okay, then. Let’s do this.”

Marvin Broadus grew up in California with an adoptive family until he was about eight years old. Then, he was adopted by his biological aunt.

He never knew his real mother.

He thought moving in with blood relatives would make things better, but his family struggled, Broadus said.

“My life was pretty much gangs, drugs, pimps, violence, juvenile prison, in and out of foster care, group homes,” Broadus said.

He watched his aunt be physically and verbally abused by her husband.

According to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, growing up in a home experiencing domestic violence has a strong correlation to homelessness later on in life.

While Broadus was able to make it out of that home, he is still part of this statistic.

Not only did Broadus’ family members struggle with drugs, incarceration and domestic abuse, but he said they moved around constantly, making it hard for him to make long-term connections or maintain friendships.

He said he lived in California, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia during his childhood.

This lack of stability led his family to struggle financially. It was hard for his aunt to find a job and Broadus said that in order to stay afloat, he started to tag along with his cousins who dealt drugs.

“I started trappin,’” Broadus said. “But then I started smoking what I was dealing.”

Broadus fell into addiction and said he turned to crime to support it. He was able to make money by stealing high-end goods from stores and reselling them on the streets.

In the midst of this, Broadus’ life was put on hold when there was a reality check for him. Broadus said he was incarcerated for almost two years after being apprehended for grand theft.

After his 22 months of incarceration, Broadus said he knew that he didn’t want to return to his old ways.

“I was burnt with guilt,” he said.

Broadus had been incarcerated in Bellevue. He said he was filled with regret about his past life experiences and wanted to start a new chapter somewhere new.

“A friend of mine kept telling me ‘Bellingham, Bellingham, that’s where you should go,’” Broadus said.

So, he went to the public library in Bellevue and printed out directions to Bellingham. Then, he left without looking back.

However, once he arrived, Broadus said he found it nearly impossible to find a job in Bellingham because of his criminal record.

Despite his frustration, Broadus said he was eventually able to find jobs online that didn’t discriminate against him because of his history.

With a job, Broadus said his life now has more stability and regularity to it. He said he and his girlfriend have a room at the Rodeway Inn, with clean sheets, a shower and a roof over their heads.

Broadus said now, he’s finally able to reflect on his life and decide where he wants to head from here, instead of just merely surviving.

“I am seeking harmony and balance,” Broadus said.

While Broadus said he doesn’t want to be staying at a motel for the rest of his life, being able to retreat to a warm place with a loving partner is something he thought he might never have.

Mike Walker

Mike Walker sits next to the front desk at the Lighthouse Mission Drop-in Center. After completing a 90-day work program through the Mission, he got a job staffing the desk. // Photo by Julia Furukawa

A new job is always exciting. For Mike Walker, that new job is staffing the front desk at the Lighthouse Mission Drop-in Center.

The center is overcrowded and underfunded, but Walker smoothly navigates the high-stress environment, fielding questions and concerns.

On a cold weekday in February, the center was packed full of people. Luggage, sleeping bags, food and clothes covered the floor.

Walker is homeless. He said he sleeps at the affiliated Lighthouse Mission across the street every night, but comes over to the Drop-in Center to socialize, work and stay warm.

Walker has found community and friends in Bellingham, many of whom are also experiencing homelessness. Walker smiled looking around the room.

He said that after his financial situation went south and he found himself without a home, he somehow knew he needed to leave Mount Vernon and head to Bellingham.

That sense of home is important to Walker because he never really felt like he had a place he could consistently call home as a kid.

“Oh, we were poor growing up,” Walker said. “So, I’ve lived in Tennessee, Indiana, Alaska, Hawaii, California, Oklahoma, Washington, you name it.”

Despite only living in Bellingham full-time for six months now, he knows he wants to stay here, as it feels like home.

However, “here” isn’t necessarily the Mission. The Lighthouse Mission is a Christian institution. The staff don’t try to actively convert those staying there, but Walker said he feels much more comfortable keeping his religious identity a secret.

He said he understands the important role religion plays in some people’s lives, and for him, religion has helped him get through the hardest times in his life.

However, as a Buddhist, he tries to keep his head down, fearing criticism of a part of his life that he holds close to his heart, Walker said.

Despite Walker’s religious differences with the Mission, he said that he wouldn’t be where he is without their help.

He said the staff helped him enroll in a 90-day work program, which then allowed him to secure a job as a staffer at the front desk at the Drop-in Center. “I’m here every day now,” Walker said, grinning. “Monday through Friday.”

While Walker currently dedicates much of his time to the Mission, he said it isn’t his final destination. He recently got hired at a nearby boat yard. It’s a great opportunity: a fulltime job, he said.

Walker smiled widely at the thought, flashing his brilliantly white, eerily perfect teeth.

“Oh these?” he said, gesturing to his mouth. “They’re totally fake. I did a lot of drugs in my younger days so now I’ve got these.”

Walker said he’s been sober for years. The stereotype associating homelessness and drug addiction isn’t a fair one, he said.

The Lighthouse Mission has a no-substance policy, but he said this isn’t an issue for him at all. He just appreciates having a place to stay.

“I’ll probably stay [at the Mission] for a while longer,” Walker said. “Until I save up enough to get my own place.”

That prospect of independence and stability is a goal for Walker. He said that stability is something he’s been after for a long time.


Homelessness in Bellingham The Western Front Vimeo

// Video by Nic Ulmer