Nonprofit of the Year: Lydia Place

Homelessness often has roots in a number of societal ills, including substance abuse and domestic violence. But according to Emily O’Connor, the executive director of Lydia Place, securing safe housing for all is the first step toward permanent solutions.

“Oftentimes, when someone has a roof over their head, they can start to work on all of those other issues,” O’Connor said.

Lydia Place, a Bellingham-based organization that since 1989 has worked to provide homes and services to local homeless families, was voted Nonprofit of the Year by readers in The Bellingham Business Journal’s 2014 Readers’ Choice Awards.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Lydia Place has enjoyed a recent string of success and achievement, including program expansions, more extensive partnerships and better financial footing. With growing demand for homeless support services in Whatcom County, Lydia Place today is serving more families than ever before, O’Connor said.

Shultzie Fay Willows, the nonprofit’s development and outreach director, said the 2013 expansion of the organization’s Supportive Services Program, a collaboration with the Bellingham Housing Authority, was one of the past year’s major highlights. The partnership provides permanent housing for homeless families.

The expansion of the partnership allowed Lydia Place to provide 18 new housing units for homeless families in Orleans House, a 24-unit affordable housing property operated by the Housing Authority.

All total, the collaboration between Lydia Place and the Housing Authority served 80 formerly homeless households last year, according to the nonprofit.

Other recent achievements at Lydia Place include:

– The Transitional Housing Program, which is the original outreach service provided by Lydia Place, helped 25 mothers and 40 children between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013. The program provides homeless women with children with case management and safe housing for up to six months, or until they can find permanent residence.

– 90 households received support through Lydia Place’s partnership with the Whatcom Homeless Service Center. The partnership provides case management and rental subsidies for homeless individuals who are on a centralized wait list called the Housing Interest Pool, which is coordinated by the nonprofit Opportunity Council.

– Lydia Place received a $230,040 grant through a property tax levy for low-income housing assistance passed by 56 percent of Bellingham voters in 2012. The grant will allow Lydia Place to make repairs to its 8-bedroom transitional home for women and children moving out of homelessness. It will also allow the nonprofit to invest the home’s long-term maintenance, improve energy efficiency and better meet standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Lydia Place also partners with Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church and the Interfaith Coalition to provide emergency housing and support services for homeless families.

Additionally, the nonprofit worked with the Whatcom County Health Department and the Whatcom Homeless Service Center on a pilot project designed to provide stable housing to homeless families with members needing treatment for mental illness, as well as families with at-risk children under five years old.

O’Connor said the nonprofit’s housing-first strategy is built from broader evidence-based research that shows getting homeless families into permanent housing quickly, rather than having them run through a gamut of emergency and transitional homes, is a more beneficial and cost-effective method of getting families in need off the streets.

As it is for any nonprofit, finding money to fund programs is an ongoing challenge for Lydia Place, O’Connor said. A low vacancy rate among rental homes in Bellingham, coupled with rising monthly rental rates, also presents difficulties.

Shultzie Fay Willows said Lydia Place has branched out in its fundraising activities, even creating a new annual event last year called “Handbags for Housing.”

The 2014 edition, which will be held June 5 at Depot Market Square in downtown Bellingham, will feature a handbag bazaar, a fashion show, an auction and raffle, as well as food, wine and beer tastings. More information about the event is online at

The nonprofit is also trying to increase the visibility of its downtown thrift store, Wise Buys, which located at 1224 N. State St. In 2013, the volunteer-run store brought in $70,000 to Lydia Place, about 13 percent of the organization’s annual funding.

After learning of Lydia Place’s selection as Nonprofit of the Year by BBJ readers, O’Connor said she felt the honor was a sign that supporters see a true need for the nonprofit’s work. She said the support was awe-inspiring.

Willows also noted that Lydia Place’s 25-year history has been built upon local roots.

“Lydia Place was started by the community,” Willows said. “It really has been a grassroots, community-driven endeavor right from the beginning.”

Evan Marczynski, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or

Nonprofit of the Year runners-up

First runner-up

Interfaith Coalition
360-734-3983, 2401 Cornwall Ave.

Second runner-up

Whatcom Land Trust
360-650-9470, 110 Central Ave.

See all of the 2014 Readers’ Choice Award winners by clicking here.

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