Not everyone is given the same start in life. Many people facing homelessness are trapped in generational cycles of poverty and trauma, and so effectively addressing the problem requires systemic change– not just quick fixes. 

As the executive director of Lydia Place, Emily O’Connor knows this firsthand. Lydia Place is a community-focused nonprofit that aims to end the cycle of homelessness in Whatcom County. Rather than focusing solely on short-term solutions, the organization advocates for systemic change, while providing intensive support for individuals and families.  

Focusing on Prevention 

Through her previous work with survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault, O’Connor has a deep understanding of the ways that trauma can become cyclical. She was initially attracted to working at Lydia Place because addressing poverty through stable housing can move the focus toward prevention, not just crisis response. 

“It’s a constant balance: respond to the crisis in front of you, while stopping to learn from it, and think about how we got into this mess,” O’Connor says. “Where did things go wrong, such that a family falls into a housing crisis to begin with?” 

 Beyond housing assistance, Lydia Place provides “intensive, wraparound services” to give children a better chance at a stable future– in hopes that these children are the last generation in their family to experience homelessness. Services include transitional and permanent housing, case management, rental support, parenting support, group classes, and much more. 

Lydia Place has grown exponentially during O’Connor’s decade with the organization. Their annual budget has increased from $400,000 to $4 million, and employee wellness is a top priority. In addition to housing, case management, and rental assistance, Lydia Place now offers in-home clinical mental health and parenting programs.  

As for O’Connor, her workday is as diverse as the job she performs.  

“These days, it’s a hodgepodge of Zoom meetings, in-person meetings, and juggling three kiddos,” she says. “A lot of my time is spent with some of these larger community efforts– things like Healthy Whatcom, which is a group that is coordinating the next Community Health Improvement Plan.” 

Building a Supportive Community 

O’Connor notes many people in Whatcom County recognize that access to affordable housing, childcare, and mental health services is limited. However, homelessness is not always visible– especially for families. 

“Because it isn’t out there on the street in front of you with an obvious label, you don’t see all of the families with children who are struggling,” O’Connor says. 

Instead of just rallying for the welfare of children, O’Connor encourages people to extend compassion towards their parents as well. She says it’s easy to judge someone’s situation and blame it on a perceived bad decision, but the context around that choice is often rooted in inequity, trauma, poverty, and marginalization. These families are simply doing the best they can with very limited resources. 

O’Connor also notes that Whatcom County is big enough to have resources, yet small enough to effectively tackle community issues, like a lack of affordable housing.  

“Why not be an example of how to build a community that makes sure nobody falls through the cracks?” she asks. “I think there’s a great opportunity here– this is a very compassionate community. It’s a very collaborative community. And I think it’s just the right size for that type of experimentation.” 

How to Give Back 

Given the complexity of these issues, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed to the point of apathy. However, every individual has the potential to make a positive impact in their community. 

Lydia Place offers several avenues for people in a position to contribute financially. Through their Housing Heroes program, they can donate a minimum of $5 per month to help struggling families pay rent. The Changemakers program rolls up credit card purchases to the nearest dollar amount, automatically donating the difference to Lydia Place.  

Another excellent way to participate is by attending one of Lydia Place’s numerous fundraiser events, including the annual Hearts for Housing and Handbags for Housing auctions. This year’s Handbags for Housing will take place on June 9 on Barkley Village Green. 

“Every single one of us has a role to play in creating the solutions we want to see for our communities,” O’Connor says. “And that is different depending on each person. So, some of us can give financial resources. Some of us have time we can give. Some of us can contribute brain power to solving problems. Some of us can help be amplifiers of positive messages. Whatever that looks like, the important part is we all have to participate.” 

For more info on O’Connor, Lydia Place, and Handbags for Housing, visit Lydia Place online.