The Economic Divide (Online Only)
Story by Rachel Lerman
David Denney crosses the threshold into the Lighthouse Mission Drop-In Center with his blue backpack slung on his back, faded-white tennis shoes skating across the thin carpeting, in search of a free hot meal and a warm building in which he can spend the afternoon. At the same time in The Little Cheerful, Stuart Magnes and Christine Marie bustle around the kitchen of their restaurant, continuing a long morning of cooking and serving hash browns and eggs benedict. In an office building two blocks away, Craig Cole takes a seat at his large, polished desk to settle into another day of work as president of an investment company. Bellingham is waking up, and four residents are beginning their daily routines. They may live in the same city and inhabit the same streets, but their lives and daily challenges are uniquely different from each other.
A sizeable amount of economic diversity exists in Bellingham, says City Council Member Terry Bornemann. “There is a huge gulf between the have and the have-nots,” he says. Many people in Bellingham are unaware of the varying levels of poverty in the city, he says.
The different layers of social classes inhabiting the city translate into many diverse lifestyles.
Denney, 31, has been homeless for the past two years and has moved around to several cities within the western U.S. as he continues to search for work.
According to the Whatcom County Coalition for the Homeless in 2009, about 1,300 people in Whatcom County are homeless, making up one layer of Bellingham’s society.
Denney spends a part of his day, usually from noon to 4:30 p.m., at the Lighthouse Mission Drop-In Center where he can get free coffee and muffins as well as a hot dinner five days a week. The center, located at 1012 W. Holly St., is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Denney used to be employed, married and have a nice apartment in Sedro-Woolley. He says he came home one day and got into an altercation with his wife’s ex-boyfriend. He says he assaulted the man and was sentenced to jail for a year and one day. When he got out, he had no job, no family and no home. He has not been able to find work since.
He now lives in a tent set up in the woods about three miles from the mission. He shares the tent with his two best friends, whom he calls his brothers. He says sometimes it is too dangerous to stay alone, so he needs other people.
Being homeless can be risky, Denney says. “R-I-S-K”— that’s how he spells the word “life.” A lot of scandalous people live on the streets, he says. A few gangs inhabit Bellingham, and even though a lot of other cities have it worse, it still becomes a problem from time to time, he explains as he nervously readjusts a small headphone in his ear.
Bellingham is kind of a melting pot of social classes, Denney says. A lot of people from different walks of life live in the city, making up the varying layers of people in the community. Denney does not feel judged in Bellingham too often, but at times he feels people find him dangerous or a bother. Sometimes people will see him coming and cross the street so as not to walk next to him. This isn’t necessary; a lot of good people without homes live in Bellingham, he says.
Stuart Magnes, 63, and Christine Marie, 64, do not have to worry about finding jobs. They already spend much of their day at work, cooking food and supervising staff. Magnes and Marie, married 32 years, own The Little Cheerful, a restaurant downtown that serves breakfast and lunch.
Magnes and Marie speak rapidly, overlapping each other’s speech as they describe their restaurant and their lives in Bellingham. Marie says they were broke for their whole lives as they raised and provided for four children. Now, however, they own a small and successful business, so they feel financially stable.
The business employs about 10 people and serves about 1,000 customers per week, Magnes says. Favorites from the menu include their personal take on eggs benedict, which costs about $10 depending on the day. Their pancakes, with a variety of optional mix-ins, are also popular and cost about $4 or more depending on the additional toppings. Magnes, wearing khaki shorts and a brown T-shirt reading “Jesus Shaves,” says the couple might now be considered part of the upper-middle class. They knew they had risen up in class layers when they were no longer in survival mode. “It’s when you can choose where you feel like eating rather than which [restaurant] you can afford to go to,” he says.
The couple also hosts a soup kitchen for homeless residents of Bellingham every Monday night. They pay for the food, cook the meals and help serve the customers. Magnes and Marie pop up and down from the table to stir soup, bake meatloaf and answer the phone, which rings every few minutes. “If you have the opportunity to do anything for anybody, it’s a total blessing,” Marie says. “If you have a little extra, spread it around.”
Craig Cole, president of Brown & Cole, Inc., a regional real estate investment firm, agrees with this idea. He and his wife donate to various charities every year, he says, and he serves on the boards of several socially related causes.
When he was in his 30s, Cole took over his family business, Brown & Cole, Inc., which then was in the grocery business, but now works in investments. Cole has served on Western’s Board of Trustees, University of Washington’s Board of Regents, Puget Sound Energy’s Board of Directors, and was a Whatcom County council member from 1981 to 1985.
In his office, Cole’s desk rests in front of what his wife calls his “Wall of Ego.” The wall has pictures of Cole with everyone from his daughters to Gov. Chris Gregoire to the Dalai Lama.
Cole and his wife live in the South Hill neighborhood of Bellingham and also own a summer home on Lake Whatcom where they spend half the year. Although they are financially well-off, the couple doesn’t like to spend money recklessly. They drive cars, preferably Audis, until they are at least 10 years old. They bought the “ugliest house” on the lake because it was the least expensive when they purchased the property in the 1980s, he says.
Cole acknowledges that he has been fortunate economically in his life, but that does not mean that he is recession-proof. Everyone, from all layers of society, has lost some degree of wealth recently, he says. “Most people, even well-to-do people, are focused more on what they need than what they want,” he says.
Cole says he has heard people say that Bellingham has a lot of small cliques of people, but if that is true he does not think they have anything to do with wealth or income. “I just think there isn’t that much focus on social status. People have friends who come from all different walks of life,” he says.
Now afternoon, Cole rushes off to a meeting with Congressman Rick Larsen. Meanwhile, Magnes and Marie are closing up the restaurant for the day and heading home to relax and walk their dogs, while Denney is sitting at the Drop-In Center, chatting with the people around him and waiting for a hot meal before returning to his tent for the night. The people of Bellingham are carrying on with their varied daily lives, sharing the small city they all call home.