Addressing Homelessness through Presence and Play

Hans - painted face


Hans Erchinger-Davis, executive director of Lighthouse Mission Ministries

The Lighthouse Mission serves people experiencing homelessness in Bellingham. And they have been at it for nearly a century.

On February 14 – YES Valentine’s Day, AND also Ash Wednesday – I had the privilege of leading 22 staff from the Lighthouse Mission in a 90-minute improv workshop. It seemed a perfect day – remembering that besides the red hearts and romance, love is also about suffering and enduring. And it’s about Presence and Play.

Hans and I sat down afterwords on the window ledge in the park building at Maritime Heritage Park, so I could hear his thoughts about the improv workshop, what it was like for he and his staff, and why cultivating presence and experiencing Play are vital.

What was the improv workshop like for you?

Hans: It felt very freeing, because we got to play together, and also learn some real life application. Especially in the work we do – working with people experiencing homelessness — there is a lot of relational give-and-take that goes on between staff and guests, among the staff, and its really fantastic that your workshop requires us to tune in to each other… to really hear and see what’s happening and be able to respond in a way that is helpful. There’s a real power in people feeling like others are attentive to their presence – what they are saying, and who they are.

What was it like for staff? Lighthouse mission improv

Hans: Staff got to see each other more deeply within the context of play. And you know, it removes the seriousness and the power dynamics that happen between supervisors and subordinates and you really got this sense that we are all in this together, having fun. [he laughs]. Good for staff to know I’m not serious all the time, but we can play together. It creates a trusting, playful, joyous atmosphere with each other. We get to enjoy one another.

Improv helps us cultivate a sense of presence and tuning into others. Why is cultivating presence important in your work?

Hans: Our work at Lighthouse Mission is highly relational. We are constantly engaging with people. People from all contexts of life – everyone from a donor to guest coming in that has experienced real hardship in their life. So there are lots of opportunities to tune-in to people and the needs that they are bringing to the table. You can see what they are feeling, just in their body language, and how they look at you. Your improv workshop helped us gain a fresh sense of becoming more aware of people, and in our work you really have to be aware of people, who are coming in our doors. Yes there are safety concerns. And than that – if you want to create a trusting environment, our guests need to know that they are been seen, heard, noticed, and valued.

A particular person could be in a suffering spot, might be acting out, and we need to hear that, and mitigate harm, and still know that for in order for that person to de-escalate, for that person to come out of this angry place they are in – they feel like they are fighting the world – its vital for our staff to be tuned in to what’s really going on with that person, what they are truly feeling. When they feel really heard – well that’s the first step to begin on that journey of healing that they need.

They need to be in a trusting, emotionally safe setting. And when you are tuned into that, which is what this improv workshop, helps our staff do, you see healing facilitated much quicker, and more effectively, and with less bumbling [ he smiles and laughs].

This core idea of Improv is Saying YES and accepting offers. So how does this idea of Saying YES apply to the work of Lighthouse Mission? Saying YES to the folks who come in your doors?

Hans: Well the folks that come in our doors are so used to ‘No’s. They are constantly getting rustled off of park benches, or out the front entryways of businesses where they happened to be sitting. Or off the street. And even from their youth, from the tragedies they have endured, the emotional and physical wounds they carry, oftentimes a lack of fathers. They have experience a lot of ‘No’s in their life.

And there’s a real sense in many of our people of loneliness.  ‘No’ to relationship. That’s the worst of all human emotions is loneliness. And that’s what everyone of our people walk in the door with. This real strong sense of loneliness. And so the sense where you are tuning in, where you are saying YES to that person, to their presence, to their validity as a human being, the fact that they actually have something to offer in this life, and you say YES to that – the sense of dignity begins to well up inside them. Where they start to feel like, “Well maybe I do have some value, because this person is saying YES to who I am.”  So that’s a powerful thing.

Why is Play important for someone who is homeless or in one of your recovery homes?

Hans: Well Play is incredibly important on several levels. One level being, if you have wrestled with addiction, usually the only pleasure you got was when you were engaged in whatever addiction or life dysfunction you had. And so be able to have fun, get those positive endorphins going, without the use of substances, that recalibrates the brain, and they realize they don’t have to have that substance to have that pleasure, to have joy, to engage in this life.

On another level is that play for someone who is so, in a sense, down on themselves. People carry a lot of shame when they come in our doors. They hate their life. They feel like, “Why I should I actually experience any sort of pleasure, because I have done so much bad in my life.” That’s the story of a lot of our people. And for them to step out of that for a little bit and just play and be free, in a sense, forget their self-hatred for a moment is very powerful. And to have joy! And goof off and laugh! And have synchronicity with staff and other people, and have that sort of experience. There’s a real flash, or a moment of insight often like, “Oh yes, this is how life can be!’’ And when they experience that oftentimes change begins to occur, because it’s almost like a new idea of living that is so rich. It’s like having a good meal. It’s like they’ve been eating cheap fast food for so long. And then they just had a banquet and it was phenomenal! And they tasted it and thought, “Wow! That’s possible?!” Play is like that in a way. When they play they get to have that Good Banquet Meal. And its hard sometimes to go back to McDonalds when you’ve had such a good meal of play.


Hans gets it. Our presence in the world – in every relationship and interaction – makes a difference. Improv helps us cultivate a new way of being – one of tuned-in presence and play, that we ALL need more of. : )

This workshop was enabled by the generous grant from the Louisville Institute.  

“A large part of overcoming trauma is the restoration of synchrony with other people… And what turns us on and makes us change is the possibility of fun and pleasure.”

-Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score (on Presence and Play)

Here’s an article that Hans wrote regarding homelessness for the Bellingham Herald back in September.

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