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People Experiencing Homelessness: FAQs

The first thing we can do is to recognize that we are talking about people first. Being homeless doesn’t truly define them – just their situation right now – and labels can be very powerful. Try to think about someone you encounter as a person experiencing homelessness. Doesn’t that already make a big difference than calling them a “homeless person” in your own mind?
The world of those experiencing homelessness seems very far from yours — but in some ways it is quite near. For any of us, the loss of a job, the death of a spouse or a child or a severe physical disability could be the route to total despair. Most Americans are really only a few paychecks away from being homeless. Struck by personal tragedies, the people in shelters across America have lost their homes and been deserted by the families and friends they once had. Even for people who are struggling to survive by “couch-surfing” with friends and relatives, the toll on their lives, remaining relationships, and self-esteem is debilitating and can seem irreparable. Children are especially vulnerable if they are homeless for any or all of their childhood.
Each of us must make our own decisions about whom to help and how. It is important to remember that sometimes even the smallest act of kindness can go a long way!
Here are some frequently asked questions:

Click + on name to read more; click – to condense.

Who are the people experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County?

Who are the people experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County?
A person who is experiencing homelessness may be someone who lost their job, a runaway child, or someone with a mental illness. In our community and across the country, children make up the largest number of homeless, and they and their families are often our “invisible homeless.” In Whatcom County, the school districts determined that 1,021 school-aged children experienced homelessness for all or part of the 2015-2016 school year. That works out to 1 out of every 26 Whatcom County school children! That number was up from 854 students the previous year and none of these numbers count the children who are too young for school.
The 2016 Point-in-Time Count from the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness works each year to get a better understanding of who is experiencing homelessness in our area: “Of the 497 homeless households counted in Whatcom County this year, 362 (73%) of them were unaccompanied, single adults. There were 46 (9%) homeless households comprised of two or more adults (without children). A total of 89 (18%) homeless households were families, which included at least one child under the age of 18. The majority of homeless families counted were single parent households (14%)…The median age of all homeless individuals was 34 years. However, a significant number of homeless children were also counted in the census. 16% of all homeless persons this year were children under 10 years old, and 23% were under 18 years old. Additionally, seven unaccompanied minors were encountered during this year’s count…” Click this link for the full report.

How do I interact with people I see on the street?

One of the first steps in interacting with the vulnerable in our community is to see them as individuals. Notice them; talk to them – say hello and look them in the eyes. Most are starved for attention. Give homeless people experiencing homelessness the same courtesy and respect you would accord your friends, your family, your employer. Treat them as you would wish to be treated if you needed assistance and respond with kindness - we can make quite a difference in the lives of people experiencing homelessness when we respond to them, rather than ignore or dismiss them. Try a kind word and a smile.

When I see people begging or standing with signs on the street, what do I do? Should I give them money or food? How do I make sure that they aren’t spending it on drugs or alcohol?

If you choose to give, give your gift with no strings attached or expectation of how they will use it. Empowering the poor to set their own priorities of how they can best use the money is a sign of respect and an additional gift you are giving the recipient. If you cannot “let go” of needing to know what the money will be spent for, then you might want to choose another way to help.

If you feel uncomfortable giving money, here are some other ways you can help:

  • Gift cards – you can buy gift cards in small amounts at local coffee shops, grocery stores, fast food restaurants, etc., to hand out instead of cash.
  • Care or Food packages- A ziplock baggie with food items you can hand out: pre-wrapped energy/protein bars, cookies, muffins, cheese crackers, water bottle or juice box, and other portable snacks. You could also include other items that are always needed: a new pair of clean dry socks is a treasure to people living on the street. Other things that could be included are band aids, toothpaste, lip balm, comb, washcloth, wet wipes, tissues, and small, hotel-sized soaps and shampoo. Feminine hygiene items are especially appreciated by women. One thing to keep in mind: many people who have struggled with chronic homelessness have poor dental health and hard food items cannot be eaten easily.
  • Other important needs you can help with - Bus passes are very helpful, and can be purchased at the Whatcom Transportation Authority office. Shower coupons can be purchased at the downtown YMCA. Five dollar gift cards to local fast food restaurants. And consider saving your free coffee cards and giving them to the homeless.
  • Resource GuideClick on this link to find a listing of resources in Whatcom County. This resource lists the names and contact information of Whatcom organizations and agencies that provide help for the vulnerable and homeless in our area.
Veterans

If you are speaking with someone experiencing homelessness, ask them if they ever served in the military. Often Veterans who are homeless are entitled to medical and disability benefits they may not know about. They may be unaware of this. Asking specifically if they have ever served in the military is the preferred way to find out if someone is a Veteran.

The County Veterans Program phone number is 360-778-6050.

Where can the hungry find food?
  • There are a number of places where the homeless and those in need can find food and hot meals: go to this website for a list of Food and Meal Resources in Whatcom County. This information is also available in Spanish.
  • The Interfaith Coalition CAST Program provides simple meals four evenings a week in downtown Bellingham.
  • The Bellingham Community Meal program also provides a free meal to anyone in need once a month in Bellingham. 
I would like to volunteer, but I don’t have any experience. Can I really be of help?

YES! Interfaith offers training for our CAST volunteers, etc., as do other organizations in the area who have programs for serving the vulnerable in our community. Most programs thrive on the work of their volunteers, and Interfaith Coalition volunteers will tell you that stepping forward to help is one of the most transformative and valuable things they have ever done.

How can I get my family (and children) involved?

Educate your children about homelessness – talk about the reasons people become homeless and what we all can do to help those who are vulnerable. Help your children to see the homeless as people first; use the correct language and explain to them why you are describing them as “people experiencing homelessness.” If you want to do volunteer work and take your sons and daughters along, please check with the organization first because there could be age limits for certain volunteer opportunities. However, there are many things you can do as a family that will model and teach compassion, as well as help:

Volunteer as a family in a soup kitchen or shelter. The local Bellingham Community Meal program is a good place for families to volunteer. (Email/call Kasey Potzler at volunteerbcmp@gmail.com or 360-647-5114.)
Organize your child’s class or school to collect gently-used coats for Interfaith Coalition’s Winter Coat Drive, or conduct a new sock drive to collect socks that can be handed out at the shelters, food programs, etc. Collect for the food bank. Classes can do fundraisers to purchase shower or bus passes, gift cards, etc.
Put together care or food packages (see suggested items previously listed) that you can hand out when you encounter the homeless
Children and families can organize supply drives for items that are needed at Project Homeless Connect, a one-day event in July which provides services, resources and basic necessities for people experiencing homelessness. Donations for Project Homeless Connect can be brought directly to the site the day before the event. Contact the Whatcom Homeless Service Center for more information: info@phcwhatcom.org or call 360-510-2528.

What are other ways that I can help?
  • Because Interfaith operates 11 units of transitional housing for families, we often have emergent needs for volunteers with little advance notice. Helping with house maintenance work; helping move a homeless family into or out of our housing; spending some time in a winter or spring yard spruce-up project, etc. Sign up for our “On Call Volunteer List” and you could provide vital help in many ways with our housing program. Call us for more information and other ways you can help through Interfaith Coalition programs.
  • You can volunteer and/or donate to the local Food Banks all over Whatcom County. Some of the Food Banks coordinate unique programs for gardeners, gleaners, etc.
  • Put your hobbies to work – you can knit warm hats and scarves to donate to Interfaith Coalition, who will direct these items to those who need them at the severe weather shelters, meal programs, coat drives, etc. Do you have yarn but don’t knit? Interfaith will take your donations of yarn and get them to knitters who will transform your gift into more warm items. If you live in an area where there is an abundance of plastic grocery bags, there is a clever way to transform these bags into waterproof sleeping mats for the homeless. This website has instructions on how to turn simple plastic bags into plastic “yarn” to crochet into sleeping pads.  You can donate the completed mats to Interfaith, who will get them to those in need.
  • Each summer, Project Homeless Connect (a one day event) provides access to vital resources for the homeless, and basic necessities like tents, tarps, clothing, camping items, hygiene items, etc., are handed out. Interfaith Coalition helps collect those items beforehand to hand out, and many volunteers are needed before and during that event.
  • Teach about homelessness – If you do volunteer work with people experiencing homelessness, you can extend your enthusiasm to others. You can infect others with your own sense of devotion by writing letters to the editor of your local paper and by pressing housing issues at election time.
  • Contact your government representatives – Our legislators rarely receive more than three visits or ten letters about any subject. When the numbers exceed that amount, they sit up and take note. Personal visits are the most potent. Letters are next; telephone calls are third best. Housing issues don’t come up that often, so your public officials will listen.
  • Be prepared – keep a list with the Domestic Violence Sexual Assault hotline - 24-hour helpline: (360) 715-1563 or (877) 715-1563), Opportunity Council Homeless Service Center (734-5121, ext. 370), Interfaith Coalition Severe Weather Shelter (734-3983), Northwest Youth Services (360-734-9862), your local food bank, and Veterans Services (360-778-6050), and other important resources phone numbers handy. Click on this link for a printable format PDF document that lists Whatcom County Resources.
What do I tell someone who is homeless and is looking for housing, or other basic needs assistance?

The Community Resource Center at Opportunity Council is the very first place someone with basic needs should start. They are located at 1111 Cornwall Avenue, 734-5121, ext. 370, M-F, 12-4 p.m. The Center connects people with community resources to meet basic needs such as food, shelter, housing, rental assistance, child care, community voice mail and landlord/tenant information.

What Do I Do If…

...I see someone who appears to need help or seems inebriated, ill, acting erratically, suffering from the heat/cold/extreme weather, or is unconscious?
When you see a homeless person being harassed, who is severely inebriated, or in need of medical attention, this would be a 911 call.

...I think one of my child’s classmates is homeless, and I want to help without offending or embarrassing them?
Contact the school counselor or principal and ask how you may be able to help. Refrain from addressing the family directly – you do not know if your help is needed or wanted.

...I suspect someone may be a victim of domestic violence?
Most battered women are involved in relationships with abusive husbands or other family members. Lacking resources and afraid of being found by their abusers, many may have no recourse other than a shelter or life on the streets once they leave home. Call Bellingham Domestic violence and Sexual Assault Services to see how you can help: 360-715-1563 (24 hours).