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People Experiencing Homelessness: FAQs

Recognizing that we are talking about people first is important. Being homeless doesn’t define them, but rather their situation right now. Labels can be very powerful. Try to think about someone you encounter as a person experiencing homelessness. That is a big difference from calling them a “homeless person”.

The world of those experiencing homelessness seems very far from ours, but 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. Many Americans are only a few paychecks away from being homeless. 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 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.

How many children are experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County?

Two sources are regularly cited when talking about local numbers of children experiencing homelessness: The Homeless Point-in-Time Count, and Homeless Students in School Data. It is important to know where these numbers are coming from and how they are reached:

“School districts and the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) report data on homelessness that is different than the countywide annual Point-in-Time (PIT) homeless count in two important respects. First, the Point-in-Time homeless count is a snapshot of homelessness on a single day in the community, whereas the data reported by schools are cumulative over the course of a school year. Second, the PIT Count data include only people who are literally homeless, meaning those people who are unsheltered, in emergency shelter, or in homeless transitional housing. In addition to those three categories, school districts also report as homeless those children who are doubled-up with another family to prevent becoming literally homeless, and youth awaiting temporary foster placements.” (Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness 2019 Annual Report)

According to data from the WA State OSPI report, 880 Whatcom County School District students experienced homelessness in the 2017/2018 school year. Our trend in Whatcom County is different than that of the state as a whole. We have seen a significant increase in homelessness among public school students since the 2007-2008 school year. As a percentage of school enrollments, 3.5% of students experienced homelessness during the 2017-2018 school year, which is only a slight reduction from the 3.6% increase last year. (Note: these numbers do not count children who are too young for school.)

For more information, read the Whatcom County Point in Time Report.

How do I interact with people on the street?

One of the first steps in interacting with the vulnerable is to see them, not ignore them. Say "hello" and look them in the eyes. Give everyone 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.

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 someone in need.
  • 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 who are homeless are entitled to medical and disability benefits they may not know about. 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?
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.
  • 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 someone in need.
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.
  • 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 of Whatcom County Resources phone numbers handy.
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 to share your concern or 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, and please do not talk to other school families about your questions.  Connecting with the school is your first step, and let them guide you on what you can do.

Federal law guarantees all children and youth the right to an equal education regardless of living situation. It also ensures other efforts to eliminate barriers that delay or prevent students from being able to participate fully in school activities. Schools have staff who work with families in unstable housing, and help them access available resources. The Bellingham School District has a Homeless Support Program for families.