Project Homeless Connect hosts annual event

Volunteers at literacy booth offer free tools and support to community members. // Photo by Izzy Shelton-Smith

By Izzy Shelton-Smith

On July 19, The Volunteer Center of Whatcom County’s agency Bellingham/Whatcom Project Homeless Connect hosted their annual event that offers services to those facing homelessness, at Bellingham High School.

The close to 70 services B/WPHC offers at these events include dental and medical, haircuts, employment, pet care, legal aid and more. Additionally, B/WPHC has giveaways throughout the event with items such as tents, toiletries, clothes and food.

According to Kari Humphreys, B/WPHC community engagement coordinator, the event on average serves over 500 people experiencing homelessness, and will have around 300 volunteers throughout the day serving food, working booths and helping those at the event. These volunteers don’t include those who come with their own booths, such as Planned Parenthood and Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services.

“The intention of a Project Homeless Connect event is to connect the community with the issue of homelessness, the organizations that support it, volunteers, community members, donors and [investors] who want to support the plan to end homelessness” Humphreys said.

According to PHC’s official website, PHC started in 2004 in San Francisco when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom wanted to bring services to those experiencing homelessness in San Francisco. PHC is a program of the San Francisco Public Health Foundation as well. 

PHC is now nationwide including Canada and Australia, according to Humphreys. Bellingham adopted this event 11 years ago and July 19 was the eleventh year a PHC event was held in Bellingham Humphreys said.

Summer Starr, volunteer and event coordinator for The Volunteer Center of Whatcom County helped recruit volunteers for the event. Starr said she used the email list from last year’s event, reached out to churches and reached out to sports teams to recruit volunteers. She said most recruiting is through their volunteer center website.

“Some of the services are available throughout the year and [for] some of them this is a unique event,” Starr said.

The volunteers are encouraged to inform attendees about the services offered outside of the event and where to find them. For example, services like shower trucks are available at the event and year-round by HomesNOW! and Lighthouse Mission.

B/WPHC offered medical services at the event such as foot, dental, hearing and vision care. According to Humphreys, Unity Care NW closed their doors for the day so that Project Homeless Connect guests could be served on-site. Those who needed more advanced medical attention took a shuttle to Unity Care NW where they would receive free care.

The vision and foot care were some of the more popular medical needs. The vision care provided those in need with eye tests and new glasses or prescriptions.

B/WPHC volunteer Kelsey Langille was working at the check-in table in the vision care booth when the list reached their max of 100 people, causing them to shut down for the day.

“So we have checked into everyone that’s going to be able to be seen here today. But we have a second option, which is that you can sign up to be seen at the Haskell Center, which is near the Lighthouse Mission downtown,” Langille said. “We’ll take your name and piece of contact information and then have [the patient] take home a form to fill out and then they’ll get contacted to set up an appointment.” 

One of the services Humphreys found to be crucial when she first started was being able to get a state ID or renew an ID or driver’s license.

“There’s a lot you can‘t do without an ID card of some kind with your picture on it. You can’t apply for services, you can’t apply for Social Security. You oftentimes can’t apply for housing. You can’t use the shower at the YMCA,” Humphreys said.

In the gym during the event, there is a backdrop similar to one for a school photo and professional photographer to take portraits printed on site to take with them. Attendees are able to receive haircuts, and find clothes in the heaps of donations laid out on tables throughout half of the gym. According to Humphreys, socks and underwear are what is most sought after.

“A lot of this stuff is here because of groups and churches that collect items maybe through the year and maybe through just a donation drive in the weeks leading up to this event,” Humphreys said. “So really it is a reaction of the community wanting to support this event and support people who are experiencing homelessness in our community.”

Starr and Humphreys said that in January there is a Point in Time Count, an annual census for people experiencing homelessness.

“We do recruit volunteers for that activity, which is basically completing surveys when people are experiencing homelessness,” Starr said. “A lot of the decisions about what services are needed in our community are based off of the information from that event.”

According to Humphreys, the City of Bellingham has a 2018-2022 Consolidated Plan and 2018 Action Plan  approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to  end homelessness.

Humphreys explained that new services are offered all the time, however at the same time, services that are offered to people experiencing homelessness are taken away because of something like budget cuts.

“The realities of homelessness changes all the time,” Humphreys said.

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