The seventh annual Project Homeless Connect event, a day of service that provides a range of free assistance to those in need, took place this past Friday, July 24, at Bellingham High School.
Daniel Hammill, a representative of Ward 3 on the Bellingham City Council, is one of the co-founders of Project Homeless Connect. He started this project in 2008 and put on the first event in 2009.
The purpose Project Homeless Connect events are to provide services for people who are experiencing homelessness and also for community volunteers to become involved with ending the issue of ending homelessness, Hammill said.
The event lasted seven hours and gave the 525 clients in attendance free and confidential access to dental care, vision screenings, women’s health care, housing, education, licensing and veterans services.
To encourage guests to attend the event, Whatcom Transportation Authority provided two free days of bus service on Thursday, July 23 and Friday, July 24.
The event is a community effort working to support the Whatcom County Plan to End Homelessness, Hammill said.
Along with Project Homeless Connect, Hammill said one of the main things that the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness is doing is working alongside a housing levy, Bellingham Home Fund, that was passed in 2013.
The WCCEH is an association made up of nonprofits public and private agencies to create a plan to provide housing services to the homeless and their families.
“We are seeing the long pill affects of the recession, as related to folks who are living in poverty, and so they’re not recovering as fast as the housed folks or people who are able to maintain same employment,” Hammill said.
The event was led by the efforts of The Opportunity Council, Whatcom Homeless Service Center, Catholic Community Services, the City of Bellingham, Department of Corrections, the United Way of Whatcom County and Whatcom Alliance for Health Care Access, Hammill said.
“So it’s really an issue of economic injustice when it comes to folks who are unsheltered homeless,” Hammill said. “That’s the economic argument, there is also many reasons why people are experiencing homelessness, including fleeing domestic violence, chemical dependency, mental health is a big driver, folks who are untreated because they aren’t able to access medications.”
Along with the groups and sponsors that were involved with coordinating this event, 165 community volunteers came out too. One volunteer at the event was Roxana Parise, the Homeless Liaison for the Bellingham School District who has volunteered with Project Homeless Connect for five years.
Parise said she reaches out to homeless families in order to help them register for school, which can be difficult when they do not have permanent addresses. On the day of the event, Parise said she helped three families who were new to the area and did not know where to register.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to start getting the framework started for a lot of these kids who are registering for school, especially when they are new to this community, they don’t know where to go or who to talk to so I kind of help guide them of where do they need to go and who they need to talk to,” Parise said.
With 477 homeless children in Bellingham last year, Parise said she thinks homelessness is very different than what most people think it is.
“A lot of people think of homelessness as these guys, or these individuals on street corners, living on the streets,” Parise said. “But really, the reality of it is that these are families, a lot of families with children.”
Another volunteer present at the event was Amanda Oliver, an employee for The Opportunity Council, who was working one of the education information tables at Project Homeless Connect.
“This is actually my first time and I think what they are doing here is amazing,” Oliver said. “We are doing employment stuff, so we just worked on resumes with a few people, directed them with different services.”
Along with assisting clients with resumes, The Opportunity Council education table had information and resources for classes, applying for jobs, financial stability, help with cover letters and interview preparation.
Around 1,000 people were associated with this social service event, including volunteers, sponsors, and clients. With free medical and non-medical services at the even, Hammill said volunteers at Project Homeless Connect also wanted to welcome those in attendance as guests, and offer a really good experience to help provide some relief for their situations.
“It’s just so humbling to me to see the spirit of these individuals that they never give up, they are out there trying to survive,” Parise said. “These kids are just so resilient, it’s just amazing.”
Hammill said planning for next year’s Project Homeless Connect event starts at the end of this year. Those interested in getting involved can visit the United Way of Whatcom County’s Facebook page.