Eric Olmsted used to think he understood what homelessness must be like.
"Sure, I get it," is what he told himself. "But the truth is, we don't."
Want to volunteer on Thanksgiving? Try a different day
Volunteers aren’t just welcome at local nonprofit agencies that serve the hungry and homeless — they’re absolutely crucial, officials at the “Get the Facts” said.
But Thanksgiving and Christmas are a little hard to book.
Thanksgiving in particular is so popular with volunteers that some people make volunteering reservations a whole year in advance. Every year, right around now, said Share’s Amy Reynolds, there’s a sudden rush of late-breaking Thanksgiving volunteer offers that just can’t be accepted.
Consider the fact that the need is just as great the day before and the day after Thanksgiving — and every other day of the year — so please consider spreading your volunteer efforts around, Reynolds said. Call your favorite nonprofit agency to find out about opportunities.
— Scott Hewitt
That's before Olmsted spent an October day on the streets of Clark County with a homeless fellow who goes by the nickname Mountain Man and two outreach workers from the nonprofit agency Share.
Olmsted, president of the Rotary Club of Vancouver, described the experience as "a game changer" during a community education session on hunger and homelessness held Thursday at the Vancouver Community Library. About 100 people turned out for the session, which was called "Get the Facts."
"It was the most amazing experience you can possibly have," Olmsted said of his day on the streets. He learned just how tough homelessness really is, he said — and how hopeful homeless people are anyway. Such hopes may be as modest as the notion that disability benefits may finally come through, or as heartfelt as the desperation to be taken back by an estranged family.
"They all have a lot of hope for the future," he said. "That took me by surprise."
All in all, Olmsted said, it's easy to dismiss "the homeless" as a group, but impossible to shake from your mind and heart the struggling individuals you've gotten to know personally. That kind of insight is what his club refers to as a "Rotary moment," he said.
Olmsted said he met about 10 homeless people over the course of his day, and learned all about their social codes and hierarchies, camping spots and camouflage techniques — and the way they start scouring the landscape for cans and flocking to Share services early in the morning for fear of losing out. Miss the shower line or the soup line, he said, and you've really missed the boat.
He also met one formerly homeless man who is now living in a subsidized apartment, making an hourly wage and regaining rights to his children. Six months ago, Olmsted said, the man was on the street and resigned to it. "They get used to it and they don't see the path out," he said.
That's where Share's Outreach program comes in. There are two staff members whose job is to patrol the community for street people who seem to need help or services, according to Share Outreach Director Katherine Garrett. Also, Share Outreach can respond when businesses or citizens are worried that homeless people are panhandling too aggressively or just being a nuisance.
"We're going to try to engage with those individuals and see what the issues are, and see if we can't get them moved along," Garrett said.
She advised concerned people or businesses to try Share Outreach at 360-695-7658 ext. 3303 before calling the police. What's called a "camping" ticket — issued for occupying the sidewalk or sleeping in a park or even in a parked car — can run as much as $350, she said. A homeless person who incurs a penalty like that has just acquired a whole new barrier to getting on with a better life, she said.
Amy Reynolds, Share's program director, ran through some basic Share statistics: the agency shelters approximately 1,400 people, 275 of whom are children, every year; prevents homelessness by supporting 100 local households in their own apartments through subsidies; provides 90,000 free hot meals a year at Share House on West 13th Street and 26,000 meals through its summer food program for children; and distributes thousands more food boxes to needy families through its weekend Backpack Program, which operates at 71 local schools.
"That's the level of need in this community," Reynolds said.
Progress and pride
Also speaking during the brown-bag library session were officials from the Council for the Homeless and the Clark County Food Bank. All emphasized partnership, volunteerism and past progress leading to more in the near future.
Veterans' homelessness in Clark County has dropped substantially over the past few years thanks to better resources and coordination, according to Andy Silver, executive director of the Council for the Homeless. That's despite the fact that veterans often have the most difficult mental health issues and other barriers to housing, he said. Beginning in 2009, he said, the U.S. government decided to attack the problem, and results have been good.
Silver is looking forward to reproducing that success for Clark County's entire homeless population. "We know what needs to be done and we know how to do it," he said. "We have the knowledge and the capability we didn't have 20 years ago."
In the new year, he said, the council will open a coordinated intake office where people can get connected with almost any services they need; that will mean not just emergency shelter, but also help avoiding homelessness to begin with by getting rent or mortgage assistance, or mental health counseling, or job retraining, or other benefits as needed.
"There'll be one location and one phone number," he said. The coordinated intake office will be located alongside Share's new headquarters on Andresen Road in central Vancouver, he said.
Meanwhile, the current Emergency Shelter Clearinghouse hotline operated by the council takes approximately 17,000 calls for shelter per year, he said. That number is 360-695-9677.
There'll be a ton of volunteer opportunities as the new system gets started, Silver said. There'll also be opportunities for political advocacy when the 2013 state Legislature meets and considers matters such as how much to spend on the state Housing Trust Fund, which seeds low-income housing projects.
Given the very tight local rental market — the vacancy rate is down around 2.9 percent — building new, affordable housing will be crucial, he said. Feb. 14, 2013, will be Advocacy Day for homeless and hunger issues, he said.
An attendee asked, what about semi-permanent homeless encampments like Dignity Village near Portland International Airport? Finding the real estate and the government cooperation can be difficult, Silver and Reynolds both said. "We could use that same energy to get people into their own homes," Silver said. The homeless problem in Clark County isn't as bad as in Portland or Seattle, he said, where these encampments have found a footing.
Alan Hamilton, executive director of the Clark County Food Bank, said his new facility has increased capacity tremendously. The Food Bank finished building its own spacious warehouse late last year, and since then approximately $900,000 of new food has come through the system that would have been rejected previously — because there was nowhere to store it, he said.
Also, the Food Bank has a teaching kitchen and small nutrition education staff. Teaching people to cook healthful meals for themselves means instilling them with self-esteem as well as skills, Hamilton said.
"Remember the last time you baked something and you were kinda proud?" he said.