Anthony Bordelon and Mandy Seitz were perched on a bench with their belongings outside the Vancouver Community Library when a caravan — the tail-end being a red, 1969 Firebird driven by Santa Claus — arrived bearing gifts.
Temperatures hovered near freezing the night of Dec. 17, when Santa and a handful of Food with Friends volunteers drove around downtown Vancouver looking to assist the homeless. The grass-roots group turned nonprofit organization provides food and other supplies to the homeless every Saturday night in the downtown area.
“I think it’s awesome. They find us no matter where we’re at,” said Seitz, 30, who’s been homeless since she and her mother lost their housing in Gresham, Ore., more than a year ago.
Food with Friends began about eight months ago after Battle Ground’s Cherish DesRochers-Vafeados volunteered with a local hot-soup group and connected with others doing outreach.
“I’ve always enjoyed serving people. The opportunity came about … and I was instantly hooked,” she said. “I love meeting people and hearing their stories, and then I saw there’s a real need for it. I can’t have people out here freezing and hungry.”
Some local businesses donate leftover food to the group, and occasionally, community members will purchase or make food to donate.
On that Saturday night, Food with Friends passed out pizzas, burritos, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, doughnuts, pastries and water. The group also gave out donated items from a local church, which included sleeping bags, blankets, tarps, socks, hats, gloves, hand warmers and other essentials.
“It’s appreciated. They do a good job of keeping us warm,” said Bordelon, 23, who said he’s on the streets because of “bad decisions.”
DesRochers-Vafeados said there are 50 to 75 homeless people she now knows by name. The group usually encounters the same people each week, she said, and talks with them to identify who may be looking to better themselves.
“We often encounter people who have drug addiction. We try to build relationships so people can trust us and feel comfortable asking for help,” she said.
She and volunteers, including Jamie Spinelli, a housing case manager with Community Services Northwest, and Chuck Goneau with the Break Every Chain Foundation, a faith-based nonprofit that assists the homeless, start in front of the Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St., around 9 p.m. and drive around downtown and the waterfront looking for people. They usually end outside Share House at 1115 W. 13th St., where there is a large homeless camp.
“They do a lot of outreach,” said Thomas, who wished to be identified only by his first name. “They make life a little more tolerable.”
The 26-year-old, who’s been homeless since Oct. 5, lives in his car at the encampment. He said he had been renting a room at his grandfather’s home, but when he died, a relative who inherited the residence kicked him out. Thomas’ bipolar disorder has made it difficult for him to hold down a job, he said.
He estimates that there are easily more than 100 people camping outside of the Share House.
“There are a lot of people who are out here hungry as hell,” he said. “If you miss dinner at Share, (Food with Friends) is the difference between going to bed with your stomach hurting. They’re life savers.”
A growing cause
The group generally hands out prepackaged pizzas from a restaurant, but when they have given out homemade food, they haven’t encountered the same issues that other groups have, DesRochers-Vafeados said. They’ve even taken the food to shelters, she added.
“We’ve had a few officers stop and say they really like what we’re doing. No one has been rude or confrontational,” she said. “We ask people to please throw away their garbage afterward.” The group avoids serving people in parks, so as not to cause problems with nearby residents, DesRochers-Vafeados added.
Last year, Vancouver’s Free Hot Soup group faced questions about food handling and safety from Clark County Public Health after a story ran in The Columbian and other media.
Food safety staff with Clark County Public Health say they were unaware of Food with Friends but have encountered similar groups assisting the homeless, said Don Strick, the agency’s communications manager.
“We are supportive of the intention of these groups and commend them for wanting to do the right thing,” Strick said in an email. “Our main concern is for the safety of the homeless, a population that is particularly susceptible to the consequences of food-borne illness from food that’s improperly stored, handled or prepared.”
The agency encourages Food with Friends and similar groups to reach out for guidance about offering prepackaged foods or using an existing permitted kitchen.
“We feel a partnership with Public Health in these situations would help ensure the safety of the food that’s being offered to a vulnerable population,” Strick said.
DesRochers-Vafeados said she is open to working with Clark County Public Health but wants to ensure Food with Friends can continue to serve the homeless.
“I’m totally willing to talk with them and make sure we are being 100 percent legit and that no one is … left starving or eating out of the trash,” she said. “At this point, we haven’t had any problems with people getting sick, and we are even familiar with people’s food allergies out there.”
She has already taken other steps to validate Food with Friends — registering it as a nonprofit with the state, obtaining a city license, opening a bank account and P.O. box, and purchasing a website, though it hasn’t launched yet, she said. Now, she’s working toward 501(c)(3) tax-exemption status.
“It helps to be able to give tax receipts to people. There’s more of a chance they will get involved, and there’s an air of legitimacy,” she said.
Several businesses and organizations already work with Food with Friends, she said, including local churches, Front Door Realty and the Vancouver Laundromat, which on a rotating basis has donated one quarter from each wash to the group.
Sometimes DesRochers-Vafeados will use the money she receives to purchase prepaid cards and donates them to other organizations, such as the Battle Ground Public Schools Family and Community Resource Center, which helps families who face housing instability and economic challenges.
On Christmas Eve, the group planned to host a party for 50 homeless guests at WareHouse ’23, complete with a hot, sit-down meal and backpacks stuffed full of supplies and gift cards.
For 19-year-old Hayley Lamb, volunteering with Food with Friends is her favorite part of the week, she said.
“I meet a lot of people and learn a lot of different things, life lessons. I learn to accept people more,” Lamb of Battle Ground said. “It’s hard to see people like this. I’ve always seen it in movies, but it’s different in real life.”