On Valentine’s Day in 2017, an idea struck Lois Smith as she drove home from a volunteer shift with Friends of the Carpenter.
She had spent years working with homeless people through various community organizations and constantly heard stories about surviving outside and navigating the complex web of resources.
Smith quickly pulled over and scribbled her idea on a Post-it: to create a weather-proof, pocket-sized guide of go-to resources and tips for people living outside.
“All of their stories culminated into the idea to create something practical and relevant to the homeless … but also be a relationship-building tool,” Smith said. “I went back to my home office and started drawing out some of my ideas.”
Smith then partnered with other community outreach volunteers to brainstorm. By August 2017, the first pocket guide launched. Since then, the books have been placed into the hands of about 5,000 people annually. The waterproof and tear-resistant booklets are filled with important information such as shelter locations, helpful phone numbers and relevant local ordinances.
“The whole idea behind the pocket guide is it is a community effort,” Smith said. “The idea turned into this incredible tool. It’s been an inspiration to so many people because they get information in helping inform and write it. It is by homeless people and for homeless people.”
With a proud smile, Smith fanned out the colorful pocket guides produced in the last seven years.
The guides are updated each year. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith created a special edition listing resources impacted by restrictions and shutdowns.
The guide is folded accordion-style with different panels of tips. Here are a few from the Fall/Winter 2022-23 edition: “Cover your head even when sleeping; you lose heat,” “Carry Narcan for yourself/friends” and “Avoid sleeping 1,000 feet of Safe Stay communities.”
To plan for each year’s pocket guide, Smith meets with people who have experienced homelessness, as well as outreach workers and agencies.
Smith said she works with about 100 agencies, libraries, advocates, faith institutes and outreach workers to help spread the guides to the homeless community.
Vancouver police Officer Tyler Chavers, a member of the Homeless Assistance and Response Team, is one of the people who works with Smith on the pocket guides.
The guides display local laws and ordinances on the back cover. Smith said the placement was intentional so it is one of the first things people notice when being handed a booklet.
“It boils down to the question of what would be the most helpful for folks outside or unsheltered so that they’re not constantly in violation of some of the more pertinent rules,” Chavers said.
He hands out the guides during his day and circles resources that are most applicable for a person. Chavers said they are a good relationship-building tool.
“I always have a pocket guide,” Chavers said. “It’s something I can actually hand somebody, and it creates a conversation and aims at plugging them into the resources they need to work on whatever barriers they have to housing or shelter.”
Smith said one of her proudest moments was setting up a partnership with the state Department of Corrections to give guides to people released to Clark County after their prison sentence.
“One of the things that will never change (for the guides): staying attuned and aware of what the homeless community is saying, recognize when they say a resource is invaluable. Being really mindful to what they feel is relevant is what keeps the pocket guides true to its roots,” Smith said.
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.