By Mikel Johnson, HEN Housing Assistance Specialist, Whatcom Homeless Service Center

Project Homeless Connect and the Lesson of Understanding

When we think about services to support those experiencing homelessness in our community, what comes to mind–hot meals, shelters, providing coats and socks and other warm clothes? Perhaps you are tuned into the spectrum of social services, and things like health care, permanent supportive housing, outreach teams, and crisis services also come to mind. But what about belonging? For many people, connections to friends, family, and people who understand what we’re going through are essential positive elements of life and greatly improve our well-being. After all, Abraham Maslow placed love and belonging just above safety on his famous hierarchy of needs.

Project Homeless Connect is a yearly event in which service providers, volunteers, and community members gather at Bellingham High School to provide various services such as meals, health screenings, benefits and housing applications, access to ID cards, haircuts, and professional photography. At this year’s event, “understand” was one participant’s quote of the day. That is, better understanding for each other and also better understanding of the needs of our community. Perhaps the most internally rewarding aspect of Project Homeless Connect is community–it’s the coming-togetherness, the support, the listening, and the answering as best we can, the answers coming in form of the various services and active participation and connections.

At Project Homeless Connect, many community members spoke of how necessary the event is, or how grateful they were that such an event exists in this community. But it also became clear that there is much more to be done. There are more needs and experiences to be listened to and understood and better answers to be provided. At a recent Homeless Coalition meeting, the need to make intentional listening a priority–and subsequent intentional action–was addressed.

“People are losing hope,” a community member pointed out. Another shared that two people they knew had committed suicide in just the last two weeks. People’s needs in our community are not being met. These are things that we as a community should be listening to and providing answers to; not just the answers we give every day–the caring, one-on-one conversations, the referrals, or advocating for those in need to receive appropriate services–but also the creation of new services that support the needs of all members of our community and the tweaking of services already in existence. More than this, the people who will be accessing these services should be involved in the process whenever possible; this is how we will truly understand.

Over at the Resident Action Project, they know the importance of involving consumers in the education and advocacy processes in the efforts to expand and increase affordable housing. In an attempt to increase this engagement, they are holding various events, to educate, discuss, and plan action regarding affordable housing. The first event was held August 24th at the Bellingham Public Library and future events are soon to be determined. The Resident Action Project welcomes ideas to improve these grassroots efforts.

Back at Project Homeless Connect, a community member lamented that such an amazing event could only be held once a year. Others spoke of specific needs–access to restrooms, sleeping bags, tents, storage, expanded vision and dental services, better dissemination of information, a safe place to sleep. “This event is great”, one person shared, “but we have a housing crisis. We need to talk about housing.” And, of course, we are. But do community members affected by the lack of housing know this? Are they involved in decision-making processes or advocacy efforts? Have we invited them to be?

We all have a role to play in the health of our community, and we all have a voice. The more people involved in efforts like the Resident Action Project, Project Homeless Connect, or the Homeless Coalition, the richer our conversations and solutions can be. So, start up those conversations. Encourage others to get involved and share their stories. Spread information about efforts to improve our community’s services. And, most importantly, listen.