"It's not what you think." We hear that a lot, and often it's true. Homelessness -- is it really not what we think? Is it tough? Yes. Devastating? Absolutely. Are mental illness or substance abuse the reasons why a person is without housing? At times, yes. The single man you see on the street corner, is he the true face of homelessness? Not necessarily. According to the 2012 Whatcom County annual Report on Homelessness, the point-in-time count found that 15 percent of the homeless were younger than 10 years old and 22 percent were younger than 18.
Families are a hidden face of homelessness. Is family homelessness destabilizing? Undeniably.
You might notice homeless families on the street, but chances are, you might not. Homeless families are often doubled-up, moving from one friends' house to the next. They are sleeping in cars. Camping outside. Some are lucky enough to get a voucher for an occasional night in a cheap motel for the chance to shower. Parents are struggling to keep it together. Children are struggling to stay in school.
This is reality for too many families in Whatcom County. I know first-hand because as pastor of United Church of Ferndale, I meet those seeking help on a regular basis. I am also a board member of Interfaith Coalition of Whatcom County, a non-profit of 44 local congregations and Peace Health that works for healthcare and homes for our most vulnerable neighbors.
I know this because I have come to know Kristen, who lived with her husband in their car during the pregnancy of their first child. After Kristen had her baby, her family became eligible for Interfaith Coalition housing for homeless families and they lived for three months in an Interfaith Coalition home.
Three months might not sound like much, but it can be life changing.
"Never underestimate the blessing of a safe home," says Angie who several years ago stayed with her two children in an Interfaith Coalition house. She'd fled her home to escape domestic violence.
"I didn't have to worry about my kids. I didn't even have to worry about having a can opener. Don't think that's small. Because everything was taken care of, I could let my guard down. For the first time since things got bad I could use my full brain to make a plan to get back on my feet. Which is exactly what I did."
At Interfaith Coalition we believe in keeping families together whenever possible. In group shelters, for many good reasons, fathers and sons older than age 12 are often separated from mothers and daughters. This means that some families have to choose between staying in a shelter or staying together. Interfaith Coalition housing consists of stand-alone residences and accommodates all families - two-parent, single moms, single dads, and boys do not have to leave at age 12.
This is a community effort. Interfaith Coalition develops and manages the housing. Families are referred for housing by schools, agencies, congregations and individuals. Opportunity Council and Lydia Place provide weekly case management. Most of Interfaith Coalition's funding comes from individuals, businesses, congregations, service clubs and local foundations. Interfaith Coalition is our community caring for our neighbors who need it most.
Emergency and transitional housing are key to Whatcom County's effort to end family homelessness. After three months of emergency housing, families are able to get on their feet. Nintey percent leave Interfaith Coalition for stable, long-term housing. Interfaith Coalition is helping homeless families be safe today and better prepared for tomorrow.
Eight Interfaith Coalition homes for homeless families are in Bellingham. One is in Ferndale. Whatcom County needs more of this housing. This is why we're turning our Ferndale single-family home into a triplex. "Our House" is our capital campaign to make this a reality. We are currently seeking donations in building materials, professional labor and financial support to complete our campaign. I am grateful for the community support that has helped raise nearly 80 percent of our goal.
I am confidant that we will complete this campaign by doing what we do best in Whatcom County - caring about our neighbors.
Our neighbor is Darryl who was employed until his epileptic seizures became too much. He lost his job and apartment. He moved with his wife into a trailer without electricity or running water where it was a challenge to keep their four kids safe.
These are our neighbors. These are the families given new starts by Interfaith Coalition housing for homeless families. Homeless families are in our midst. So are caring, solutions and second chances. Our neighbors are our family.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rev. Bobbi Virta is pastor at the United Church of Ferndale and a board member of Interfaith Coalition of Whatcom County. For more information or to make a donation, go to the Interfaith Coalition webpage at http://interfaith-coalition.org. The coalition is also looking for in-kind donations of professional labor and building materials. For in-kind gifts, call 360-734-3983.