These volunteers want to connect Bellingham’s homeless to services that could help them
On a Tuesday night earlier this month, Jon Ng drove to Flora and Commercial streets before parking the Lighthouse Mission Ministries van.
The volunteers passed out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, socks, shoes, pillows and water on this warm evening.
Lighthouse Mission recently launched Street Connect in partnership with Envision Mission Church to help meet the basic needs of the homeless, get them into shelters and to build relationships in the hope that, if they're not ready to get services today, those who are homeless will think of Lighthouse Mission when they are.
"Trust is everything for our people. This creates that avenue for trust," said Hans Erchinger-Davis, executive director for the Christian-based organization, which provides services to the homeless at its campus on West Holly Street, including a temporary emergency shelter.
"For us, it's a bid on relationships," Erchinger-Davis said, "with real next-step possibilities for those folks."
To Erchinger-Davis, Street Connect allows the community to see the issues around homelessness as they help.
"They're getting to be with people that are in pretty hurting places and they're getting to be a catalyst for healing for those hurting people," he said. "That's rich living for our volunteers."
Volunteers hit the streets, and sometimes homeless camps, five nights a week. Safety is a consideration, and volunteers are told to use a particular word in a sentence if they feel they need to leave.
Street Connect was launched at a time of increasing homelessness in Whatcom County.
Compared to last year, the number of people who are homeless in the county has increased by nearly 10 percent to 815, according to the annual census conducted in January. The Point In Time Count, as it's known, provides a snapshot and advocates have said that the actual number of homeless is higher.
Back at Flora and Commercial streets, Glenda Price, a volunteer and Bellingham resident, put one of the biscuits she made into a woman's plastic bag as she chatted with the woman.
"I love this. I love the people. That's what drives me. He's somebody's son. She's someone's daughter out there," Price said of the homeless.
If they don't know them, the volunteers ask for the name of those they're helping.
"For me, a name has a meaning. It's an identity. It shows you care, you care enough to know their name. A lot of times, homeless people feel they're not noticed, they're unseen," said volunteer Nadia Ng, who is married to Jon.
For volunteer Anastasia Clark, a Bellingham resident, the interaction is important. "I like to put a face to the people I'm helping," she said.
Richard Taldo, who is homeless, received a pillow and sandals from the volunteers while standing across the street from First Baptist Church.
"It's nice to have them come out to us, rather than us to them," said Taldo, whose wife also is homeless.
Sharon Forese, who is homeless and looking for a job, also expressed her appreciation.
"It's hard for a lot of us," Forese said. "We want to do this for ourselves. It's nice when we see people doing this for us."
The Flora and Commercial stop was one of three this Tuesday evening. The other two stops were the Bellingham Public Library on Central Avenue and the alley between JJ's convenience store and Horseshoe Cafe — all places where those who are on the streets gather.
As he drives around Bellingham, Jon Ng scans doorways for people sleeping in them.
On his left arm is a tattoo. Jon Ng said it shows the English translation and the original ancient Koine Greek text of Revelation 21:4 in the Bible, which reads, "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
"It's one of the final promises in the Bible that motivates me to believe that the suffering and pain of this world won't last and that there is hope for the future," he added.
The last stop was at the alley between JJ's and Horseshoe Cafe.
Jon Ng and the volunteers spend a long time talking to the people gathered there, partly because they were trying to help a 19-year-old youth, who told them he'd been homeless for a week, to resources.
As they drove off, Jon Ng echoed their hope that the connection will make a difference for him, that "this is the beginning of him getting off the streets."