Op-Ed

Homeless families may soon find shelter at local churches

Interfaith Coalition of Whatcom County project manager Mike Hess digs under the foundation of a Ferndale house being converted into a triplex for homeless families in 2013. The Interfaith Coalition is now partnering with Family Promise to works with congregations to provide space in their buildings to serve as temporary shelters for families.
Interfaith Coalition of Whatcom County project manager Mike Hess digs under the foundation of a Ferndale house being converted into a triplex for homeless families in 2013. The Interfaith Coalition is now partnering with Family Promise to works with congregations to provide space in their buildings to serve as temporary shelters for families. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Thirteen-year-old Katelyn slips into class 10 minutes late. She eases into her seat – trying to be invisible – but cannot escape the prying eyes of her peers – eyes that take in her unwashed face, greasy hair and filthy, rumpled clothing.

She opens a battered notebook and attempts to focus. After a few moments, though, her eyelids – heavy from sleeplessness – close, and her head sags forward.

As her teacher I knew the bare bones of Katelyn’s situation. After her mother died of cancer, the family faced an onslaught of medical bills. Soon Katelyn’s father lost his job in a company downsizing and everything started to unravel. Now, the family – dad, Katelyn, and two younger brothers – lives in a pickup truck.

I’m excited about the vision of the Interfaith community to seriously address the needs of homeless families.

What is it like to be Katelyn? To attend school when you’re homeless? To try to learn when you’re exhausted? During my 30 years as a public school teacher I grappled with these issues and found no magical solution: It didn’t matter how innovative and engaging my lesson was if a student lacked a safe, secure place to live.

I knew that as long as Katelyn remained homeless she was 50 percent less likely to complete high school than her peers, according to the Washington state Office of the Superintendent of Public Education, and faced a significant probability of struggling with depression and anxiety, according to the American Psychological Association. It would be virtually impossible for her family to find even temporary housing in an emergency shelter environment, as most did not allow a father and teenage daughter to remain together.

Unfortunately, Katelyn’s story is not an isolated one. During the 2014-15 school year Whatcom County had 854 homeless schoolchildren, according to the Washington state Office of the Superintendent of Public Education. Each of these students faced daily challenges in accessing adequate rest, proper hygiene, decent health care, comfort, reasonable safety, and good nutrition – things that most of us take for granted.

Three years ago I learned about the innovative efforts of the Interfaith Coalition to keep homeless families like Katelyn’s together while providing them with temporary housing. Through careful case management, Interfaith successfully transitions nearly 90 percent of its sheltered families into stable housing. However, with just 11 units of housing in Whatcom County, Interfaith is only able to assist a small portion of the area’s growing population of homeless families.

Recently I heard some very good news: The Interfaith Coalition has initiated a partnership with Family Promise – a national nonprofit that works with congregations to provide space in their buildings to serve as temporary shelters. Imagine the power of more than 40 Whatcom County congregations using their resources to help homeless families begin the journey to stable, permanent housing. It’s absolutely incredible!

I’m excited about the vision of the Interfaith community to seriously address the needs of homeless families. With the Interfaith Coalition/Family Promise partnership, I see a bright future for families like Katelyn’s. I see a new narrative of hope.

Joe Nolting has lived in Bellingham since 2012 and was the 2007-08 runner-up for Alaska Teacher of the Year.

Hear more

The Interfaith Coalition and Family Promise will discuss how faith community resources can serve homeless children and parents in Whatcom County at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15, at Church of the Assumption’s gym, 2116 Cornwall Ave.

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