Project Homeless Connect, the Experience of a Volunteer Guest Guide

Photo Credit: United Way of Whatcom County

BY HEATHER BATES
Community Engagement Intern at Lydia Place | heatherb@lydiaplace.org

Each year, our community puts together a one-day event called Project Homeless Connect where those in need of housing, and other critical care, can receive services free of charge in one centralized location. Project Connect partners with dozens of local organizations to provide on-site services like general medical, dental, vision, reproductive health, foot care, counseling, social security and identification services, legal assistance, housing program screening, education access, employment assistance, haircuts, clothing, basic supplies, pet care and more. This year I had the pleasure of attending the event as a volunteer Guest Guide on behalf of Lydia Place.

Arriving bright and early on the morning of the event, I was unsure of what to expect. A full and silent parking lot at Bellingham High School gave way to an audible buzz as I approached the main building. Walking in, I passed through a thick line of people that ran from the entrance, along the side of the building and down the block. The line twisted and turned to accommodate the large number of bodies. Many attendees carried with them, everything they owned. Some Project guests were entertaining small children and some were talking with neighbors, while others slept in line. In the background, a local musician played a double standup bass, entertaining the guests in line with his singing and dancing. Over 515 people stood, sat and laid in this line while 300 volunteers readied the inside. Of the 515 people waiting, 371 were actively homeless.

Many guests knew exactly what services they wanted however, some needed guidance to select the services that best fit their needs. As Guest Guides, our purpose was to bridge that gap and serve as personal helpers to our guests. Our goal was to make them feel comfortable, cared for and make sure they had an opportunity to receive the services they came for especially, since some high-demand services fill quickly.

As the Project opened, I stood outside with a sea of volunteers. I chose to stand up front to await the first guests in line. The line began to move toward us. Some guests looked up and immediately connected with a volunteer whom they felt comfortable with. I waited. A gentleman in his fifties with a large grin passed by me, shaking hands with a man standing behind me. I waited. A few others had shuffled through by the time I made eye contact with Valerie.

In her sixties, she walked under her own power although it was clear that she could benefit from a cane. Valerie and I shook hands while walking at her pace. She explained that her knees and joints were inflamed but she made sure I understood she could handle the pain on her own. She needed vision services; her glasses had become less effective over time and she needed a new prescription. I was able to get her registered and in to see a doctor within fifteen minutes of entering the building. She turned and asked me to wait for her. I agreed.

While Valerie received a total eye exam and refraction, I inquired about her next health need with the hearing clinic. Soon after, Valerie was given a new prescription and a date to pick up her brand new glasses, free of charge. We moved on. She explained in great detail, the hearing problems she had been experiencing and was admitted to a hearing test. Again, I went to inquire on her next medical need this time, with the foot care clinic.

The foot care clinic was a very different place in comparison to the previous medical clinics. Foot care was experiencing a high volume of severe cases, and many guests in this clinic area were struggling to walk. As we waited for Valerie to be admitted, a man approached whose feet were so swollen and blackened that he was afraid to have them touched. His feet were his only mode of transportation and his pain was now limiting his ability to find food. In the time that I waited for Valarie, several people approached in similar condition. One guest appeared to have torn his own shoes open in an attempt to make room for the swelling.

Foot care sent Valerie back to medical. She was in need of further medical investigation. We spoke with several people in the medical clinic, attempting to locate the correct nurse for her to speak with. Since all the providers who attended the project were donating their time, some could only serve half days. The specialist who Valerie needed to see had left so we worked to get her a referral for another day.

Lunchtime had come and gone and Valerie was getting hungry. Project Connect had a bustling kitchen downstairs which was ready to serve guests. The kitchen service ensured that guests were able to stay on site and continue to receive services rather than have to leave to eat. As we headed to lunch, Valerie told me she had a friend waiting for her. A young man, was sleeping in her small car packed with her belongings, outside. She knew he would be hungry too and so, I suggested that we ask for a “to go” box from the kitchen staff.

We walked to deliver the “to go” box of food to her friend. She told me he had been “too proud” to come inside and had elected to simply wait for her instead. He was on his own, young and struggling. When we arrived at Valerie’s car, she was visibly distressed to find that he was no longer there. She attempted to call him, but the call went unanswered. Valerie became increasingly worried, telling me that he calls her “mom” and she fears that he may have wandered off. I asked his name. His name was Tien.

His name was memorable and easy to recognize. I knew it immediately. I told her he hadn’t wandered off; he had come in and volunteered! Tien, a very charismatic man, had introduced himself to me while I was waiting for Valerie to be discharged from the foot care clinic earlier in the day! Unable to locate Valerie among the large number of people, he had decided to contribute! I knew where he was working and led her right to him.

Tien had spoken to several project coordinators during his search for Valerie earlier in the day. They were both so happy to be reunited, that we ran downstairs to share the happy news! The three of us had a good laugh over the whole situation. As the day grew to a close, I began to walk around looking for other guests who needed guidance while Valerie wrapped up what she needed to accomplish. Tien stayed close to her side for the remainder of the time.

There was an emotional moment as we stood in the doorway at the end of the day. We shared hugs and parting words as if we had known each other for years. I knew I would probably never see either of them again but still, I consider them both friends. Valerie had shared her story of struggle with me throughout the day and Tien told me how she had saved him. Together, they had taken on their situation. I am so grateful that they allowed me to play a small part in their lives that day. For people like Valerie and Tien, the struggle is every single day, seven days a week. I will never forget these wonderful people or the Project Connect coordinators who worked so hard to put the project together and then, in the end, took the time to laugh with us as well.