Five Big Needs in Whatcom County (and How you can Help)
Much of our work at Whatcom Love INC happens through our Call Center. We invite neighbors in need to call us for a compassionate ear and to be connected with resources in the local Church and in the community as we know about them. Connecting with this random sampling of neighbors experiencing need gives us data from which we can help interpret community needs for the Church and other people of good will, and encourage congregations and faith communities to respond strategically and in a coordinated fashion to respond in a way that prioritizes “gaps” in the current ecosystem of human services, targeting those needs that are currently going unmet.
As this crisis continues we wanted to share with you a few of the things that we have learned in the past couple of weeks.
Many pastors we’ve talked to are scrambling to try to connect people in their congregations with food and other necessities, and trying to set up internal systems to deal with these problems. In fact, however, the community resources available for this in Whatcom County are quite good. Besides the superb work being done by restaurants and grocery stores to ensure that we are all fed, and their efforts to provide safe access to food through special hours for vulnerable persons and expanded delivery and pick up options, the existing network of emergency food resources has adapted fairly successfully to the crisis, and is now being supplemented with other resources, such as free meals for kids from the school district. New resources have also emerged, such as the Community Helpers Facebook Group, which also now runs a hotline to connect people to help.
Church leaders may have other reasons to try to make these connections within their congregation, but it should be done for strategic reasons, and not because no other options are available. In general, however, we recommend that pastors who have a particular burden in this area support and partner with the existing community resources, continuing to work to make connections and referring people in need to the appropriate resource set up to serve them. Although the resources are strong, they are not perfect, and some people still fall through the cracks. The Church is one of the institutions that can help find and support people who have become isolated in and with their needs.
It is important to note, finally, that food security is an issue even in times where there is not a crisis, so there is still plenty of work to be done in this area.
Gas Vouchers and Travel Support
Many people have called Whatcom Love INC looking for gas vouchers, which under normal circumstances, we are able to provide through our network of partners. Interestingly, the Stay Home order seems to have increased the need for these resources, rather than decreased it — probably because so many of the usual sources of help in this area are temporarily closed. WTA busses are running for free (albeit on a limited schedule), but for a number of reasons, this doesn’t work for everybody. Many people, accordingly, are in need of gas to help them perform their essential life functions; others are seeking to return to a community where they have a stronger network and more access to support.
The good news here is that we have connected with a handful of churches who are willing to start (or resume) a gas voucher program. The bad news is, the offices of these churches are closed, or operating on a very limited basis. We are trying to find safe and sanitary drop points where vouchers (and potentially other needful items) could be given to those who qualify, or some other solution to this problem.
Furniture is not an immediate or emergency need for most of us: we can wait to replace that ailing bookshelf or broken recliner until regular life resumes. But can you imagine if you were starting from nothing? We’ve gotten several calls from people in our community who have recently been placed into housing after periods of homelessness, but that housing — of course — comes unfurnished, and they have nothing to furnish it with. This would be a difficult situation to deal with even in normal circumstances, but with everything closed, it becomes even more challenging.
Interestingly, calls from people looking to donate furniture have also increased over the past few weeks. Quarantine, it seems, has inspired more than one person into spring cleaning! There are no agencies currently accepting furniture, however, and usual donation-to-person in need connection programs like House 2 Home have also been suspended for the time being.
We’re looking for creative solutions to help people who are stuck in this situation during this time. One thing we would love to do is connect these callers to church groups who — if they might not be able to help them with furniture right away — might be able to get it lined up, and provide encouragement in the meantime.
Rent and Bills
Many bills will not be collected this month. Gov. Inslee’s moratorium on evictions will extend through at least April 17th, and with federal recommendation that it continue a further 120 days, the order will almost certainly be extended. It is not always clear, however, which bills have wiggle room, and what the consequences might be for falling behind — even on bills that are technically paused. Many people have called with questions about this, looking for help and advice.
Several helpful compilations of resources in this area already exist, and are being created almost daily. This article in the Bellingham Herald gives some helpful tips and resources, and this guide from the Department of Financial Institutions are some of the best we know of now. The number one piece of advice is calling the person to whom money is owed to reach an arrangement, which many people can handle on their own. However, this does not cover all needs. You can support your neighbors in this area through coordinated research, advocacy, help with communication tasks, and offering emotional and personal presence.
If you feel this is a skill that you have to offer, we encourage you to volunteer in our Call Center. We will also be also looking for volunteers who will be willing to coach and walk with neighbors “one-on-one” as they seek to recover and rebuild, and you can already sign up to begin the process of preparing and training for that work
Mental Health in Isolation
Several pastors in our network have members of their congregation who are suffering from various forms of addiction and mental illness. These congregants rely on their spiritual community and faith-based gatherings to help mitigate and cope with their symptoms and challenges. Social distancing has impacted these people even more extremely. Some pastors have a described feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness at watching the situation deteriorate for people in this kind of situation. How can the Church respond? What kinds of resources are available to help people whose experience of social distancing related isolation is especially severe?
Whatcom Love INC is in the early stages of developing learning circles for church leaders to help bring pastors together to explore these kinds of questions, and share ideas and resources. We’re also looking to expand our network of partners and collaborators who can help us help others help in this crucial time.
The Call for Help
Besides engaging directly with people in need through volunteer with our Call Center, we’re looking for people who might be willing to support our work by helping us do research on the needs that we are encountering, or on the other side with communications, by helping us produce short videos and compile articles like this one. Of course, you can help in a more informal way by sharing your ideas by an email or a comment: part of our purpose in compiling and sharing this material is to “crowdsource” ideas to solve these problems we’re seeing. We will also be hosting virtual learning circle gatherings to gain more ideas and connections to help us as we engage with the needs of our community. We encourage you to follow us on social media, sign up for our mailing list, and stay engaged with us as we seek to stay engaged with the community. It’s going to take all of us working together to thrive in the midst of these difficult times.