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Putting a face on homelessness
When the 2009 Kitsap County homeless count numbers were released in February, they were for the most part what Willow Foundation Executive Director Kristina Bennett and the rest of the leaders of homelessness advocacy organizations expected, with one major exception.
“I was surprised at the number of homeless children and children under 5,” Bennett said. “Whether their families are couch-surfing or living in their cars or out on the streets, they’re still enrolled in school.”
Because those children are in school, more needs to be done to provide information about the resources for homeless families through the schools, she said.
The continuing downturn in the national and local economies has created a bunch of “new” homeless, she said.
“Many of these people have become homeless because of a life event or the loss of a job,” she said. “As Richard (LeMieux, author of the book, ‘Breakfast at Sally’s’) says, ‘A lot of these people are in shock at how things have turned out.’”
With the royalties from LeMieux’s best-selling book — about his experience being homeless in Bremerton before being helped by a local congregation to transition from homelessness to finding housing and beginning a new life — set to go to the Salvation Army, Bennett said the foundation is collaborating with other homelessness advocacy groups to bring greater awareness locally and nationally.
To that end, Bennett issued a challenge to local church congregations to step up and do something to make a difference in the lives of others.
“That’s where the rubber meets the road and you have to walk the talk,” she said. “We need to break down the walls that separate us and find what it is we can do together.”
A United Methodist church in western New York was so inspired by reading LeMieux’s book that members told their pastor to “either read the book or find a new church,” Bennett said, adding that once the pastor began reading the book on a Sunday evening, she stayed up until 4 o’clock the next morning to finish it.
“After reading the book, the church installed showers and laundry facilities and named it the ‘Willow Project,’” Bennett said.
While every church might not be able to or feel compelled to do something as dramatic as the church in western New York, each congregation and individual can and should do something, she said.
“All of us long to be happy and the way we do that is by finding our gifts and giving back,” she said, noting everyone has something at which they excel and they enjoy doing, which should be their focus and way for helping others.
However, one of the major obstacles in making that happen is changing the common societal belief that people should “be able to pull themselves up by their boot straps.”
“It takes a village to bring someone up,” Bennett said. “In Richard’s case, it took a church, so it’s going to take all of us to end homelessness.”
Bennett can be contacted by going to the Web site, www.willow-foundation.org.