“We’re all here tonight to ignite a movement,” Mill Creek Pub Owner Russell Brent remarked at the start of a gathering of about 60 at the Battle Ground Community Center April 18. They were gathered for the first conversation focused on what organizers are calling “Just One Thing,” a way to collectively end homelessness in the city and all of north Clark County through small, individual efforts.
Brent was one of three major players in promoting the “Just One Thing” movement who spoke at the event. Alongside him, Battle Ground Public Schools Family and Community Resource Center Coordinator Lydia Sanders and Battle Ground Mayor Mike Dalesandro spoke about homelessness as well as ways — both currently in action and ideas for the future — to solve the problem of people living on the streets or bouncing from couch to couch.
Why help the homeless?
Brent pointed to two biblical bases for helping others — the law of hospitality for foreigners as laid out in the Torah, and the story of the Good Samaritan as found in the Gospel of Luke. He also pointed to the story of “Million Dollar Murray,” an article by writer Malcolm Gladwell, which recounted how the titular Murray Barr ended up costing taxpayers $1 million in medical and social service expenses because the issues that led to his chronic homelessness were never addressed.
Dalesandro was not there in an official capacity as mayor. In fact, The Just One Thing movement isn’t sponsored by any government agency — the city, the school district or otherwise. He said the idea for the movement came through conversations with other community members starting last year.
“We came to this conclusion that rather than turning to the government for answers, turning to taxpayers for answers, what can the community do?” Dalesandro said. He explained how the mission of Just One Thing was just that — for individuals to think of one targeted effort they could make that collectively would be able to fill the needs of those experiencing homelessness.
Apart from heading up the district resource center, Sanders also serves as BGPS’ liaison for students experiencing homelessness. She said that although the number of families in that situation were going up generally, in BGPS there are 32 fewer families in that situation this school year than last. She added that currently there are 261 students in the district identified as experiencing homelessness, explaining that of the 61 who could qualify for housing programs, 11 had been housed since the beginning of the school year.
“Part of the solution is moving away from this idea that when we see someone who is homeless (we think) there’s a program that’s going to help them because I’m here to tell you … there’s just literally not the resources available,” Sanders said.
Sanders had a connection to the students she helps who are experiencing homelessness — she was in a similar situation growing up, eventually bouncing around the foster care system after a turbulent time living at times in tents with her mother.
It wasn’t until she landed a job with the school district doing data entry that she felt any kind of appreciation for herself, fostered by coworkers she describes as “amazing women.”
“I had never really been cared about before,” Sanders remarked. “As I was very afraid to share my story, they kept loving me.”
“We need to get back to the human being, and caring about the human being,” Sanders said. “Not enabling them, but empowering them to get on their feet on their own.”
Hope, skills, support
To get that empowerment, Sanders pointed to a three-part guideline: “hope, skills and support.” Regarding hope, she explained people experiencing homelessness were in “survival mode” where priorities were simply living another day — plans and goals for a better life weren’t important for people in such a situation.
“How do we relight that flame of hope in their heart?” Sanders asked, explaining that in her office at the district they do it “by truly listening to them, by honoring them, by respecting them.”
“We have to believe in them before they can believe in themselves at that point because they’re at their low,” Sanders said, “and I’ve been there, so I get it.”
According to Sanders, oftentimes the “skills” portion of the strategy involved basic things like how to get a driver’s license or a social security card and how to write a resume, “things that a lot of us in middle-class land assume that everybody knows how to do.”
“The third thing they need is eyeball-to-eyeball human support from someone who’s willing to cross that bridge with them, from where they are now to leaving not only homelessness behind, but that whole poverty mindset,” Sanders said. She pointed to the district’s mentoring program as an example of that support, helping to overcome the 14 percent graduation rate she said was the case for “unaccompanied homeless” students.
Examples of “Just One Thing”
“For me, ‘relationship’ is the one thing,” Battle Ground Foursquare Church Co-Lead Pastor Elizabeth Sawzcuk said. She recounted a time where she felt a disconnect between herself and those who were homeless — when speaking about a clothing drive she caught herself using distancing language, referring to “they” when talking about the beneficiaries of the drive.
Sawzcuk stressed the need for more level, inclusive relationships to work toward ending homelessness, adding that she has helped with BGPS’ mentoring program to meet that end.
Keith Ansell explained that his organization, the Battle Ground Lions Club, made shampoo their “one thing” at the request of Sanders. He said in the month or so the club has been collecting they have donated 60 bottles to the district resource center.
Ansell said that though the club initially thought to focus on multiple aspects of support, the focus on “one thing” could lead to a strong network of help with multiple groups and individuals each pitching in their part.
“Before long these kids’ families would have what they need so they have the dignity,” Ansell remarked.
Dentist Judy Fu expressed a desire to get connected to offer dental care to those experiencing homelessness, noting that the pain of untreated tooth problems can impact school performance by students who couldn’t afford treatment.
“One of the reasons why I became a dentist is so I could allow people to smile again,” Fu said, adding that low self-esteem could impact someone’s ability to seek and land a job.
Mill Creek Pub’s “one thing” was an “earn and learn” program which the business would be taking part in the coming few weeks. Sanders said there were seven other local businesses “chomping at the bit” to be a part of the program which would provide jobs for students experiencing homelessness while also teaching them skills necessary to keep the jobs. The goal was to break the cycle of hiring and firing that many students in that situation face, she explained.
Call to action
“What if we had a network of people in Battle Ground who could help those people who are sleeping behind Walmart and sleeping behind Albertson’s right now? What if we had mentoring teams that could go out and love that human being?” Sanders posed. She envisioned a set of individuals devoted to building relationships with people experiencing homelessness while having others who could help to provide the resources those people needed.
Joseph Hardin, a relatively new resident to Battle Ground and founder of the Veterans Relief Project, spoke from his own previous experience, growing up in an affluent part of Connecticut, receiving a good education and serving 10 years in the Air Force but then ending up homeless a year after his service.
“If somebody like me can find myself homeless, what about people who don’t have those advantages?” Hardin remarked.
Hardin asked the audience about their reaction to encountering someone who was homeless, admitting himself that the meeting can be off-putting. He urged those gathered to action, pushing off the notion that some other person could be the help.
“Just one thing is amazing, but what are you going to do about it?” Hardin asked. “The question you need to ask yourself is ‘what can I do?’”