Members of UW Tacoma’s Phi Alpha Honor Society and the Center for Service & Leadership volunteered in the annual Point-in-Time count Jan. 25. The Point-in-Time count is an event that allows volunteers to survey people who are or who may know someone who is homeless. This information is used by non-profit organizations to better serve those who are experiencing homelessness. Washington state holds the count once a year but it is only required every two years by federal law.
The Phi Alpha Honor Society is a program for Social work and Criminal Justice majors who have a minimum overall GPA of 3.5 and are at least juniors. This academic year, Phi Alpha has hosted a blood drive and a multi-sponsored poverty immersion workshop with the Criminal Justice League and Pi Beta Pi. They also plan to be a part of pride week later this year. The purpose of the society is to create a bond among social work students and promote humanitarian goals and ideas.
“Our whole goal is to really help students achieve their goals and … help out our community, however that looks,” Mindy Roman, president of Phi Alpha and a senior in the Social Welfare program, said. “This year our main focus … was working with the homeless population.”
With this theme in mind, Phi Alpha decided that they wanted to try something that they hadn’t done before.
“We wanted to do something a little bit … different this year because other organizations at UW Tacoma … do the Peanut Butter [and] Jelly drive. We wanted to bring something new and not only that, we’re fully aware that not everyone loves peanut butter and jelly. There are food banks and resources available. So we wanted to focus on something different,” Roman said.
Phi Alpha chose to make hygiene kits — also known as the Warmth and Wellness kits — and partnered up with the CSL in late November to make them. They held the Warmth and Wellness drive between Jan. 7–24. and through various donations from private donors, events and from the drive, were able to assemble over 520 bags. The kits included items like shampoo, soap, shaving kits, feminine hygiene, condoms, free haircut coupons, deodorant, toothpaste and toothbrushes. The kits were handed out during the survey and also distributed to various non-profit organizations in the Tacoma area.
Before the actual count, volunteers participated in a mandatory training session conducted by Pierce County to learn about how to administer the survey and how to help and engage mindfully with individuals experiencing homelessness. The actual Point-in-Time count ran from 9 a.m.–2 p.m. and surveys were conducted around the Oasis of Hope Center as well on the street for outreach. Other volunteers were stationed at meal sites, day shelters, events such as Project Homeless Connect, and DSHS offices throughout Pierce County.
Several UWT students participated in the Point-in-Time Count and among these were Social Welfare majors Augustine Canales, and Robert “Bob” Warman. Roman also participated in the event. All of them described their experiences as being eye opening and as something that made them all stop and reflect on the way they do things including the reasons why they were helping individuals during the survey.
Both Canales and Warman were placed at the Salvation Army located on Sixth Avenue where the volunteers were split into two teams. From there they took some of the Warmth and Wellness kits, filled them into a shopping cart and pushed it to locations that contained large pockets of homeless individuals. They conducted the survey through a phone app and also handed out the kits to the people they met.
While they were doing this Canales described a situation where he and his fellow teammates encountered a group of individuals who were angry because they believed that what the volunteers were doing was insincere stating that if the volunteers really wanted to help them that they needed to do more than just be there for the Point-in-Time survey.
“I didn’t realize [it] then but going home later and reflecting on that [I was] like, it’s true!” Canales said. “What are my motives for doing it? I’m part of the Social Welfare organization, I’m going to school, I’m part of the Phi Alpha Honor Society, a professor of ours actually offered us extra credit if we did this [so] what was the real reason why I was doing this?… I’m like I shouldn’t be doing this just one time. If I really want to make a difference and really want to change the way things operate that impact homelessness, I need to change the way I am.”
Warman stated that even though he did not have the same experience as Canales, he and his team met a woman who became emotional with the supplies she received.
“She thanked us [and] she got very emotional because we gave her a pair of socks, and something to snack on and a blanket,” Warman said. “[She] thanked us for treating her like a normal person [with] decency which made us feel real good. It made a few us start to get teary-eyed as well.”
Roman spent most of her time delivering supplies but recalled one experience while she was at the Oasis of Hope Center where she met a man who asked to try on a coat but didn’t know what size he was. Once he tried on a coat, Roman stated that the man was happy and that this made her realize that it can be little things that can make a big difference.
“It dawned on me that people who are experiencing this … don’t even know what size they are,” Roman said. “They haven’t gone to purchase clothing in so long that they genuinely don’t know what size they are which is a privilege that I think most of us take for granted. I would have never thought of that prior to this, ever. So that was really kind of showed me that, wow, this goes really deep.”
Canales explained that he took away several things from participating in the survey and said that the experience has made him feel more grateful for the things and people in his life. He hopes to make this more than just a one-time experience and like Roman and Warman wants to continue to be involved in issues that affect the community.
“The impact that I’ve taken away from it is to make sure that this isn’t a one-time experience,” Canales said. “I’m gonna make sure to … try to do something about it because we can talk about it and do a once a year point-in-time count… but if you really want to make an impact you have to dedicate more than just once a year… If things are systematically going to change, than we need to get involved and be more involved.”