The County of Walla Walla Homeless Resources reported a count of 400 homeless individuals in Walla Walla in 2013. Fifty-two percent of these individuals are under the age of 25. Almost a quarter of them are under the age of 13.
This week is National Hunger and Homeless Week, and as families prepare for Thanksgiving celebrations, Walla Walla’s Interfaith Coalition on Poverty reminded the community of a broader context of hunger and homelessness during their nightly events on Nov. 18-20.
Each event took place at the Land Title Plaza from 3 to 7 p.m. and sought to bring awareness to hunger and homelessness issues in the Walla Walla area. Attendees listened to live music and poetry readings and donated food and beverages.
Walla Walla Community Harvest has been working with the Interfaith Coalition on Poverty for the past two years, and they contributed to this event. WWCH mobilizes volunteers from the Walla Walla Valley to collect and distribute surplus food produced by local farmers and gardeners, simultaneously reducing agricultural waste and increasing food security in the community.
“WWCH’s work helps to increase food security for those struggling with hunger and poverty by bringing in donations of healthy, fresh produce to area food pantries. In a wider sense, WWCH’s mission and work creates a space for increased dialogue around hunger, an issue that remains largely hidden in our nation,” said WWCH Gleaning Coordinator Laura Engelman in an email.
WWCH has helped plan events and promote awareness of the ICP Hunger and Homelessness event. Additionally, they’ve asked other groups in the community to plan their own events to bring awareness to hunger and homelessness issues in Walla Walla.
“The most important aspect of the week is for community members to understand as fully as possible the state of our community,” said Engelman.
Engelman brings up an important point: The ‘awareness’ part of the title of this week points to the fact that hunger and homelessness is often swept under the rug in the eyes of the rest of the community.
Those who put on this event seek to shine light on the causes and the results of hunger and homelessness. Alcohol and substance abuse, tied with family crisis, was the biggest reported cause of homelessness. Twenty percent reported mental illness as a contributing factor.
“Hunger and homelessness are not easy issues to talk about, and thus many in Walla Walla do not see the great need that exists on a day to day basis,” said Engelman. “The event … serve[d] to bring these issues to the forefront of people’s minds and begin a dialogue that will lead to increased efforts to tackle hunger and homelessness.”
Abby Juhasz, the community service coordinator for Whitman’s Student Engagement Center, discussed the importance of education about hunger and homelessness issues.
“The Interfaith Coalition on Poverty’s events are building awareness around these important social issues and highlighting the needs of our community. Every member of the Whitman community is a member of the Walla Walla community, too. It is important for people to understand the issues that affect so many in our community,” said Juhasz in an email.
Whitman’s Student Engagement Center is encouraging students to participate in the ICP event before Whitman’s community service social on Wednesday.
“We are encouraging participation in this event because it represents an intersectionality of issues that our programs care about –– hunger, homelessness and poverty all go hand-in-hand to propagate a lot of the problems that we see in our communities. Being aware of these issues in Walla Walla and supporting those in the wider community who are doing something about them is very important,” said Katie Steen, Whitman’s community service intern.
One way students participated in the event was with a performance by one of Whitman’s a capella groups, the Testostertones.
“I happened to be at the ICP booth last night when the T-Tones showed up and gave a really phenomenal concert, which gathered a good sized crowd and drew a lot of passers-by to the info display to learn about the issues. The group was a wonderful additional Whitman contribution to this community effort!” said Assistant Dean for Student Engagement Noah Leavitt in an email.
Hillel Shalom has also been involved with the ICP in the past and this year is strongly encouraging its members to participate.
“One year we volunteered with Blue Mountain Partners Habitat for Humanity efforts, helping build a home for someone,” said Sharon Kaufman-Osborn, the adviser of Hillel Shalom. “Some students have attended [ICP] meetings, and we met with the group when they were just starting up. I hope that students will attend events this year as well.”
Hillel is also donating its collected tzedakah (charity) to the Hunger and Homelessness event.
Juhasz and Steen encouraged Whitman students to reach into the greater Walla Walla community and participate in this week’s events.
“It is only through this understanding that effective responses and outreach efforts can be initiated. Our hope is that Whitman students participating in this event will be inspired to take action and become active, engaged citizens within their Walla Walla community,” said Juhasz.