Pierce County is assembling a corps of emergency responders unlike any other in the nation.
They’re earning their CPR and first aid cards. They have backpacks full of emergency supplies. They’re eager to take the training and pass the background checks they need to join Red Cross disaster relief crews.
They’re also homeless.
In stepping forward to learn the skills they need to come to the aid of others, they’re pioneering the first program of its kind in the nation.
At the highest levels of government they’re rearranging perceptions of people who are homeless: They don’t have to be a problem or a liability. They can be assets, partners in community safety.
The idea started in the Tacoma-Pierce County Coalition for the Homeless, said Sheri Badger, who coordinates services for vulnerable populations for the county Department of Emergency Management. Advocates in the coalition requested a plan to safeguard homeless people in an emergency.
In terms of money, the timing was perfect.
After Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans killed hundreds of the city’s poorest and most defenseless residents, the Department of Homeland Security freed up funding for plans to do better by vulnerable people.
Badger brought broad expertise to the task. She’d worked 12 years with Pierce County’s Human Services Department, which has close ties to the Coalition for the Homeless.
First, Badger set up emergency plans for the shelters and meal sites most likely to care for homeless people when the water’s high, the snow’s deep, the power’s out or the flu’s spreading.
Leaders at Hospitality Kitchen, Nativity House and the Tacoma Rescue Mission now have a way to get backup energy, spread information or triage the sick or injured.
Next, Badger arranged training for agency staff members.
Then she reframed the way she looked at their homeless clients.
“They’re a neighborhood,” she said.
She’s right. The people who live in shelters and secret places watch out for one another, get together for meals, keep each other current on information.
Badger partnered with the American Red Cross Mount Rainier Chapter to set up training sessions at Catholic Community Services, Nativity House and the Rescue Mission.
Even she has been surprised by the response.
She and Red Cross instructor Leah Munion have been wowed by the enthusiasm and knowledge students bring to class. Many of them have given CPR to a fallen friend. They know first-hand the causes and signs of shock. As the rains came, some asked if they could be of use in flooded areas.
That’s a possibility, once they complete all the required training.
But these people, many of whom have deep knowledge about the county’s terrain, present new opportunities for service.
“This is so new to us, we are not sure yet how to utilize these volunteers,” Badger said.
On Wednesday, Clayton Jones headed for a job interview at the end of the introductory class. Derrick Alex and Frank Moore had a few minutes to talk before their shifts as cooks in the mission’s kitchen. Mikal Batin, who has given emergency CPR, was ready for fresh training in new techniques.
Moore, who works for a catering company, lost his home after his hours were cut in response to the lousy economy. This, he said, is an opportunity to update his CPR certification and gain new skills.
Like Alex, he was looking forward to the longer, hands-on classes.
There’s a difference between knowledge and training, Alex said, and he wants to earn certification.
“This is making it possible for me to give back,” he said.
The mission has helped him, so he returned the favor by working in the kitchen and volunteering for NW Furniture Bank.
Becoming a proficient emergency responder is one more way to do that.
“I believe in the pay-it-forward philosophy,” he said.
Alex’s outlook, so prevalent in these classes, has inspired Munion, the teacher.
“This is an awesome program,” she said. “I feel honored to be part of it.”
“Nobody in the United States has ever done anything like this before,” said Mike Stoner, emergency services manager at the Rescue Mission. “This gives them the power to affect their destiny.”
And, in a disaster, ours.
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677