Stacey Wifall was 19 when she was approached in Seattle by a homeless man.
“I gave him $20, and a few minutes later he was in a Thriftway behind me in line, buying beer,” Wifall said. “I decided then I wouldn’t give money to the homeless. I’d give my time, instead.”
It was the stereotypical street encounter, and she said it reminded her that mental illness can be part of the homeless experience.
But only part.
“I walk around in Tacoma or Puyallup and see people out in the cold, and I’ve thought about if it was my daughter outside in this weather,” said Wifall, who lives in Puyallup. “There’s this stigma attached to families, and that includes their children.”
On Saturday, Wifall will be among 120 volunteers taking part in a Homeless Youth Prevention and Empowerment Day in Spanaway.
There are four homeless outreach events each year sponsored by Project Homeless Connect – in Tacoma, Puyallup, the Olympic Peninsula and Spanaway.
The one in Spanaway is different, said Alanna Rodgers, special events director for Project Homeless Connect.
“This one is geared toward homeless and low-income youth and children,” she said. “Sometimes kids walk into an event, see all these adults and are not comfortable. This one is for them.”
What exactly can kids – and the adults bringing them – expect to find?
“One of the most popular areas is for haircuts,” Rodgers said. “We’ll have volunteers there who can help with college prep work, put together job resumes, do medical and dental care screening.”
All free. And there are giveaways.
“We’ll have shoes, socks, gloves, jackets and jeans,” Rodgers said. “The least we can do is have every child leave with new jeans, a jacket, socks and shoes and a scarf.”
Wifall and the volunteers she works with will be the first faces participants see.
“How people are treated and greeted sets the tone for the day,” Wifall said. “Whatever their backstory, you’re there to get them the help they need. I train those who do the greeting, who have to fill out paperwork and send people to the right places.”
Back in October, the organization held a similar event at the Tacoma Dome geared for homeless people of all ages.
“A woman came in who was in her early 60s, who had impacted teeth in the back of her mouth that wouldn’t let her chew solid food,” Wifall said. “She was worried about the way she looked, about her hair, and said she had job interviews but didn’t think anyone would hire her the way she looked.
“By the time she left that afternoon, she’d gotten her hair cut, had two teeth extracted and walked out with a huge smile on her face.”
When children are involved, it’s often emotional.
“I have a 6-year-old, and I see when parents and kids try to enroll in a school when they have no home address,” Wifall said. “Parents want to help their children. At the Tacoma Dome, one mother and her two children slept behind a Dumpster all night so they could be sure to get to the event on time.”
“Kids are the biggest reason I’m involved.”
Rodgers likes the fact that this weekend’s event will allow young people who need a variety of services to get them, all in one place.
“We have families, kids, who need to see a dentist, who need warm clothing or help getting a government ID,” Rodgers said. “This event is one-stop shopping for them, a place where they can come and take care of various needs.”
“We want everyone who comes to get a hot meal, and we’re firing up a barbeque in Spanaway,” Rodgers said. “We want to make this fun for the kids as well as helpful. We want them to enjoy the day.”
For families with youngsters, there’s child care provided – and, Wifall said, those working at the daycare have all passed background checks.
“We’ve found that kids going into the daycare area have a great time,” Wifall said. “There’s face painting, and the giveaways aren’t only clothes and toothpaste, there are toys, too.
“For older kids thinking about college, we’ll have college reps on hand to help them find scholarships.
“You do this and see lives changed. That’s why I do it.”