He stood in the hallway of a long corridor at the Yakima Convention Center. In his left hand he held a plastic bag, the kind most of us would use in the fall to fill with leaves. Not this time. Inside he had stuffed a sleeping bag, coat, socks and a knit hat.
I asked if he needed help. He looked at the badge on my shirt that read “Volunteer.”
“I got kicked in the head a couple of times,” he replied, tapping a finger on his forehead for emphasis. “Now I’m seeing black spots.” A friend standing next to him gazed at the ceiling with a look of resignation. “What could this volunteer do?” her expression seemed to say.
“Follow me,” I chimed in.
We entered a conference room crowded with tables, chairs and other people lugging around heavy plastic bags. I stopped at some tables set up for Yakima Neighborhood Health Services.
“Here you go,” I told the man with the blurry vision. “I’m sure they can help you.”
Held on the last day of January and sponsored by the Homeless Network of Yakima County, Project Homeless Connect brought together a dizzying array of representatives from governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations with a single purpose in mind: to bring hope and resources to those living on the margins of society.
Free haircuts and medical screenings proved popular, as did the stacks of clothing and sleeping bags. Sunrise Outreach Center, which oversees the Extreme Winter Weather Shelters in Yakima and Sunnyside, was also there. So, too, was a friend of mine who lines up jobs for veterans through WorkSource Yakima.
While experts from alcohol and drug treatment centers offered advice, it’s wrong to assume that most of the homeless suffer from addiction. It’s simply not true. What I saw were teens, young married couples and single moms with babies. Nationwide, more than 40 percent of the homeless are families.
It doesn’t take much to become suddenly without a permanent roof over your head. When caught between the vice grip of poverty and unaffordable housing, what choices are there? A 2010 survey showed 77 percent of Americans live from paycheck to paycheck. How’s that for a safety net?
With more than 50 percent of Yakima County residents on some form of public assistance, there’s no shortage of people in need of help. During last year’s annual Point In Time survey, the Homeless Network of Yakima County counted 996 men, women and children who did not have permanent shelter. The actual number is closer to three times higher than what’s recorded during the one-day count.
Comprised of more than 30 agencies and nonprofit groups, the network has pushed to increase access to shelters and to boost advocacy, helping to reduce the number of individuals regarded as unsheltered by some 80 percent since 2006. The network also knows that reaching out to the homeless takes money, in amounts both large and small.
So that’s why my wife, Leslie, came up with a novel approach earlier this winter to help raise funds for the homeless shelters. I can say without fear of contradiction that no one has ever organized a fundraiser focused solely on logo boxer shorts.
That’s not a misprint. We’re talking about boxer shorts with a message. You know the kind. These are given to dads for Father’s Day or when somebody turns 40 or 50 or 60. Then there’s Valentine’s Day, which seems to bring out the worst in gag gifts for men — boxers emblazoned with bright red hearts harpooned with arrows shot by Cupid, who’s decked out in diapers.
You may ask why did my wife land on boxer shorts as a theme for her fundraiser? It turns out boxers become a hot topic whenever you ask what’s needed at a homeless shelter. We found that out while helping support the homeless shelter at Englewood Christian Church over the past few years. Organizers there have asked for cans of Dinty Moore beef stew and sliced peaches, hot chocolate, socks, gloves and boots. Whenever the conversation turns to underwear, though, the question of whether to buy boxers or briefs always gets an emphatic reply: boxers only.
So that’s how boxers became the inspiration for Leslie’s “Boxer Collection Project,” or BCP for those who prefer acronyms. For a donation of $25 to the homeless shelter, she informed potential donors she would take these unwanted logo boxers “off their hands or butt” — boxers that, quite honestly, no one would want to be caught in dead or alive. I offered up a pair of boxers featuring colorful fish with bold letters across the waistband that screamed, “Bait Me.” I refused, though, to turn over my Scooby-Doo boxers. You have to draw a line somewhere.
But that’s only half of the fundraiser. In early December, Leslie invited donors and other friends to bring canned food and clothing — yes, even nonlogo boxer shorts — to Gilbert Cellars in downtown Yakima, where we provided free appetizers. To add festive decorations for the event, Leslie clipped the logo boxers on a clothesline, labeled them with the donor’s name and asked the friendly folks at Gilbert Cellars if we could hang the boxers across their downstairs meeting room. They actually said yes.
The end result: $1,000 in cash and six boxes stuffed with canned food and clothing for the homeless shelter. A number of donors doubled down on their cash donations and were absolutely giddy about coughing up their hideous-looking boxers, which we promised to keep under lock and key.
While I doubt my wife’s Boxer Collection Project will be as popular as the YouTube video of “Gangnam Style” by the South Korean musician PSY, it does prove that novel ideas with worthy goals succeed. That’s because each one of us knows, at some point in our lives, we were only a paycheck away from seeing stars, not a roof, over our heads.
Life has few guarantees, but one thing is certain. We need each of us working together to keep this crazy world from spinning out of control.
• Spencer Hatton retired in September 2010 after working 27 years as city editor and editorial page editor at the Yakima Herald-Republic. A signed copy of his book, “Counting Crows: Stories of Love, Laughter and Loss,” is available at www.spencerhatton.com and at Inklings Bookshop and Dunbar Jewelers in Yakima.