Written by: Hongwen Chang
Translated by: Shandi Lai
Edited by: Qihua Luo, Patrick McShane
Since the beginning of the pandemic in late 2019, the people of the United States have suffered economic hardships. Over the past 4 years, the unemployment rate has increased, and when coupled with rising inflation, has resulted in rising rents that many can not afford, forcing them out of their homes and into homelessness.
These unhoused people have no permanent residence to call their own. Tents have sprung up in many cities around the country. They are often found outside of shops, in the woods or public parks, or beside roadways. The rising unhoused population and the suffering many in the community endure have become an increasingly serious social problem in the urban areas of Washington State. The government understands the seriousness of the problem and has taken steps to assist those in need, but has not completely fixed the issue. Private charity organizations are also powerless to solve such a complicated issue, as many can only temporarily provide basic humanitarian assistance such as blankets, clothes, and food for those in need.
Cognisant of the great need, and knowing that many will be facing a cold winter without a home, Tzu Chi volunteers distributed winter supplies for those in need in Mount Vernon, Washington on December 10th, 2022.
From Surging Flood Waters Comes a Lasting Partnership
Mount Vernon, a town about an hour’s drive north of Seattle, suffered its worst flood in 30 years in mid-November 2021. Unfortunately, the temporary homes of many vulnerable unhouse people were washed away in the flood waters. At that same time, Steven Simmons, a local graduate student, contacted the Tzu Chi Service Center in Seattle for help. On Thanksgiving weekend of that year, Tzu Chi volunteers drove to Mount Vernon to distribute supplies and necessities to the unhoused, and since then, volunteers have felt their fates were tied to the vulnerable in the community. In 2022, Steven became the outreach manager for Community Action for Skagit County, a local charity responsible for community charity work. Steven contacted the Tzu Chi Seattle Service Center again and together the groups prepared to distribute winter supplies to those in need.
After the Rain Comes Warmth and Sunshine
Volunteers carefully prepared sufficient materials to hand out to the unhoused at the distribution event. Some of the items included large backpacks, tents, waterproof jackets, sleeping bags, eco-friendly blankets, eco-friendly scarves, socks, toothpaste, and toothbrushes that can meet people’s daily needs. The volunteers also prepared special Christmas cakes because the holiday season was approaching. They hoped the cakes would bring festive joy to the donation recipients. Due to the abundance of supplies ready for distribution, volunteers needed a truck and a 12-foot trailer to load everything. In the torrential rain, the Tzu Chi volunteers went to the distribution site bringing the love of the entire Tzu Chi family with them. Perhaps luck always accompanies kind-hearted people, for as soon as they arrived at the distribution site, the rain passed and the sky cleared. Volunteers enthusiastically started to set up the tents and prepare the gifts neatly one by one.
Despite temperatures dipping as low as 3 degrees Celsius, 37 degrees Fahrenheit, unhoused people arrived one after another, many wearing thin clothes unsuited for the weather. It is hard to imagine how they survived the cold. Some also arrived pulling small trailers or pushing small carts containing all of their belonging. After Tzu Chi volunteers introduced the idea of the Bamboo Bank, some unhoused people donated what little chance they had to support other charity work and other vulnerable people in the community. Volunteers were particularly moved when they saw the happy smiles on the faces of the unhoused after receiving the supplies. Many volunteers were moved by the recipients donating generously and lovingly even when they themselves were struggling.
At the same time as the distribution, some Tzu Chi volunteers went to nearby unhoused communities and encampments alongside volunteers from local non-profits. Danna Ackley, a local volunteer who helps unhoused people find temporary housing, told us that “Homeless people either suddenly lose their income, cannot afford the rent, or experience a crisis of mental illness or the problem of drug addiction, which led them to homelessness. With the increasing number of homeless people, there is not enough housing in the community for low-income residents to live in.”
After handing out supplies, the Tzu Chi volunteers gained a deeper understanding of the suffering of vulnerable and unhoused people in our community. All volunteers sincerely hoped that their modest efforts might bring some joy and relief to those suffering during the holiday season and that the gifts could bring warmth throughout the cold winter.