I stepped out for a walk last week, and the cold almost chased me back inside. I chose to keep going, but once I was warm indoors again I called a guy who intends to give a sleeping bag to every homeless person in King County.
Eddie Wang, a young man a year out of college, sent me a note saying he and his friends are working to supply enough sleeping bags for more than 3,000 people.
No one should be left to sleep in the cold on a sidewalk, under a bridge or in a doorway, but it happens. Every January, volunteers go out and count the people sleeping outdoors in King County, and this year they counted 3,123 men, women and children.
Wang says he knows the sleeping-bag project can’t address the underlying causes of homelessness. But he says, “It’s important because we all have basic needs. A warm place to sleep is something we take for granted every night.”
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Doing something to help is much better than being frozen by the difficulty of eliminating a problem like homelessness.
That count I mentioned is done by the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, which has a 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness. The committee is made up of governments, social-service organizations and faith groups around the county. They started in 2005. Yes, you know that means an already difficult challenge ran right into the Great Recession, but the work continues.
Homelessness became real for Wang when he was a freshman at the University of Washington in 2009. “You can’t go down The Ave without passing homeless people,” he said. That was new for him, and he was struck by the contrast between the campus of one of the top universities in the country and the nearby streets.
“I came from an upper-middle-class family in Redmond, Microsoft (where his father works), that kind of thing,” Wang said. Both his parents have graduate degrees and came to the United States from Taiwan for better opportunities.
Wang double-majored in economics and social work, an unusual pairing driven by his desire to help people in some way, a desire itself fueled by his Christian faith.
He started asking homeless people to tell him their stories and would invite people he met on the street to have dinner at the house he shared with several other students. He volunteered at the Roots shelter for 2½ years.
Wang said he was moved to act by “the contrast of seeing how blessed I was. My parents paid for college. I received so many handouts to get to where I am today. Most of the people on the streets haven’t received nearly that much.”
One man he got to know was abandoned by his mother when he was only 6 months old, and he passed through 20 foster homes. “We often look past what we’ve been given,” Wang said.
A couple of months ago, Wang heard about a guy who’d given out 50 sleeping bags in the University District, and he started thinking about scaling that up. “I’m a pretty entrepreneurial guy,” he said.
He drew up a plan and asked friends for feedback, then started enlisting those who had specific skills to contribute or who could provide useful contacts.
Together they created “Sleepless in Seattle — Seattle Gives Back” to raise money to buy and distribute sleeping bags.
They’ve partnered with several nonprofits and businesses. MM Comfort Systems made a donation, Columbia Sportswear is donating 200 warm beanies, PinkaBella Cupcakes is giving a cupcake with each sleeping bag.
Wang said $75,000 will buy enough bags for more than 3,000 people. The group was more than halfway there when we spoke Thursday, helped by a $25,000 anonymous matching grant. There are details at bit.ly/sleepless2014 and Wang’s group is still gathering contributions on the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo.
Everyone working on the project is a volunteer, so every penny goes to sleeping bags. Wang’s own day job is creating a project called Centered.org, which will use video lessons to encourage “Jesus-centered leadership.”
Wang said the Sleepless project hoped to recruit 200 volunteers to distribute sleeping bags around the county on Dec. 13.
I’m sure everyone involved will have a warm feeling that night.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com