Knights of Columbus doles out more than 500 sleeping bags to homeless

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Dick Akins worked with the Tualatin chapter of Knights of Columbus to create the Mission for the Homeless program, which raises money to provide sleeping bags and essentials to the homeless populations in washington and Multnomah counties.Volunteers fanned out across the county last week as part of the nationwide Point-in-Time Homeless Count, a biennial survey of sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals and families. And in the weeks leading up to this census, local fraternal organizations worked together to provide these homeless populations with necessities like sleeping bags and undergarments through an initiative called Mission to the Homeless.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - A homeless man identifying himself as Jack thanks Ann and Dick Akins for presenting him with a new sleeping bag. The Akins have made a tradition of buying and distrubting sleeping bags for the homeless during the holiday season, and have worked with several fraternal organizations to expand the effort. The mission began as one couple’s impulse to provide some comfort to the men and women they saw sleeping on the streets near Burnside Bridge in downtown Portland. Dick Akins, a West Linn resident who works as a financial planner and investment advisor, recalls that he and his wife Ann cleared the nearest Fred Meyer out of all its sleeping bags — 14 total — which they then distributed. It was the holiday season, and the next year, the two resolved to forgo Christmas gifts to each other and instead buy 50 sleeping bags for the local homeless. By the third year, the Tualatin chapter of the Knights of Columbus, where Dick is a member, wanted to be involved. The fraternal organization was able to raise funds to purchase 150 sleeping bags.

The initiative grew and came to include members of the West Linn Lions Club, and this year participants — “what we call ‘missionaries of the sleeping bag,’” Dick says — oversaw the distribution of a record 572 sleeping bags.

The “missionaries of the sleeping bag” now partner with nonprofit organizations in Washington and Multnomah counties to better identify need.

“We try to spread it around basically to organizations that already have as their focus and their mission to help the homeless,” Dick said. “We find it’s easier for them to take the funds and sleeping bags and give them out because they know the clients.”

For organizations like The Underground, a group focused on homeless youth between the ages of 14 and 24, sleeping bags can serve as a kind of icebreaker. Dick notes that homeless youth in particular have a problem trusting those who want to provide assistance.

“The sleeping bags break barriers, so that people who receive them know we’re willing to help,” he says.

Even for those fortunate to live out of their vehicles, Dick says, “the only heat they get is basically from sleeping bags. Because with the price of gas, you can’t afford to run your car all night.”

As the push to provide essentials to homeless people grew, the Knights of Columbus and the Lions Club increased their efforts: This year, they raised $3,000 so that resource centers like Rose Haven, which aids victims of domestic violence, can afford to buy undergarments for the women it serves.

Last October, the Mission for the Homeless challenged six area churches to collect socks for the homeless. The churches delivered 4,566 pairs.

These programs fit seamlessly with other established community programs, like the Lions Club’s yearly tradition of buying shoes for low-income children.

“The city of West Linn, you wouldn’t expect has much call” for this kind of aid, Dick says, “but we take three busloads of kids to Payless Shoes and buy them a new pair of shoes every Christmas.”

Dick says he is still struck by the unseen need throughout the community. He recalls a homeless couple who thanked him for providing dinner at the Downtown Chapel in Portland. They reported that it was the first meal they had eaten in four days.

Even now, Dick says he finds food insecurity hard to fathom. He is working with his church, Resurrection Catholic Parish in Tualatin, to launch a program called 40 Cans for Lent, which challenges parishioners to collect one can of food for donation for each day between Feb. 13 and Easter.

Helping out, Dick says, “doesn’t have to be what I call ‘heavy lifting.’ I favor ‘select charity,’ getting involved on a personal basis.”

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