For the Microsoft Day of Caring, I volunteered to teach basic computer skills at the Kirkland location for Hopelink, a non-profit organization that offers more than 40 services to help homeless and low-income families, children, seniors, and people with disability become more self sufficient.

I started writing this blog while waiting for others to arrive. In the background, I could hear the clatter in the food bank, which is at the back of the building. I peeked through a door where other volunteers from Microsoft were sorting donated goods.

My heart is pounding because I remember helping at a food bank in Austin, Texas when I worked at Dell. It was heartbreaking to sort through and clean discarded and donated goods that would be given to those in need. From high-end grocery stores came canned white asparagus, petite peas, and other esoteric gourmet foods.

Most canned and packaged goods, came from everyday grocery stores. Boxes of dented cans, returned items, meats and dairy products with dates nearing expiration, droopy or excess produce that couldn’t be sold… torn bags of dog and cat food, opened or dented boxes of feminine goods and cosmetics… virtually anything that couldn’t be sold to consumers with money in their pockets.

The horror of food banks isn’t the food. It’s the realization that the donated foods and goods are often not enough to meet the needs of the low-income, homeless, working poor, elderly, and others who don’t have the means to feed themselves let alone their families.

Although, Amy Arquilla, a senior manager with Hopelink, commented that she believes the Kirkland food bank fulfills the needs of most people in the area. In addition, it’s open extended hours and set up like a grocery store to make it easy to “shop” for food.

She had noticed, however, that for the past fourteen months there’s been an increase in people coming to Hopelink and the food bank. "Many people are a paycheck away from having to seek help," she explained. Others – the working poor – have paychecks, but they’re insufficient to cover basic needs from housing to transportation, insurance, utilities, healthcare, and food.

According to Amy, a livable wage on the east side (Kirkland, Redmond, Bellevue, etc.) is $22 per hour. The minimum wage in Washington is $8.55.

The least expensive apartments in the area range from $785 for a 506-square foot studio in Redmond to $995 for a 784-square foot one-bedroom in Bellevue. If you work 40-hours per week at $8.55 and are in the 25% tax bracket, after paying the rent on a $750 apartment, you’d have $69 per week for food, transportation, gas, utilities (i.e. phone, cable), insurance, healthcare, and other necessities.   

Amy further elaborated on the working poor, mentioning that the Redmond Target and Home Depot allow people who live out of their cars to sleep in their parking lots as long as they leave by morning. Unaware that the Day of Caring party was schedule to be held at the Purple Cafe and Wine Bar in affluent downtown Kirkland, Amy commented that the homeless spend the night in places one wouldn’t expect, such as the parking lot behind Purple!

I’m intrigued and horrified to take Amy up on her invitation to cruise around Kirkland, Redmond, and Bellevue at 2 a.m. and see the parking lots where the homeless are sleeping in their cars. As she spoke, I recalled that a large white van has been parked towards the back of our neighborhood Safeway. Inside lives a woman and her small dogs.

Just three miles from our house, and close to Hopelink, is the Holy Spirit Lutheran Church where one of the largest tent cities in the area is erected. Every few months, the tent city moves to another church! Looking on the Internet, the church unabashedly announces on their home page that the tent city will be located in their parking lot from August 1 – October 31, 2009.

I don’t know if I can sit idle. They’re asking for volunteers to serve meals… I need help…