Wednesday, December 22, 2010

December 22, 2010 ~ Day 13
A Place To Hang Your Hat

We've had pretty intense weather here on the West Coast this week, including heavy rain and strong wind that lasted for days. Despite the urge to stay in our cozy house, we were obliged to venture into the wet world yesterday to keep an appointment at the other end of town.

The freeway was flooded with a foot of standing water and motorists in front of our car were riding their brakes every time they hit a deeper pool of water, sometimes fishtailing a bit. With this in mind, we exited the freeway and drove carefully across the city using surface roads that connect each community to its neighbors.

As our car went through the downtown area, we passed under several large bridges. My older son pointed out the window and said, "Look, homeless people". His little brother shouted, "Where?" and then, "I see them!" as we drove by several people huddled on the ground in sleeping bags, hugging the wall under the bridge.

This is not the first time my children have seen homeless men and women and it was not our first conversation about why people become homeless, or what it might feel like to lack a house and a family to care for you during tough times.

However, it was the first time my little guys had seen homeless people enduring severe weather. Rather than looking at homelessness as urban camping, I think it started to bring home the message to my children that being homeless is scary... and in this case cold, wet, miserable and very sad.

We talked for a while in the car about how folks become homeless, and what keeps some of them chronically homeless. I don't have all the answers for the endless questions that my children ask about such tough issues - but I did tell them that every single one of the people they see on the street was once a baby that some mother loved and cuddled and rocked to sleep. Every human life has value... and every human being was precious to at least one person at some point in their lives.

In an act of synchronicity, one of my college friends on Facebook posted an article yesterday evening from the New York Times Blog about a "Plan to End Homelessness".

Many of my children's most pressing questions were answered in this article. For example ~

Q: How many people are homeless all of the time?
A: Around 700,000 people are homeless in this country on any given day and 120,000 of them are chronically homeless

Q: Why don't they find a place to live?
A: Many of the homeless have not been able to find stable housing due to mental illness, substance abuse problems or because they wouldn't be able to bring their pets.

Q: Who are the homeless?
A: The group Common Ground surveyed almost 14,000 chronically homeless people and found that 20% are veterans, 10% are over age 60, 4% have HIV/AIDS and 47% have mental illness.

Q: Why don't they have jobs?
A: Many of them have not held down steady work due to addiction, mental illness or life-threatening diseases

Q: Why don't we give them houses mommy?
A: The answer to this question is the subject of my blog today.

When I was eighteen years old, having just completed my freshman year of college, I worked downtown for a law firm as a glorified secretary where I was paid slightly more than minimum wage. The hours were long but I felt motivated and excited to achieve great things in my future.

As I would walk to work every morning, having awoken at dawn to shower, dress and eat before work, many homeless men would ask me for money. I recall feeling highly annoyed at them and thinking, "If I can get a job and make something of myself, you can do it too!" I didn't always agree when my then-boyfriend would give all of the coins in his pocket to panhandlers. (I always felt good about giving food though.)

Seventeen years later, I have a different take on the matter. I understand the complexities of homelessness and I now know that any of us have the capacity to become homeless if we make choices that upend our lives... choices to experiment with drugs that surprise us by becoming an addiction; choices to join the military and fight a war or wars that may give tremendous psychological stress, scarring and PTSD. Economic forces beyond our control can take away our jobs and our homes. Death can take away family or friends that may have once watched out for us to keep us safe and well. Unexpected disease or accident can create hospital bills that bankrupt a family. A lot can happen to muck up a perfectly good life, and many times it is through no fault of our own.

I still struggle though with how to give money, what is the best way to give that also empowers people without enabling their vices. Which is why I loved the New York times article about the 100,000 Homes Campaign.

The goal of the campaign is simple yet lofty. Within 3 years, permanent supportive housing will be located for 100,000 of the most vulnerable homeless on the streets of America. Since the launch of the campaign this past summer 7,043 homeless (at time of writing) have been housed within 64 different communities around the country - including my own. $121,000 dollars have been raised for move-in kits, and there are 933 days remaining for the large goal to be reached.

All of this became possible in the early 1990s when Pathways to Housing made clear to government that permanent housing was the first resource people needed to stabilize their lives, rather than being forced to jump through rehab programs before becoming eligible for permanent homes. Only when settled within permanent housing were many of the chronically homeless able to overcome their addictions, manage any diseases, "clean up" and then find jobs and create healthy lives.

As it turns out, it actually costs cities a lot less money each year - 40% less in Los Angeles, for example - to provide supportive housing for the homeless, rather than leaving the people on the streets. If you are an economic conservative, you may be surprised to know that giving a homeless person a stable shelter is actually a lot more cost-effective in the long term than letting them flounder on their own.

As David Bornstein's blog explains, "People who live on the streets tend to cycle through emergency rooms, addiction treatment, psychiatric care and jails. Housing them yields huge cost savings for society. In Los Angeles, the nation’s homeless capital, 4,800 chronically homeless people — about 10 percent of the city’s homeless population — consume half a billion dollars in services annually, well more than the remaining 90 percent."

In their work to end homelessness, the New York group Common Ground realized that what we think of as "the homeless" were actually a generalized label for many different subsets. Information about whether the homeless person in front of you is diseased, mentally ill or a veteran becomes critically important because many cities and organizations set aside large chunks of money to help rehabilitate people in these disparate groups - e.g. a "veterans" fund, even if they don't have money specifically set aside for "the homeless".

With this in mind, the group has created a streamlined process to help put vulnerable homeless together with support from non-profit groups, foundations and businesses. Local volunteers in each city are asked to go out on the streets between 4am and 6am in order to ask homeless strangers about their lives and health, for three mornings in a row. This has been tremendously successful, and I was thrilled to learn that in my city alone several hundred volunteers turned out in the middle of the night to lend a hand. Local volunteers are also able to contribute money to assist the homeless with furniture for their new house and also their move-in expenses.

The idea of "homeless" may seem vague and scary to my children. When we know though, that the lady pushing the shopping cart is Mary - a dog lover who nursed her elderly mother until they were evicted and who suffers from diabetes - it puts a recognizable face on this widespread problem. The man sleeping under the cardboard box may actually be Dan, a veteran who suffers from a traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

These are real people, and now I know of a good way to help out. Whether you consider yourself to be liberal or conservative, a philanthropist or just a plain old Stay-At-Home-Mom like me... getting the homeless into supportive housing makes sense for our country from an economic AND emotional standpoint. Not to mention, I personally feel like the streets of our city will be safer for both the homeless and my children if we make sure that everyone has access to a stable home... and a fresh start in life.

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