Thursday, February 11, 2016

The People in Your Neighborhood

When I was a kid one of my favorite television shows was Sesame Street. To this day, it's iconic theme song can still get stuck in my head for days if I happen to hear it. Fortunately, I can honestly tell you this doesn't happen with much regularity, so my limited brain-space is usually freed up for limitless loopings of Journey songs or trying to remember where I parked at the store.

One of the best segments of Sesame Street was called 'the people in your neighborhood' and it focused on the everyday people who perform amazing deeds simply by living their lives in service of others. I thought it would be fitting to honor one of these individuals and the organizations she is affiliated with. These businesses have not asked for this nor do they ever clamor for public attention or kudos. They do their jobs every day, without fanfare, because they understand that a community can only be as strong as its members who give back. It is my pleasure to tell you a little about the Flathead County Library in Kalispell.

Many of our residents at Samaritan House spend a considerable amount of their time at the library so I thought it would be worth a visit to find out, from the library's perspective, just how the daily influx of homeless people impacted it. I recently met with Connie Behe who serves at the assistant director to discuss the situation and left the conversation with so much to think about because what she is doing in Kalispell utterly transcended my idea of what a library is.

"We're done telling people to be quiet."

This was one of the first things she told me when I inquired about the atmosphere and services they offer. One of their goals is to remove the barrier between the staff and those who patron the library. You will not find the quaint little lady wearing horn-rimmed glasses with her hair in a tightly kept bun. Before our meeting, I wandered around to garner a feel for the place and it was a welcoming hub of activity and interaction and, dare I say it... noise? It was not chaotic and there was an order that permeated the building, but I actually felt happy to be there; it was almost like they wanted people there. Crazy.

My meeting confirmed my suspicions as Behe talked about the various programs they offer the community. Lifelong learning for all ages is a key component of what the library offers. Yes, people can come and use the internet for free. Most of our residents do this and it is a vital resource for them to search for employment as well as take online educational courses. But they offer so much more. The library acts as a living organism to help people of all ages to actively participate in improving their lives. Can they still check out books? Sure. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. There are programs for children and adults, as well as an area for teenagers, and quiet rooms for studying.

As our conversation drew to a close, I asked how the library felt about the homeless who have become regulars over the years. I have conducted enough interviews to know an insincere or rehearsed answer when I hear one. That's why it was pleasantly refreshing to hear Behe stress that the homeless who use the library were assets to what was going on. She spoke of how respectful and appreciative most people were and then she echoed a sentiment that is a long-held belief of mine:

"We trust in the better nature of the people we meet. It's important to us to treat people with respect and we try to make this a safe and comfortable environment with a sense of fairness. We want people to want to be here."

And I believe her.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Our Veterans are Amazing People

Here is more information about homeless veterans, nationally. The veterans I have gotten to know over the years have impacted my life in a significant way. If we think about, most of us know a veteran or have someone who severed in our own families. Its both heartbreaking and maddening when those who have served our country end up homeless. 

There are so many factors that can lead to homelessness. An extreme shortage of affordable housing is one of the most common. If a person cannot find a place to live, then options are limited. Something we've addressed a great deal on this blog is the lack of a livable income which leads to mounting bills and an inability for a person to sustain them self. Inadequate access to health care  is another factor contributing to people losing their homes. But our veterans face all these and some other obstacles unique to them

A large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks. Additionally, military occupations and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when competing for employment.
A top priority for homeless veterans is secure, safe, clean housing that offers a supportive environment free of drugs and alcohol.

Some veterans have difficulty receiving services. Each year, VA’s specialized homelessness programs provide health care to almost 150,000 homeless veterans and other services to more than 112,000 veterans. Additionally, more than 40,000 homeless veterans receive compensation or pension benefits each month.

Since 1987, VA’s programs for homeless veterans have emphasized collaboration with such community service providers to help expand services to more veterans in crisis. VA, using its own resources or in partnerships with others, has secured nearly 15,000 residential rehabilitative and transitional beds and more than 30,000 permanent beds for homeless veterans throughout the nation. These partnerships are credited with reducing the number of homeless veterans by 70% since 2005. 

Veterans need a coordinated effort that provides secure housing, nutritional meals, basic physical health care, substance abuse care and aftercare, mental health counseling, personal development and empowerment. Additionally, veterans need job assessment, training and placement assistance.
Samaritan House strongly believes that all programs to assist homeless veterans must focus on helping them obtain and sustain employment.

Information courtesy of National Coalition for Homeless Veterans

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Amazing Veterans

America is an incredible place.

I've had the benefit and pleasure of having travelled to more than 20 different countries and I have some context to make some comparisons. One of the most amazing things about the United States is our ability to say or write or scream or sing or paint whatever we want in a lawful manner.

Our freedom of expression is admired and envied by people all over the world. Even if we disagree with another person's ideas or opinions we agree they should be able to express their message. It is my pleasure to use this freedom and forum to express thanks for one of the unsung and underappreciated groups in America: veterans.

The ongoing presidential campaign has pushed veteran's issues to the national forefront tand has provided an amazing opportunity for a dialogue about the treatment of our veterans, so I am honored to take some time and try to further the discussion.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), most of our homeless veterans are male, and only about 9% are female. The majority are single and live in or around cities. Sadly, a large proportion suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders.

Homeless veterans are younger on average than the total veteran population. Approximately 9% are between the ages of 18 and 30, and 41% are between the ages of 31 and 50. Conversely, only 5% of all veterans are between the ages of 18 and 30, and less than 23% are between 31 and 50.

America’s homeless veterans run the gambit regarding the wars they span, having served in World War II, the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq (OEF/OIF), and the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. Nearly half of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era. Two-thirds served our country for at least three years, and one-third were stationed in a war zone.

About 1.4 million other veterans, meanwhile, are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions in overcrowded or substandard housing.

We, at Samaritan House, have made veterans a priority. We've housed, supported, and helped countless veterans find employment, permanent housing, and the resources and tools to assimilate back into a society that is better with them in it. We rely on your kindness and partnership to make a difference. We fight daily without the benefit of immense fanfare or sudden popularity. We grind away every day because we care.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

A Survivor Story

Before she was taken to *Iowa, *M.B. wasn’t all that different from a lot of other troubled teenagers. She was an eighth grader who fell in love easily and had a habit of skipping school. A girl from a single-parent home, rebelling against Mom’s rules. A runaway who considered herself wise in the ways of the world.

“I don’t know that it was anything that isn’t fairly common in a lot of adolescents,” said *John Smith, *Dubuque-based state Division of Criminal Investigation special agent in charge, who got to know the girl in his two years investigating the case as a field agent. “But she encountered and got involved with some dangerous people. People who certainly did not have her best interests at heart.

“Unfortunately I don’t think she’s the only one. I’m sure there have been many, many other young girls that have ended up in the same situation. This was just one that we know about and hear about.”

Not all those stories have happy endings, Kisner said.

Trafficking victims usually are young and poor, and the less education they have, the easier they are manipulated by traffickers, researchers say. A 2015 Croft Institute for International Studies report says traffickers isolate and disorient victims and use violence to ensure they live in constant fear. Pimps look for girls who are “gullible, vulnerable, misguided, who have low self-esteem.”

“They’re more easy to mislead,” he said.

Vulnerable 13- and 14-year-olds routinely are recruited to prostitution, said *Melissa Jones, a research psychologist who has studied prostitution for 14 years. “Thirteen-year-olds think they know a lot about the world, but they don’t,” Farley said.

Researchers say most victims of human trafficking won’t go to police, even if they get an opportunity to do so, because of the severe psychological stress and the threat of violence. And local police rarely are trained to recognize victims and bring them to safety.

M.B. was interviewed a few days after she was kidnapped, but — scared, disoriented and distrustful — she didn’t ask for help. Instead, she gave a false name and birthday. Police watched her pimp's house for weeks until they saw evidence that a girl was being held there and used in prostitution and M.B. was rescued.

Only by working together and actively seeking out victims can police successfully intervene, researchers say. In the case of M.B., that effort was spearheaded by the perseverance of local police.

* Changed to preserve identity

Monday, January 25, 2016

A Silent Terror

Over the years I have discussed several issues but perhaps none are as heartbreaking and devastating as today's topic: the trafficking of runaway youth. Human trafficking is when people are tricked, lured, coerced or otherwise removed from their home or country, and then forced to work for the evilest of people in the most reprehensible of roles.
 Human trafficking is modern day slavery and the three main issues are slave labor, sexual exploitation, and prostitution. Underage and runaway homeless youth are often preyed upon, especially in regard to forced prostitution. Many runaway youth quickly realize the difficulties associated with homelessness and living on the streets. These kids often try their best to survive without assistance but eventually life becomes too difficult on their own and they find themselves in dire situations.
 Traffickers force their victims to engage in these activities. Force involves the use of rape, beatings and confinement. Forceful violence is used especially during the early stages of victimization, known as the 'seasoning process', which is used to break the victim's resistance to make them easier to control. The goal is to dehumanized the victim to the point they believe they actually owe the trafficker.
 Fraud often involves false offers that induce people into trafficking situations. For example, women and homeless youth will reply to advertisements promising jobs as waitresses, maids and dancers and are then trafficked for purposes of prostitution once they arrive at their destination.
 Coercion involves threats of serious harm or physical restraint. It is a scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause a person to believe that failure to perform an act will result in devastatingly injurious consequences.
 Victims of trafficking are often subjected to debt-bondage, usually by having to pay off food or clothes that are bought for them. Traffickers often threaten victims with injury or death, or the safety of the victims' family back home. Traffickers commonly take away the victims' identification and isolate them to make escape more difficult. Many fear for their lives if they attempt to flee.
 In most cases, victims are trapped into a cycle of debt because they have to pay for all living expenses in addition to the initial transportation expenses. Fines for not meeting daily quotas of service or "bad" behavior are also used by some trafficking operations to increase debt. Most trafficked victims rarely see the money they are supposedly earning and may not even know the specific amount of their debt. A sense of hopelessness spirals into despair and then embarrassment. The victim begins to wrongly believe they deserve what has happened. There is so much to talk about regarding human trafficking and its relation to homelessness. My next blog will continue the discussion. Here are some statistics to think about until then.
 There are 100,000 to 300,000 underage girls being sold for sex in America. The average age of entry into prostitution is 12-14 years old, both boys and girls. 1 out of every 3 teens on the street will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of running away from home.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Dream On

This week we celebrate a man who sacrificed his life for millions of people who had no voice. Martin Luther King, Jr. dared America to dream and challenged it to reject a status quo that oppressed and marginalized those without a voice. In an era of violence and antagonism, Doctor King chose to actively and aggressively pursue and agenda peace and equality.

He knew the true catalyst for change was not wavering while most of the country was opposed to the very changes he wanted. He proclaimed a better day was not merely a fictional hope. It would take courage and fortitude; sacrifice and inconvenience would have to become a lifestyle, but equality could be realized.

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Simplistic Value of Safety

Recently, I wrote about different types of homeless high school students and the challenges they face. After I posted the story I was unsettled about what I wrote; it seemed incomplete and I felt there was more to the story. When dealing with minors, it is important not to exclude the human element. Various federal agencies define homelessness differently, and a particular definition caught my attention for a very specific reason: the simplicity of a theme every child craves.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), a homeless youth is "an individual who is not more than 21 years of age…for whom it is not possible to live in a safe environment with a relative...and someone who has no other safe alternative living arrangement."*

The key word in this definition is 'safe.' Safety is the theme that comforts some kids while the lack of it propels others into a world they never imagined. We use this word all the time, in many ways because it is multi-layered. Safety is a relative term because it is always defined by whatever form of danger we face at any given moment. There is no real absolute standard of safety because every person deals with different scenarios and situations that provide varying levels of danger.

For some, safety means rescue from a physically abusive situation. Others find it in a job that provides a dependable income. Safety can be an emotional environment, free from verbal or psychological terror. It could be a place where someone knows they have shelter and food. Safety depends a great deal on the individual person whatever is needed. So in the scope of the DHHS statement, safety means two specific things when it comes to contextualizing a situation that might lead to teenage homelessness.

The first designation deals with familial relations. In a perfect world, a person's family would be a place of unconditional love and support is found. Unfortunately, the exact opposite often happens and some youth are compelled to leave their home environment because it lacks the safety they need to survive. It seems a logical inference can be drawn that if more youth had safer home environments, they would not leave.

The next factor involved with prompting youth to embrace homelessness is a lack of a safe living arrangement once the decision to leave the family is made. Again, the emphasis revolves around the concept of safety. Being homeless has several implications and, chief among them, is danger. This cannot be stressed enough and I think it gets lost in the dialogue sometimes.

I've chronicled the dangers of homelessness numerous times but we often don't remember that youth make a significant portion of the homeless population. At a crucial time in their lives when they should be allowed to simply be kids, many youth have to focus on their survival because they are in unsafe family environments. How heartbreaking that thousands of kids might never experience the dangers and horrors of being homeless if they had a safe place to call home.

*Section 887(3) of the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act