Monday, July 25, 2016

Lori's Story

*Not the person represented in this story.
It was spring when *Lori first began to feel the world closing in on her. She felt like she was living in a cave inside her mind. Sleeping countless hours, she lost her job. Her heart raced. Sometimes her left leg went numb. The Mission Mountains stopped inspiring her and she drove past Flathead Lake without giving it a second glance.  Her favorite hobbies and activities no longer comforted her. Noise -- especially laughter -- made her want to fight.

It was an argument in a small town outside Kalispell that finally set her off. She pummeled her sister with her fists, grabbed a pocketbook and a change of clothes, and fled. Lori was out of options.
''I had to go,'' the girl in her early 30s, recalled. ''I was really beginning to lose it. I had lost it.''

That day in May marked the final phase of her journey into homelessness which had begun more than a decade ago. It was a slow, methodical descent that, in hindsight, she can now see.  It eventually took an official diagnosis to give her problem a name: manic-depression.
As mental health experts learn more about mood disorders, it is becoming clear that depression and manic-depression, with its wild mood swings, are significant contributors towards homelessness. Shelters have long been filled with schizophrenics, people whose hallucinations and delusions force them out of jobs and homes and relationships. But the link between depression and homelessness is only now becoming clear.

Many doctors say manic-depression (also known as bipolar disorder) responds to a variety of mood stabilizers but diagnosing it is difficult because it can appear, in its later stages, like schizophrenia. During highs, manic-depressive people can become delusional, like schizophrenics. Because schizophrenia's symptoms are easier to diagnose, emergency room doctors and shelter operators are much more likely to classify someone as schizophrenic than manic-depressive.  
During the low points for manic-depressives, extreme fatigue is common and there is little desire to do much of anything. It was nearly impossible for Lori to earn any money because she lost her job due to excessive absenteeism and poor performance. Even with the appropriate diagnosis and medication, the complexities of manic-depression are such that patients live in denial. Sometimes they stop taking their medicine when they start to feel better, leaving them open to more intense episodes.

Lori’s story is a demonstration of how manic-depressives can drift into homelessness. How an entire life can spiral out of control when a person doesn’t know what particular issue they are dealing with. But it also shows the element of hope for those who discover they suffer from mental illness and, if their problem is recognized, they can reclaim their lives. And she ruminated about how manic-depression can ruin a person's life.
''I can't believe I didn't think I had this,'' she said of manic-depression. ''It's so obvious to me now. I wake up to whatever the plan is for that day. I have no baggage from the day before. I can deal with things. That's a big plus. It is so awesome that I can deal with things that used to grip me for days.''

Lori is one of the fortunate ones because she was able to be diagnosed and receive treatment for her condition. Living with a mental illness can be tough enough but adding homelessness to the equation compounds things to an almost unbearable degree. It is easy to stereotype people when we don’t have all the information and only view them in part. Please remember each person has unique and individual circumstances.

*Not her real name

Monday, July 18, 2016

Returning Home

Image result for veteransThe challenges facing returning veterans can be overwhelming. Some reports indicate nearly 20 percent of homeless Americans are veterans. Another heartbreaking and staggering statistic reports that, on average, 22 veterans commit suicide each day. Stop what you are doing right now and think about that. Unless you have served in the military, you can never truly understand the unique challenges involved in transitioning from military service to civilian life. Many of us know someone who served in the military, either overseas or domestically, but have we considered what it’s like to reenter civilian life from their perspective?

 I have never served but am writing this to present some challenges many veterans face. During my years at Samaritan House, I’ve had the benefit of meeting and knowing several veterans. I don’t have a sure-fire solution to remedy these problems because they are complex and multilayered. And trying to address such important issues with a broad, general answer does them a gross disservice. But if you know veterans who are returning soon, maybe this can help a little. We can all do a better job of listening and trying to assist in ways that don’t stop with a ride home from the airport?

Reconnecting with family might be the most important thing that happens. While the veteran was away, families usually create new routines during the absence and both the family and the veteran will need to adjust. This isn’t a bad thing, but it can take some time to get used. Imagine leaving your family for an extended period of time and returning to find that everything looks the same on the surface but, in actuality, everything has evolved. The faces are all the same but the role, identities, and responsibilities have shifted and you now have to find your place.
Going back to work can also present new dynamics. A veteran may have never held a civilian job, especially if he or she had a career in the military and these are new skills that have to be learned and mastered. When applying for a job, the veteran will have to determine how to translate their military skills into civilian terms and create a resume for the first time. Even returning to a previous job isn’t as easy as it might seem because returning to the job may include a period of catching up, learning new skills, or adjusting to a new position. During the transition back to work, some veterans also experience worry and fear about possible job loss.

The pace of life changes greatly for our veterans when they embark upon civilian life. In the military, personnel doesn’t leave the mission until it is complete but in the private sector, an employee might have to stop and go home at 5pm, whether the "mission" is finished or not. Civilian workplaces are competitive environments, as opposed to the collaborative camaraderie of the military. Given the direct nature of communication in military settings, there may be subtle nuances in conversations and workplace lingo that are unfamiliar to veterans.
Our veterans deserve our best efforts helping them assimilate back into civilian life. We owe such a debt of gratitude and one practical way to pay it forward is to do what we can to make this transition easy as possible.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Great Reminder

So, this week Samaritan House celebrated a milestone anniversary and it is amazing to see the evolution of the place over the years.  Like every organization, there are cosmetic changes. New floors have been laid and they look amazing. Fresh coats of paint splashed in strategic places provide a touch of color while local artwork and handcrafted signs adorn the walls to welcome anyone who enters.

Many of the staff was on hand, fielding questions from inquisitive visitors as well as handing the daily operations that needed completed. People mingled in and out; some were regular volunteers who come and go with appreciated predictability. Others were members of the community who have been gracious with donations and assistance over the years. Former residents stopped by to see the changes and say hello. Tours were given and refreshments provided a nice atmosphere.

I arrived relatively early in the process and it was nice to see everything unfolding. A slow but steady stream of people filtered in and out while conversations erupted in all corners, hallways, and offices. There was a nice hum of talking and laughing. I am an introverted person, by nature, so I do well at these events in short spurts. After a little over an hour my wife and I were preparing to leave and were literally walking out the main door when a gentleman humbly and politely stopped me.

I won’t get into the specifics of his conversation because it was personal, but he wanted to say thanks for all Samaritan House did for him. He and his family arrived many months ago and were in need of a place to start over. Through a combination of the help he received at Samaritan House and his own willingness to improve their situation, the family now has a house and he is working regularly.
The drive home was relatively quiet because I kept thinking about the conversation and how we are touching real people with actual felt needs. Our goals at Samaritan House aren’t theoretical. It is an honor to play a small role in people’s lives and we look forward to another 26 years.

Thanks for all you do to help us accomplish this!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Come Celebrate Samaritan House's 26th Birthday!

Today is the 4th of July and we celebrate the independence of our nation. Please have a safe and festive day as you spend time with your friends, family, or even by yourself.  But next Monday, July 11, is also a very a special day for us at Samaritan House, as we are honored to celebrate our 26th Birthday in the Flathead Valley!

For the past 26 years we have done our best to address the needs of the homeless in Kalispell and the surrounding areas. In that time we have served approximately 650,000 meals and housed over 26,000 people. We could not have accomplished this task without the help and support from all of you and we are incredibly humbled to play a part in working towards eliminating homelessness in Montana.

So, please join us next Monday, July 11th, for a celebration at Samaritan House. We will be hosting an open house from 2-6pm at the shelter, 124 9th Ave West in Kalispell. There will be food and tours given. Please come and take this opportunity learn more about what we do, meet our staff, or simply celebrate with us as we look forward to the next 26 years!

Samaritan House is a homeless shelter and transitional living program in Kalispell, Montana. The mission of the Samaritan House is to provide shelter and basic needs for homeless people, while fostering self-respect and human dignity.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Montana Eats (Or... How to Practically Save the Planet)

Ingenuity is a nice thing.

Image result for sophia skwarchuk montana eats
Ms. Skwarchuk and Governor Bullock
But when you marry this attribute with intelligence, life becomes interesting and people get uncomfortable. I recently spoke with Flathead High School student, Sophia Skwarchuk, about a social media app she created to address the glaring lack of awareness regarding hunger imbalance in Montana. I expected her to be bright and industrious, but just a few minutes into the conversation I realized she had a level of empathy that truly makes her culpable in changing the world.

Hers is not a helpless compassion, either. It doesn’t fall victim to circumstances and implode with frustration or despair at what is unfolding around her. Instead, it confronts a heartbreaking need with calculated pragmatism; it is the strongest type of empathy because it is proactive.

It is terribly frustrating to notice a societal need that seems to be hiding in plain sight. Nearly 1 in 7 Montanans struggle with hunger, and approximately 48,000 children live in food insecure homes. These are not statistics from Port-Au-Prince or Mogadishu or Bogotá. These are mothers in Helena, grandparents from Havre, and children in Lakeside. People in Montana are going to bed and waking up hungry and either no one knows or no one cares.

While attending the Governors and First Lady’s Council for Childhood Hunger, Sophia assessed this problem and began taking tangible steps to create a remedy for an epidemic plaguing our state. There are resources in Montana for people experiencing hunger, but access to them was problematic because they are so decentralized.

So, what if there was a way for someone to find out what was available in close proximity? One of the most wonderful qualities of the Millennial Generation is their ability to shrink an enormous world into the size of a computer app. Sophia knew it was time to enter the fray and utilize social media to present a lifeline to people who are in danger of drowning in plain sight.

Her app, Montana Eats, was born with the three-fold purpose to provide lists of food banks and pantries around Montana, help locate summer feeding programs, and provide hotlines people can use to for emergency assistance. But getting from point A to point B required more than having an idea. Lots of people have ideas. Lots of people wax eloquent about saving the planet. Lots of people get bored and eventually move on when they realize their benevolence requires a bit of elbow grease.

But how many people read a book and research the internet so they can learn how to write a computer code without having any experience in this area? How many people decide this isn’t enough and discovers there needs to be an intentionality to the program because the majority of low income people in Montana have Android and not iPhones?

I know one.

Montana Eats is an indispensable tool in linking people in need with the proper resources they require to remain healthy. Everything can be found on one data base that helps people find relief and assistance.

It is people like Sophia Skwarchuk that are conduits for hope because she understands despair is created by systemic issues that can’t be wished away. If people are hungry, they need food and if they don’t know where to find food then all the best intentions in the world accomplish nothing. Montana Eats is an amazing resource that is helping save lives because one young lady decided to do something about hunger.

Ingenuity surely is a nice thing.


Monday, June 27, 2016

No Rest for the Weary

When is the last time you were deprived of something? We all have certain things we enjoy and when we can’t partake of these things we often feel a sense of loss or disappointment. Usually we rebound and go on with our lives until another opportunity presents itself, but what if we were not allowed to experience these essential components to life? Food, shelter, healthcare, education…these are all important but where does sleep rank on our lists? What if you were deprived of sleep?

Where and how a person sleeps is often a matter of discipline when said person is residentially challenged. If someone ends up sleeping in a car or RV, shelter or friend's couch, they usually have the issue of being up and about before the rest of the world ever wakes up.

In a shelter, rules typically dictate that the residents leave by a certain time in the morning. In regards to vehicles, some cities have regulations about overnight public parking. If a person is working, they have to find ways to make their job fit the situation; they are dependent on others’ schedules and this is where sleep deprivation hits the hardest. It can have a brutal cumulative effect.

Scientists often lecture us about the dangers of poor sleep habits. Don’t take your iPad into bed with you; stop binge watching The Americans in bed (guilty and guilty). Is it really necessary to edit that final report for work at 2am? Sleeplessness contributes to obesity, diabetes, poor diet, and unproductiveness. And yet, even those of us who should have no problem logging a solid eight hours often struggle to get enough.

But for those who don’t have access to a bed, a locked door, and an iPhone alarm, sleep deprivation is caused by more than just the frivolous decision to eat more ice cream at 11:30 p.m. For individuals without permanent housing, sleep is difficult to come by. When there’s no way to secure your personal belongings, it’s dangerous and frightening to be as vulnerable as we are when we’re in a truly restful sleep.

As a result, sleep becomes a matter of when-you-can, where-you-can. And often, you just can’t, leading to a host of other mental and physical ailments. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to an increase in mental illness and drug abuse among teenagers, and higher incidents of violence and aggression. The dangers of the elements (in colder climates, even nodding off in the winter may be a death sentence), the possibility of attack, and the physical maladies that arise from perpetual dampness and grime make achieving good sleep an impossible feat.

Even finding enough ground to stake out can be difficult. The discomfort of homelessness has driven some urban businesses to extreme measures, implementing anti-homeless spikes on their buildings to deter people from sleeping there. There are also potential legal ramifications. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reports that of 234 major American cities, 40 percent make it a crime to sleep in public spaces.

When the weather turns cold, some cities open warming shelters. When populations are hungry, food banks and soup kitchens provide nourishment. There are resources for assistance paying utility bills, applying for jobs, even getting to and from work.

But aside from low-income housing, which is often in high demand and still often unaffordable, there is no sleep resource. And without a sleep resource, there seems to be little chance for solving the myriad problems associated with sleeplessness.

Suffering from a lack of sleep, how is a homeless person supposed to do all the things necessary for overcoming their homelessness?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

When the Present Kills the Future

It’s interesting how one typing error can wreak havoc with an idea. I was methodically hunting and pecking my way through this blog when a simple keystroke malfunction led me to a place I didn’t intend to go. The ‘s’ and ‘d’ buttons are right next to each other and on their own play no greater role than being arbitrary letters assigned with a  certain sound. However, string them alongside a bunch of other random letters and ideas can be formed, and this is where things can deviate from what is intended to what it presented.

Everyone has a story conveys a much different connotation than everyone had a story.

My embarrassingly poor typing skills have caused me to reflect on the difference between these two thoughts because I accidently punched the d when I meant to hit the s. Present and past tense narratives are two entirely different things and we often forget that what we see today is not always an accurate indicator of what happened yesterday.

Or a month ago. Or a year ago. Or a lifetime ago.

Think how your own life has evolved over the years and how different you likely are right now when compared to the version of yourself from 5 years ago. If a stranger saw you today, would he or she get an accurate representation of what you used to be? But this doesn’t stop us from looking at others without ever really seeing them. Every person you drive pass on Highway 93 not only has a story, they had a story. The lady walking in front of you on the sidewalk in downtown Kalispell is not, exclusively, all that you see.

It is easy to label people and trap them in a snapshot of time. What we see is what we get and we lose the context for how that person became what we see. We eliminate the past because we are ignorant of it and don’t allow it to contribute to the greater, fuller picture of the person we see today. And this is scary because when we lose context we lose the ability to see past today. We no longer ascribe meaning to the future and we abandon tangible prospects of hope because we forget what we once were and narrowly focus on our present circumstances as the end-all and be-all of reality.

A man sleeping in Woodland Park was never a veteran who served 3 tours in Afghanistan. The lady using the internet at the public library was never a dental assistant who lost her job. The gentleman holding the sign, asking for work, never owned his own business that was destroyed in a fire.

We all had a story. The only difference is that some of us have better chapters than others but the ending is not yet written.