Monday, July 28, 2014

The Global Roots of Homelessness

If I asked you to guess the number one cause of homelessness in the world, what would you say?

Unemployment? It makes sense when people lose their jobs, financial situations can spiral out of control, resulting in homelessness. Mortgage and rent payments are missed and utility bills are sacrificed in order to purchase food and other tangible needs. So, it has to be unemployment, right?

Nope.

Medical bills? America can be a scary country for someone who is sick or needs intensive or continuous medical care. Prolonged health problems or unexpected illness can lead to a monetary quagmire that surely indicates this is the leading cause of global homelessness!

Sorry, wrong again.

Domestic violence? There are many reasons people become violent and none of them justify hurting others. Thousands of people (mainly women) are forced to literally run for their lives every year because they are in an abusive relationship. Often, there is no place for them to go so they end up in rescue shelters. It seems this might be the correct answer.

No.

The number one cause of homelessness in the world is glaringly obvious yet something people rarely guess. It occurs almost continuously around the globe but we rarely consider the logical conclusion of it because it is such a multilayered issue. This issue is perpetually in the news but usually not covered in the context of homelessness. The thing that renders more people homeless than any other cause in the world is war. If you take a second and think about this it makes sense even though it is usually not a person's first (or even top 5) answer.

Wars have been raging on planet Earth since the first man hit his buddy over the head with a club and forced him to leave the cave. And while the evolution of war has become more mechanized and sinister as the centuries unfolded, the basic equation has not changed: Specific ideas + violent conflict + aggression + hostilities based on just about anything = displaced people who have become collateral damage.

When we examine wars, the participants and issues are scrutinized by politicians, military personnel, as well as civilians. We watch as events unfurl on CNN and we have become desensitized to what is really actually happening on the ground, in real time. We are involved in between commercial breaks and taking trips to the grocery store or changing the baby's diaper. I think most of us lament when things get bad enough to cause war, but we fail to think about the hundreds of thousands of people who become homeless every year around the world because of it.

Sometimes its good to look around and remember that homelessness is not just an American problem.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fear

We all have phobias and they come in different shapes and sizes. The fears that grip us range from eight-legged creatures to heights to enclosed spaces. I recently read a report that public speaking outranked the fear of death; Basically, people would rather die than have to stand and talk in front of a group. Fears unite us because they indicate vulnerability and they transcend socioeconomic strata. Some appear very rational (fear of the dark) while others seem odd (fear of the color red).

One of my biggest fears is the possibility that my vision will be taken away but I'm not concerned that I will suddenly become blind.

I have terrible eyesight and alternate between wearing glasses and contact lens. It is quite unsettling being dependent upon foreign, external devices to help me see. I used to do a great deal of traveling and my biggest fear was that I would lose my glasses or contacts and be forced to traverse airports and other monstrous places by means of squinting and fumbling around in a world of blurry misdirection. Fortunately that never happened but the threat always felt genuine. When I began working at Samaritan House I met several people who were in the same ocular boat as me... Glasses and corrective lens were necessary to function.

One young lady told me a story about losing her glasses and not being able to afford an eye appointment or having enough to purchase new glasses for almost 3 months. She tried salvaging through the 'used glasses' bins at numerous thrift stores but was unable to find anything that helped. For nearly 90 days she groped about during the day and was rendered nearly useless at night. She experienced headaches and found it almost impossible to function at her job, a local grocery store in the Oregon town where she lived.

As I listened, a nervousness and anxiety crept over me because I could relate to her story. And while I knew that even if something like this happened to me, I could easily replace my glasses or contacts. She did not have that luxury. And honestly, was it really a luxury? It seemed like more of a necessity because not being able to see properly affects every area and aspect of a person's life. I think we might take this for granted because many of us have not had to worry about this.

Prioritizing our financial needs should not mean having to forgo things such as eye care. Many of our residents have had to make difficult decisions similar to this. Which is more important... Utilities, rent, groceries, or purchases that allow us to physically function? If you have never had to make this kind of choice then count yourself blessed. But if you have been in situations like this, then you understand that sometimes fear means more than sleeping with a nightlight on.

Monday, July 21, 2014

On This Date

When I was a kid my favorite part of the newspaper was the small, inconspicuous section of page 4 called, "On This Date in History." It was only a column consisting of a few paragraphs, but it was infinitely interesting to me. Specific years would be listed and facts were supplied to state something (hopefully) cool that transpired on whatever the current date was in a previous year. Sometimes the years would span back over a century and it was fun to track the progress of certain inventions or advancements in technology.

Other years would sing the praises of sports events and the the birth and passing of famous people. Politicians seemed to finagle their way into certain entries and specific legislative decisions could be tracked to their infancy and then cross-examined by the current political climate.

But the epitaphs that moved me the most were the ones dedicated to certain people who accomplished great things because they saw a need and thought it might also be nice to provide a solution. And many of these individuals were not famous. They inspired me to want to (someday) have an accomplishment of my own that others would read about a century from now. How could I contribute to the betterment of this planet in such an epic manner that would be remembered for all time?... or at least while newspapers were still relevant.

Now that I'm older and less idealistic than when I was 10, I'm afraid I have consigned myself to the fact that I lack the energy to change the entire world on such a grand, Herculean scale. Realism has replaced my youthful zest and I happily admit I feel more comfortable trying to effect change in smaller ways and stages. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by the sheer volume of infinite problems plaguing our world, I can hone in on one or two fixable issues in my own, immediate sphere of influence.

Changing the world doesn't mean we have to discover the means to world peace or invent a serum that eradicates the common cold or take Justin Bieber under our wing and mold him into a fine, outstanding citizen. It's much simpler than that.

We change our world by reaching out to others and addressing the needs in their world, which then affects THIS world. If can grasp the idea that our stories and experiences are intertwined and related to others, then we no longer can claim exclusivity to our own personal narrative. Our story becomes linked with everyone else's and when we help improve the lives of others, we are improving our own situation on numerous levels.

And who knows, perhaps a selfless act of kindness and involvement you commit today will be read about 80 years from now. What will YOUR date in history be?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Twelve Zeros

1,000,000,000,000.

1 trillion dollars contains more zeros than most of us can conceptualize. I am usually happy when my 'zero count' passes one, so twelve of these goose eggs lined up next to each other seems absolutely otherworldly.

This morning I was watching one of the national news programs when something interesting caught my attention. A report was shown that indicated the amount of debt college students in America have accumulated has surpassed the trillion dollar mark. There have been measures passed to alleviate some of this debt. And this also doesn't take into account money provided from grants and scholarships awarded to people. But the truth of the situation is sobering: college is expensive.

It seems education can be a double-edged sword. It offers more opportunities for an individual to make a living, but the debt accrued can hang like an albatross around one's neck for decades. I've spoken to many high school students who are leery about going to college because of the student loans. Others have decided against it, altogether. For homeless kids, the daunting task of pursuing a college education can be even more overwhelming due to a lack of a permanent address or low grades caused by perpetual transferring in and out of schools.

The report focused on a Colorado school district that brokered an agreement with one of the local community colleges in their area. These two entities have joined forces, allowing high school students to take college courses. Now, this is not uncommon and many school districts have programs like this. What's happening in Colorado is a bit different because the alliance between the public schools and the college extends to 9th and 10th graders and, here's the kicker... The classes are provided for free.

One girl was profiled in the story and she had saved nearly $70,000 by utilizing this program. She ended up graduating with an Associates Degree 9 days before her high school graduation! This particular young lady was one of several siblings who would not have been able to go to school without a significant and sizable loan. Kids are offered the chance to take concurrent college classes at their high schools.

The logistics and bureaucracy involved with a merger and partnership like this must have been a nightmare. But it shows that programs like this can be successful and, even more importantly, can make a tangible difference to students who would not have an opportunity, otherwise. Thinking outside the box is the only way we can address issues that refuse to go away.

Now, hopefully we can eliminate some of those zeros.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Going Home

LeBron James gets it.

Recently, this basketball legend shocked the sports world by leaving the glitz and glamor of South Beach, Miami, for Cleveland. James began his basketball career in Ohio (where Cleveland is located, just in case geography isn't your thing), where he was born and raised and played high school ball before being the #1 pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

He played a few years there before bolting to Miami, where he won a couple championships. His decision to leave torpedoed Cleveland and he went from beloved son to hated villain. I've been to both Cleveland and Miami and the the places could not be any more different. Most people would chose Miami because of the sun and beaches and food and a whole slew of other reasons. People from other countries flock to Miami in droves. Not so much for Cleveland.

James made his move back to Cleveland (dubbed the "mistake by the lake" because it it borders one of the Great Lakes) because he missed it. In a letter he wrote for Sports Illustrated, he explained that he wanted to go home because where he grew up and his love for Northern Ohio was bigger than the game of basketball. He recognized something that most of our residents at Samaritan House have known the whole time they've been homeless: a sense of home and community is a powerful thing.

When we were kids, many of us dreamt about the day we could leave our home and get out of town. The allure of exotic new locales and adventures beckoned us to exist our little burgs and towns as soon as we could. But, as we grew older, some of us came to view our home towns with a little nostalgia and a sense of pride. We could identify with other expatriates we would bump into. And as we assimilated into our new surroundings, there was still a large part of our being that belonged to the place we grew up.

I've spoken to many of our residents over the years who portray a sense of longing to get back to where they grew up. Exciting places like Fargo, Bakersfield, Spokane, and Ft. Collins. It's not necessarily because these places are destination locations. The reason people miss where they come from is because they are tied to an identity and this identity can foster a sense of belonging, inclusion, and pride. Surroundings are cherished.

Cultures and customs help dictate how we grow up and view the world. They make sense when they are the dominant ideas but as we live in other places with more divergent thoughts, we change. Our comfort level wanes and we can desire the security of being in a place where life 'made sense.' James wanted that feeling. Our residents often want the same thing but are frustrated because they've had to leave the very places they forged an identity with.

Home is much greater than an address on a mailbox. It's a force.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pursuit of Happiness

Happiness is an interesting word because it means different things to different people. Cheeseburgers make some people happy while others clamor for world peace. Happiness seems relative to our own ideas and definitions. For the record, I love a good cheeseburger!

When our Founding Fathers decided we have the right to pursue our own happiness, they had a very specific idea in mind. They borrowed "the pursuit of happiness" from an ancient Greek named Aristotle who believed people were at their happiest when they were doing whatever it is they did best. In essence, society ran better because people were happily contributing by doing what they were skilled at.

We could argue about the philosophical implications of this and whether we think it's true. However, the intentions of the Founders is very clear: people should be able to have the chance to try and secure employment that is fulfilling and provides enough finances for them to live. The right to work is an essential part of the fabric of our nation. Now, the Founders weren't staring that everyone should be allowed to do whatever they wanted. They knew that would be unrealistic and lead to chaos. But they did think the right to pursue what we loved should be afforded to us. We should have a crack at it.

The problem is that life too often gets in the way. We all had dreams of being astronauts and sports stars and winning Oscars and Grammys. Most of us had to adjust those notions because reality is far more constraining than fantasy. We have become social workers and teachers and police officers and chefs... Happiness hasn't been abandoned as much as it has been refashioned. In a perfect world, it would be truly amazing if we could all be employed in roles that we were inclined to love and be passionate about. Sadly, this world is not perfect and we have learned to adapt and adjust.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this idea. Where things begin to break down for me is the concept of pursuit. So many Americans never get to really pursue their chance at happiness because they are bogged down with circumstances that barely allow them to keep their heads above water. Poverty is cyclical and often children born into poor families have two strikes against them compared to kids their own age who were born into more prosperous circumstances.

Many of the children who have come through Samaritan House have not had a level of stability that offers them the chance to pursue anything. They are simply coping and surviving. If the parent(s) work long and odd hours, supervision is sacrificed. A consistent lack of financial resources leads to unhealthy nutritional habits which have been linked to everything from health problems to poor school performance. Inequality stretches across several areas.

The right to an opportunity is an epic concept. If we could live up to this idea, then America would benefit. And since there are so many people who often long to return back to "true American values," I cannot think of a better way to start than by doing what we can to reduce and eliminate homelessness. This seems like the right thing to do.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Liberty

The idea of liberty saturates our identity as Americans. I mean, how many other nations have state mottos that scream anthems like "Live Free or Die!"? And while we didn't invent freedom, we have uniquely adapted it to suit our way of life. Liberty, as a concept, provides an environment of independence that allows us to make choices that are beneficial to our betterment.

Every day we are inundated with decisions and some people have even argued that the pressure to make all these choices is almost like its's own sentence that restricts us. We have so many options that we can become overwhelmed by the magnitude and abundance of our freedom. I suppose this is an excellent dilemma to have because we are not the Land of the Free for no reason. And sometimes our life is so chalked full of options that it mirrors those cool 'choose your own adventure' books we read as kids. Each decision leads to the next which provides more opportunities to succeed if we play our cards right.

But often, the deck can be stacked against us from the beginning. All of our staff have spent time listening to the stories of our residents and each one of us have heard first-hand accounts of lives that held limited options. In a country that espouses liberty as a defining characteristic, too many people (often children) have few choices available to them because of limited resources, finances, or even time.

1 out of every 5 children in Montana go to bed hungry. These kids are not picky eaters or have turned up their collective noses at what food is presented. They simply have an inadequate amount of food to eat on a regular basis.

Single parents have the highest percentage of multiple part time jobs because the schedules can be amended to allow them to spend enough time at home to avoid the high cost of childcare. Many of these jobs pay minimum wage or only slightly higher, which is the reason people have to work more than one job just to survive.

Schools usually offer many extracurricular activities and sports, but lack of transportation can exclude those kids whose families have no car. The child is deprived of an incredible opportunity to grow socially, physically, and academically if they are not able to attend.

Living on a hand-to-mouth paycheck disallows the liberty to shop for certain ingredients that can supplement a healthy diet. When an individual doesn't make enough money to constitute a living wage, then corners are cut to ensure survival. Heat is kept low in the winter and air condition is sacrificed during the summer, which can both lead to dangerous conditions. Medical care is often skipped due to the fear of being buried by costly bills.

Liberty is a grander and nobler idea than simply telling others that they may not tell you what to do or how to live your life. True liberty allows us to function on a level which permits life to be not only tolerable, but enjoyable. Many homeless in America have learned to live as secondhand citizens by not being able to partake in choices available to others. It is our hope to provide the opportunity that allows our residents to rediscover what it means to be an American... To be liberated in ways that allow them to flourish.