Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Cut It Out

The aisles stretched forever. Boxes and cans sat next to bottles and packages, all neatly arranged to entice the shoppers to pluck them off their shelves and toss them into a cart. The labels were brightly covered with cartoon animals and photoshopped models, guaranteeing the buyer everything from improved health to eternal happiness. Caloric intake and suggested servings warned of the dangers of gluttony, but she knew that wouldn't be a problem.

Having too much was never the problem.

Shopping on a budget is tedious and takes dedication to detail. While it might be easier and more expedient to abandon comparative pricing, it is not financially viable. A few dollars here and a couple cents there add up and can make a profound difference at the checkout register. Many Americans cannot afford to hit the grocery story and simply whirl their way up and down the aisles, irreverently grabbing items with no genuine concern toward the final bill.

Stretching a dollar has become an art form and those who have mastered this medium are reaping the benefits available to anyone willing to put the work in. Too many Americans live paycheck to paycheck and have adopted using coupons as a necessary means to cope with decreasing wages and increasing food prices.

An article released by the Media General News Service reports that 89% of Americans use coupons in some form when they grocery shop. Annual savings can range between $1,500 - $5,000, depending on the size of the family and the amount of coupons used. Recently, couponing has become trendy and even been the subject of television shows and documentaries. Quite simply, saving money is worth the time, energy, and effort involved. Whereas there once might have been a stigma attached to using coupons, (it was only for the poor) it now is practiced by an overwhelming majority of America. Just another reminder we all have much more in common than we realize.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Summer Sun and Fighting Hunger

Every few days we are allowed a brief moment of hope and anticipation that summer will eventually arrive. May is almost upon us and while we are cautiously eyeing that box in the attic labeled "shorts and tank tops," we still know we mustn't stow away gloves and boots quite yet. We look forward to summer because the weather is accommodating and we can move our lives outdoors for a few months.

I recently read an article by the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) stressing another aspect of summer other than enjoyment: food insecurity. This happens when families are unsure of how they will eat during the summer. Childhood obesity and hunger are two conditions heightened during the summer because of the challenges faced by families with low incomes. Two reasons for this are a lack of exercise and poor nutritional habits. Because children of poorer homes are often left alone during the day because both parents work, they fall prey to these issues with greater regularity than families who have at least one parent or caregiver at home with the children.

During the school year, children are provided with food, snacks, and regular exercise. This is not always the case during the summer. So while many of us are excited about the prospects of a few months' respite, it is a wholly different experience for others. Those long summer days that stretch and run together into endless moments of warmth and recreation can also feel like a prison sentence to others.

Low-income parents and their children can fall into cycles of food deprivation and overeating, which FRAC defines as the practice of skipping meals to stretch finances and then overeating to compensate. This is a dangerous practice that contributes to potential health problems for both parent and child. We believe it is crucial to the physical and emotional well-being of children to have adequate and nutritious meals during the summer.

Families have always been a top priority for Samaritan House and we will always fight to provide an environment that seeks to help children when their parents are unable to produce the proper nutritional requirements and sustenance needed. Your donations are an important part of this process. Because of your investment into what we do, we are able to provide meals every day for those in need.

And we all know its easier to enjoy the summer when your belly is full.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Danger of Ignorance

Nothing is more frustrating than knowing there is a problem but not understanding how to solve it. It can be infuriating when we try to fix things but are unable to make a positive difference. Working in social services entails a certain level of struggle because there are always problems and issues that arise and sometimes our resources and finances are quite limited.

We plug along as best we can and are thankful for the kindness and graciousness of others who volunteer and help. Often, people ask what the hardest part of this job is and I suppose it depends on the day. Working with the homeless presents numerous challenges and people usually think most difficulties stem from a lack of financial resources. And this is an issue of paramount importance. When we lack the money to make repairs and finance our projects, people inevitably suffer. But I'm not sure this is the most formidable obstacle in our path.

There is a popular saying that goes, "Ignorance is bliss." This is calloused admission that many people are happy to enjoy their lives at the expense of others who need assistance simply because they don't know what is happening in the world around them. When people refuse to look at the issues affecting their communities and continue living as if nothing is wrong, ignorance evolves into indifference. And while ignorance is bad enough, indifference is worse because it is an intentional form of neglect and abuse.

We live in a society centered around instant access and easily-available information. The days are long gone when we can claim (with a straight face) we are unaware of the problems facing our communities. Ignorance is no longer a viable excuse to avoid helping others and Samaritan House will be the first to acknowledge that contributing to the needs of others is a costly endeavor. It takes time, effort, and energy to make a difference. So we applaud all of you who have partnered with us over the years.

Pretending homelessness does not exist will not solve the issue or make it go away. Not only is ignorance not bliss, it is a killer.

Friday, March 21, 2014

7th Annual "Cowboy Up" for Samaritan House Benefit

The music might be the best part of the evening. Hundreds of people enjoy the food. Maybe the items should take top-billing. Or, perhaps the cause outshines everything as we have another opportunity to gather together to embrace a struggle facing too many of our fellow Montanans. A chance to raise finances to address the needs of the homeless in Kalispell is as worthy a cause you can find.

It is Samaritan House's honor and privilege to extend an open invitation to the entire community to participate in our 7th Annual Cowboy Up Auction. You may call our office or stop by the shelter to purchase tickets to this wonderful event. We look forward to seeing you there!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Johnny Cash and the Homeless

There are few things more annoying than having a song stuck in your head that will just not go away. Recently, I was out hiking with my family and something happened that set an entire chain reaction in motion, beginning with a sound, involving a song, and culminating with an idea.

Even though I am not an especially avid outdoorsman (okay, I actually hide from nature whenever possible), a few days ago I found myself traversing a couple trails and enjoying the luxury of allowing my mind to wander while I hoped to avoid picking up Lyme disease. The wind was careening through the trees and the sun was doing its best to heat things up as we idly plodded along. At first the noise was faint but eventually it became evident that a train was announcing itself somewhere in the vicinity. This whistle led to Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues embedding itself in my brain and there was no shaking it no matter how hard I tried.

I hear the train a comin'
It's rollin' 'round the bend,
And I ain't seen the sunshine,
Since, I don't know when.

The hike that led to a sound that led to a song now led to a thought: Homelessness might be aptly characterized by these lyrics. A great many of our residents at Samaritan House ended up homeless because of circumstances or situations that literally hit them like a runaway locomotive. Unemployment or unexpected bills leading to eviction or foreclosure; medical expenses or domestic violence forcing people from their homes. Any of these can propel a person or family directly into homelessness at any time.

Often, we don't see it coming around the bend until its too late.

Society tends to judge the symptoms of homelessness without addressing the causes. An unkept transient sleeping in the park is easier to identify than the lack of affordable housing preventing him from securing a place to live. Its more manageable to see a woman on a corner holding a sign than it is to peel back the layers and realize she lost her kids to Social Services because she worked 2 jobs and had no one to stay home with them during the night because she couldn't afford childcare.

The train keeps a-rollin'.

As we continue to work on our Five Year Plan to end homelessness in Kalispell, we are doing all we can to part the clouds and allow a little sunshine in. It is our hope and desire that you will partner with us and help us eliminate more than the symptoms of homelessness. We want to do more than provide bandages or make mere cosmetic improvements. Thank you for your past help and all you do to provide us with the finances and resources we require to hit the brakes on such an imposing runaway train.

If you would like to make a financial donation to Samaritan House, please stop by our office or feel free to call. We cannot do this without your help.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Sunshine and Conversation

A few days ago I was enjoying what can only be defined as a meteorological anomaly: It was sunny and warm and for a few moments I ignored the idea that it will likely be snowing in day or two. For a few fleeting hours I pretended Spring was sprung and had been replaced by Summer. It was a nice feeling that was magnified by an even nicer scene I watched transpire across the street.

From my vantage point in the building where I was conducting some business, I had a direct line of sight out the window and could see a homeless man seated on the adjacent street corner. He wasn't holding a sign or asking for anything, but he was making an attempt to converse with almost every person who crossed his path. The gentleman was not an imposing or menacing individual and he was neatly dressed and groomed. I had talked to him on a few prior occasions and always found him to be polite and affable.

As the pantomime unfolded across the busy street, I realized even thought my interactions with the man were few, every time we were finished talking I left the scene in a better mood. He was one of those guys who was genuinely concerned when he asked questions. While most of us frequently drift into an automated "how are you" greeting, *Jerry was actually curious when he asked. It was refreshing to meet someone who wanted nothing more than to talk. Since many of us are often suspicious of other people's ulterior motives, its always a treat to bump into someone who enjoys conversation for the sake of conversation.

I pleasantly watched the faces of the passer-byers as they encountered Jerry. The whole experience was enjoyable because I couldn't hear the exchange and had to rely on the facial expressions of the involved parties. I have had the privilege of working with the homeless for years and have long abandoned many preconceived ideas other people might still hold. And its not because I am a particularly enlightened fellow or more socially evolved than most primates. Its only because I've been able to spend time with them and had my life affected in very positive ways.

My voyeurism only lasted a few minutes before I was finished and on my way across the street to say hello to Jerry. I didn't monopolize his time because I didn't want to rob others of the wonderful experience of talking to him. As I walked away I couldn't help wondering how many others were having a better day simply because they bumped into Jerry. Without realizing or even trying, he was breaking down stereotypes and forcing people to confront their beliefs about the homeless.

I'm really thankful for sunny days.

*Not his real name

Monday, March 10, 2014

Why Daylight Savings Time is Destroying the World!

Some things are a mystery to me.

Near the top of my list (sandwiched in between no one realizing the special sauce on a Big Mac might just be Thousand Island dressing and why aliens only abduct people who have appeared on an episode of Cops) is what happens to the hour of daylight savings time that magically disappears.

Poof. Its gone and no one ever talks about it or brings it up even though we all know it happens. Its like the weird relative we invite to a holiday meal: we have to deal with it but don't really want to acknowledge its part of our life. And after living through 30-some years of this phenomenon, I refuse to remain silent about all the wasted hours I have been robbed of. The way I see it (which definitely does not always equal reality), I should have an entire day owed to me because once a year 3am gets bypassed in order to pacify an outdated and unnecessary ritual dedicated to conserving war-time resources (here's where you look up the history of Daylight Savings Time).

But what would I do with an entire day all to myself? Most of us feel there are not enough hours in the day to accomplish all we need, so imagine if we could spend an entire 24 hour period doing whatever we wanted and not what we had to do. Here's the kicker: I think a lot of people would be confused and unnerved by having free time on their hands. We are so accustomed to our regimented lives and routines that we might not be able to function if we suddenly had nothing to do. Our coping mechanisms would be thrown off kilter and we might struggle with how we should appropriately kill time.

I propose this: we learn to relax and enjoy the company of our friends and families. Normally, I would suggest we try help others (say, by volunteering at your local homeless shelter) but I think I'll let you come to that conclusion on your own. Anyway, it seems we have too many people telling us to do too many things, so I don't want to be one more squeaky wheel in your life. Since life is short and we are losing time every year in the form of this dratted Daylight Savings, I hope you will take some time to slow down and participate in things that make you happy.

Drive, dance, paint, fish, hike, climb, write, sing, play, cook, sleep, run, swim... Just make sure you are doing what revitalizes you. And then, once you catch your breath and refocus on what truly matters (people, not schedules), you will be more useful to everyone around you.

And we can go back to figuring out where that missing hour slinks off to.