Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Chill in the Air

It happens slowly and subtly.

The air becomes a bit crisper and the chill greets you earlier in the morning and lingers longer in the evening than just a few weeks ago. Autumn finds its way to the Flathead about this time each year and, just like every year, I am caught off guard. Perhaps its because I grew up on the east coast in a place shrouded with trees that announced the season's changes with Technicolor regularity; the ever present evergreens seem to lull me into a sense of unawareness.

But its here. Soon there will be extreme cold weather in nearly every region in the state. Snow, ice and below normal temperatures will treacherous travel and perilous predicaments for anyone deciding to remain in Kalispell. It takes a special and unique type of person to willingly embrace a Montana winter. I've been here 20 years and still am in awe of the beautiful severity that accompanies some of the most breathtaking scenery on the planet. But I choose to live here.

Each year, as winter approaches and the temperature begins to drop, many homeless people move from the streets to their city’s shelter system to escape the cold because they happen to be here when winter's all-encompassing grip tightens around them. Samaritan House will be packed with people in desperate need of housing. Survival trumps luxury and the warmth and safety of the shelter is a better alternative than trying to live in the elements. And these are the fortunate ones.

In many rural areas in Montana, communities often have no outside resources to help them cope with the increased demand caused by cold weather conditions. Many cities offer expanded winter services only during certain months or only when the temperature falls below a pre-determined and arbitrary cut-off temperature. Above those cut-offs (hypothermia can occur in weather as warm as 50 degrees Fahrenheit) many cities do not offer resources to help the homeless people escape from the cold.

With nowhere to stay except the streets, people experiencing homelessness have a much higher risk than the general population of developing exposure-related conditions such as hypothermia and frostbite. These conditions can be immediately life threatening and may also increase the risk of dying from unrelated conditions in the future. Increased homeless services, especially additional shelter availability, are necessary to accommodate the amplified need in the winter.

Unless you have personally experienced homelessness, it is difficult to fathom what life on the streets is like in Montana during the winter. For years, we have been providing housing for people in danger of dying in the Montana winter. We cannot do this without help from people like you. We are so thankful for all the support the community provides so we can continue to offer a saving hand for those who will soon be staying with us as the temperature continues to slowly and steadily drop.

If you would like to donate toward the approaching winter season, please call our office at 257-5801. Thank you so much for your willingness to touch the lives of people you might never meet.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Reality Shows

There is a popular TV show that focuses on the human condition and how we treat each other when we think no one is watching. The premise of the show revolves around every-day people who are put into situations where they must make a decision to either intervene in another person's life (who is an actor playing a part) or choose to ignore a situation that puts the observed person in some sort of jeopardy.

And alas...the entire spectacle is being filmed and the program host makes a surprise appearance in the midst of the chaos (with television cameras and crew in tow) to ask the unsuspecting observer why they did or did not offer assistance. Everyone has a laugh and a chuckle and then the program is over. But what when situations present themselves in real life and we are left to act without the auspices of being on television for the whole world to watch our benevolence? How do we treat one another when we have no audience to either applaud or efforts or chide or indifference?

Since the beginning of written history, there have been numerous philosophies espousing the importance of helping others because life is valuable and people matter. Whether you subscribe to Aristotle's golden mean, or Karma, or Hammurabi's code, or the Golden Rule in the New Testament, one thing is clear: it is important to help those in need. Ever since people have been putting reed to papyrus, the treatment of others has been a high priority in the scope of human history.

A friend of mine told me a story that gave me pause to consider what my response would be if I was put into a situation that required immediate action. He was fueling his car up at a local service station when he was approached by a man claiming to need a few dollars so he could put gas into his car. He was stranded at the same gas station as my friend, and needed to get from Kalispell to Polson.

Many of us have been in situations like this and maybe we've responded in different ways at different times. In this particular instance, my friend gave the man a few dollars and they parted ways. He opened his door, plopped into his driver seat and was immediately bombarded with advice and chastisement from his 13 year-old son who watched the whole scene unfold from the passenger seat.

His son told him it was a scam and that he probably just got taken for his money. The beneficiary of the exchange was likely going to buy some beer and have a good laugh. He was floored that his father could be so naïve and easily separated from his hard-earned cash. The rhetorical questions flowed from his son with such rapidity and ire that my friend barely had time to formulate a response before his son had moved on to the next verbal barrage.

After a few minutes and a few miles had passed, silence settled in the car and they just drove until they were almost home. My friend glanced over at his son and told him that there was a definite chance that the man at the gas station just wanted some fast cash and he didn't really need the money.

But what if he did?

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

...The Rest of the Story

Here is the conclusion of my discussion with a group of high school seniors regarding homelessness in America.

The common consensus was that most people who ended up becoming homeless because of poor decisions they made. It was eye-opening when I had them do some research and they discovered some of the most common reasons people ended up homeless were:

* A lack of affordable housing and the limited scale of housing assistance programs have contributed to the current housing crisis and to homelessness. Recently, foreclosures have also increased the number of people who experience homelessness. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that the 2013 Housing Wage is $18.79, exceeding the $14.32 hourly wage earned by the average renter by almost $4.50 an hour, and greatly exceeding wages earned by low income renter households.

* Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. Poor people are frequently unable to pay for housing, food, childcare, health care, and education. Difficult choices must be made when limited resources cover only some of these necessities. Often it is housing, which absorbs a high proportion of income that must be dropped. If you are poor, you are essentially an illness, an accident, or a paycheck away from living on the streets.

Two factors help account for increasing poverty:

1. Lack of Employment Opportunities – With unemployment rates remaining high, jobs are hard to find in the current economy. Even if people can find work, this does not automatically provide an escape from poverty.

2. Decline in Available Public Assistance – The declining value and availability of public assistance is another source of increasing poverty and homelessness and many families leaving welfare struggle to get medical care, food, and housing as a result of loss of benefits, low wages, and unstable employment. Additionally, most states have not replaced the old welfare system with an alternative that enables families and individuals to obtain above-poverty employment and to sustain themselves when work is not available or possible.

Other major factors, which can contribute to homelessness, include:

Lack of Affordable Health Care – For families and individuals struggling to pay the rent, a serious illness or disability can start a downward spiral into homelessness, beginning with a lost job, depletion of savings to pay for care, and eventual eviction.

Domestic Violence – Battered women who live in poverty are often forced to choose between abusive relationships and homelessness. In addition, 50% of the cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2005).
Mental Illness – Approximately 16% of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2005).

Addiction – The relationship between addiction and homelessness is complex and controversial. Many people who are addicted to alcohol and drugs never become homeless, but people who are poor and addicted are clearly at increased risk of homelessness.

The class period flew by and it was beneficial for all of us. Its too easy to stereotype people and these kids seemed interested in finding solutions rather than merely dwelling on the problems. By the end of the conversation, I think these future leaders of America had a few more things to consider than when we began talking. My hope is that the future transcends the present.

Monday, September 28, 2015

An Informative Discussion

Next year is an election year, and I've already covered the lack of exposure homelessness garners in political circles. I wish politicians would pay more attention to this issue but it rarely gets noticed because its not as trendy as the same 'ol talking points that candidates typically hammer away on, while never really telling us anything new.

Recently, I was talking to a group of high school seniors about homelessness and I was surprised how little they knew about homelessness in America. They could talk quite elegantly about immigration and foreign policy. We had a great discussion regarding national debt and national security. But after a while I thought I might throw a wrench in the conversation and introduce the topic of homelessness. The room got really quiet and no one had much to say. But I can't fault them because the issue is rarely, if ever, brought up.

They were stunned to know that homelessness is not exclusively an urban phenomenon. This perception exists mainly because homeless people are more numerous, more geographically concentrated, and more visible in urban areas. However, people experience the same difficulties associated with homelessness and housing distress in America's small towns and rural areas as they do in urban areas. Some of the students could not fathom that there were homeless people living in Kalispell.

Rural homelessness, like urban homelessness, is the result of poverty and a lack of affordable housing, and research has shown:

The odds of being poor are between 1.2 to 2.3-times higher for people in non-metropolitan areas than in metropolitan areas.

1 in 5 non-metro counties is classified as a ‘high poverty’ county (having a poverty rate of 20% or higher), while only 1 in 20 metro counties are defined as such.

Homeless people in rural areas are more likely to be white, female, married, currently working, homeless for the first time, and homeless for a shorter period of time.

We talked for a while about stereotypes regarding homeless people, covering the government-approved definitions of chronic, transitional, and episodic – which can be defined as follows:

Chronically homeless individual are most like the stereotyped profile of the “skid-row” homeless, who are likely to be entrenched in the shelter system and for whom shelters are more like long-term housing rather than an emergency arrangement. These individuals are likely to be older, and consist of the “hard-core unemployed”, often suffering from disabilities and substance abuse problems. Yet such persons represent a far smaller proportion of the population compared to the transitionally homeless.

Transitionally homeless individuals generally enter the shelter system for only one stay and for a short period. Such persons are likely to be younger, are probably recent members of the precariously housed population and have become homeless because of some catastrophic event, and have been forced to spend a short time in a homeless shelter before making a transition into more stable housing. Over time, transitionally homeless individuals will account for the majority of persons experiencing homelessness given their higher rate of turnover.

Those who are episodically homeless frequently shuttle in and out of homelessness are known as episodically homeless. They are most likely to be young, but unlike those in transitional homelessness, episodically homeless individuals often are chronically unemployed and experience medical, mental health, and substance abuse problems.

I will present the second part of our conversation later this week.

By the end of the conversation, I think these future leaders of America had a few more things to consider than when we began talking. My hope is that the future transcends the present.

*Statistics courtesy of national coalition for the homeless

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

...And the Oscar Goes to...

Since the beginning of our endeavor to provide housing for the homeless, thousands of people have passed through the open doors at Samaritan House. Each person has a unique story and our brief time with them provides only a snapshot of who they are and who they might become. It is easy to make assumptions that life will always be difficult for the homeless; Statistics point to an existence mired in poverty and complications. But we refuse to adopt this attitude and firmly believe those who stay with us for a while can go on to achieve amazing things.

Apple mastermind Steve Jobs crashed on friends' floors during college and returned glass Coke bottles to make a little bit of money. He recalled his meager beginnings during a commencement speech at Stanford University: "I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple."

Halle Berry found herself homeless when she was first starting her career in Chicago. She told Reader's Digest that she is actually grateful for the situation, saying, “It taught me how to take care of myself and that I could live through any situation, even if it meant going to a shelter for a small stint, or living within my means, which were meager."

Jim Carrey opened up about his experience with homelessness in an interview with “Inside the Actors Studio” host James Lipton. Carrey recalled, “My father was a musician who got a 'regular job' to support his children. When he lost his job, that's when everything fell apart. We went from 'lower middle class' to 'poor.' We were living out of a van. I quit school at age 15 to begin working to help support my family as a janitor.”

So, who knows what will become of our residents once they depart Samaritan House and head off to whatever is next? I am not prophesying the next Academy Award winner will be from Kalispell. My expectations do not measure greatness through a celebratory grid; success is not defined by public notoriety or how magazine covers or financial portfolios. All I'm advocating is that we only see our residents for a short time and then they are gone so perhaps their paths can lead to places we would never expect. I'm not proclaiming the next Steve Jobs is at our shelter.

...of course I'm not ruling it out, either.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Practical Advice

Someone wiser than I once said, “If you’re in a hole... stop digging.” Good words to live by. It means to stop using any more money that will cause your expenses to out weigh your income. A common mistake most people that are struggling make is that they are oblivious to their financial disposition. They don’t know where their break-even point is. They don’t know what their base average monthly expenses are in respect to their monthly cash flow

Sometimes we forget how easy it is to find your self in a financial jam. If you live on your own, and you're barely staying ahead of your bills, you could easily fall prey to being homeless. Even if you are a two-income family without a large savings parachute, it doesn't take much to off-set the fragile balance.

Like so many families in America, you live paycheck to paycheck with little chance of putting together any kind of a savings plan. Families usually have a months worth of income to live off of in case of an emergency – but that’s it. Their financial status is such that if one thing goes wrong – like the car needs a new transmission – all reserve savings will be lost. A job loss at this time from one of the wage earners will only increase the tension. The monthly bills keep coming, and soon, you have to scramble for the rent or the mortgage.

This is the ‘homeless formula’. It's a myriad of problems and expenses that hit one after another, until all your bills are way behind, and you find yourself facing your first homeless night.

You should know exactly where you are financially - this means you should know how much expenses you have verses incoming moneys every month. If your expenses are more than your income, you need to take your scissors out and start cutting the fat from your monthly frill bills.

When you know what your base monthly expense is, versus what income you’ll make at the end of the month, you’ll be more apt to resist foolish spending. Just knowing what your numbers are will make you react more frugally to the sirens of the fast food restaurants.

You need to keep adding to your savings with every check you deposit. As soon as you have a handle on your bills, incorporate a pay-yourself-first habit. Try to accumulate at least six months of income as fast as you can. Having the peace of mind in knowing that you have the financial backing for 6 months should an emergency occur, will give you the time you need to ensure you land on your feet. Once you reach your 6 month savings target, you can consider investments, retirement funds or other needs that you or your family have put off.

When you know what your base monthly expense is, versus what income you’ll make at the end of the month, you’ll be more apt to resist foolish spending. Just knowing what your numbers are will make you react more frugally to the sirens of the fast food restaurants.The more you are in tune with your finances, the more of a fun game it becomes. It gives you a charge when you save more than you expected to – this also fuels your thought process into thinking where else you can cut, stretch, re-use and recycle.

Your entrepreneurial spirit may surface and give you an incredible idea to market. You’ll soon find that once you start purposefully safeguarding against mindless spending, you’ll wonder why you didn't start this a long time ago.

Anyway... just some practical advice.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Problem With Simplification

Anytime we discuss problems related to youth homelessness, there is potential to oversimplify things. I realize this issue is multilayered and can't be corralled into neat, explainable packages. There are always mitigating factors that need to be taken into account, so we need to keep that in the back of our minds. However, to address youth homelessness topically, here are three inter-related categories.

Family problems. This might be the most obvious, but it still needs to be mentioned. When a child feels unsafe in their living environment, everything breaks down and that child can find him or herself considering options no kid should have to consider. Disruptive family conditions are the principal reason that young people leave home and many homeless youth leave home after years of physical and sexual abuse, strained relationships, addiction of a family member, and potential parental neglect.

According to interviews conducted by the Street Outreach Program through the US Department of Health & Human Services, youth attributed homelessness to the following causes:

51.2% were asked to leave home by a parent or guardian
24.7% were unable to find a job
23.8% were physically abused, beaten, or left due to caretaker's drug or alcohol abuse
17% were forced into unwanted sexual activity by a family or household member

Economic problems. Some youth may become homeless when their families suffer financial crises resulting from lack of affordable housing, limited employment opportunities, insufficient wages, no medical insurance, or inadequate welfare benefits. In these instances, the kids suffer for happenings out of their control. Youth may become homeless while still with their families, but may be separated from their families by the shelter, transitional housing, or child welfare policies.

I've spoken to enough of our residents over the year to know that there are few things more heartbreaking than a parent who feels responsible for the homeless condition of their family. Children suffer greatly when they are forced out of the comfort and stability of their homes and forced to readjust to life in a shelter.

Residential instability. Some youth living in residential or institutional placements such as foster care, become homeless because they are discharged or emancipated with no housing or income support. One national study reported that more than one-in-five youth who arrived at shelters came directly from foster care, and that more than one-in-four had been in foster care in the previous year.

So there you have it, a brief summary of just a few reasons youth homelessness is an important issue in America. And the most important thing to remember is that these kids are really out there, right now, living their lives as you are reading these words. They are not merely demographics or statistics and this issue will not solve itself.
Information courtesy of