Monday, July 6, 2015

Homelessness and the National Conversation

It is nearly 2016 and by the time I finish typing this sentence we might have a few more preliminary presidential candidates, bringing the bipartisan total to around 42.

And no matter who you support or from which forums you get your (mis)information, there is one common denominator that unites them all: homelessness is not an issue that merits much attention. I am not advocating or campaigning for a specific person, but merely emphasizing there is an entire homeless demographic that is largely ignored or chained to other issues like poverty, unemployment, hunger, or a myriad of other social ills. But the issue of homelessness as a headliner is largely ignored. Why?

Show me the money. Resolving homelessness requires spending and re-appropriating funds in different avenues with unconventional ideas, especially when the housing-first model is seriously considered. The most obvious solution to homelessness is providing housing which can be an expensive solution. This would entail billions of dollars that political leaders are not willing to spend in spite of strong evidence showing it is demonstratively cheaper to house the homeless rather than allowing them to live on the streets using emergency rooms, paramedics, and law enforcement.

No vote. Homeless citizens are a silent political bloc with no influence because most of them do not vote. If politicians were forced to deal with this large demographic - on a single night in January 2013, 610,042 people were experiencing homelessness*- the political narrative of this country would change. But these voters are not empowered and political dollars go to the most influential. I'll have more on homeless voting later this week.

Longevity instead of a quick solution. Because American politics are cyclical, working toward realistic solutions involving homelessness would last more than one term. Leaders willing to invest billions of dollars and implement the construction of hundreds of thousands of housing units would not see their results accomplished in one or two political terms. The next leader would get the credit and this is, sadly, not acceptable in a society where politicians need to produce immediate results.

It makes people uncomfortable. Resolving homelessness means admitting homelessness, nationally, exists. In a Pinterest-Instagram-society of piano-playing kittens, images of homelessness are disconcerting and prompt discussion and not simply liking something on Facebook. How do you describe and explain the solutions to domestic violence, post-traumatic stress syndrome, substance abuse, and/or mental health disease with Tweets?

Finger pointing is less expensive. Anyone taking the blame for social ills commits political suicide. Because there is a lack of advocates for the homeless, they are a silent and underrepresented majority which lacks a strong national voice. It seems easier to blame the homelessness and make inaccurate generalizations; they are in their respective positions because they are lazy, criminal, mentally disturbed, and choose to live on the street or or happy to live on government help. Investing money and political capital on them is a futile endeavor.
What can be done to raise these issues and make our legislators take notice of homelessness? I would love to write more, but 6 more candidates have jumped into the presidential pool and are ready to pay marginal attention.

*Information courtesy of National Alliance to End Homelessness

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Hobo Code of Ethics

Being a curious person has definite drawbacks.

Sometimes I will read or see something that initially piques my interest but then slowly seeps into my mind and provokes me to do some further investigation. Lately I've been interested in the whole concept of how homeless camps (referred to as hobo camps by those who live there) exist. I realize anything I unearth will be secondary information and, because I've never lived in one of these camps, subject to misinterpretation or misrepresentation. But I'm trying.

After beginning my research, I found an interfering article on something called the "Hobo Code of Ethics." This was composed in 1900 at the Hobo National Convention (yes, you read correctly). The National Hobo Convention has been held on the second weekend in August, every year since 1900. This tales place in the town of Britt, Iowa, and it is sponsered and hosted by the local Chamber of Commerce. The National Hobo Convention is the largest gathering of hobos, rail-riders, and tramps, who gather to celebrate the American traveling worker. At their initial meeting in the beginning on the 20th century, they decided on a code that would govern their existence.

Obviously, not every hobo has followed this creed to the letter and there have been many who have not adhered to it at all. But, I find a quiet dignity and resolve in these commandments; it is a testament to a group of transient people who are often stereotyped as outlaws and criminals. Anyway... I found it interesting and wanted to share it with you.

1. Decide your own life, don’t let another person run or rule you.
2. When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
3. Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.
4. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.
5. When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
6. Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos.
7. When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as bad, if not worse than you.
8. Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
9. If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
10. Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
11. When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.
12. Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
13. Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose all molesters to authorities, they are the worst garbage to infest any society.
14. Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.
15. Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Television Gets It Wrong

We have all heard the expression, "perception is reality." The idea behind this trite little snippet declares that whatever we see is true and real. Now, there is some merit to this perspective, but often it leads us to make rash decisions and snap judgements on situations and people without having all the necessary information to render an informed and accurate opinion. Face it... Sometimes we are lazy and it's easier to allow ourselves to just believe what we see or hear instead of what might be true.

Recently, some common stereotypes regarding the homeless were perpetuated on a television show called Rocky Mountain Bounty Hunters. The show centers on bounty hunters based in various locales in Colorado and Montana (Kalispell, actually). I watched an episode a few nights ago and the bounty hunters followed a tip that led them to a homeless camp in Marion. As they foraged through the woods to find the camp, they uncovered traps and fretted about the dangers of their situation. The ideas perpetuated were that homeless people living in these places were criminals and reprobates.

While it is true that some people who remove themselves from society and live in the woods in various camps are dangerous, the majority simply want to be left alone. The perception is homeless people sleep in alley’s on pieces of cardboard, with liquor or wine bottles littered all around them. The reality is if we see something on the television, then it must be true, and this is how television portrays the homeless.

By and large, most homeless people do not sleep in alley’s on cardboard. The perception is the homeless just panhandle and beg for money, annoying everyone passing by. The reality is when day labor jobs are available, the homeless are usually the first in line to get the work available that day. The perception is the homeless are criminals, and going to jail especially during colder months is a vacation for them. The reality is homeless people value their freedom just as much as the next person.

If we are going to treat people with dignity, then we owe it to them to not pass along negative stereotypes we learn from television (which seeks to entertain and not represent reality). The truth is that some people living in camps suffer from different disabilities and are in need of mental health treatment. The reality is we need a system that provides the help these people need.

Perception is overrated and unreliable if we rely solely on what we see and hear.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Irrelevancy of Motivation

Why do people do good deeds?

I once had a philosophy class that focused on this very fundamental question regarding human nature. The intention of the course was not to reach an ultimate conclusion; instead, it made us examine what we thought about the matter. There were two basic opinions we wrestled with and fought over. It was a polarizing question and prompted some decent discussion so I thought I might revisit the topic just for fun. I suppose this relays my nerdy idea of what constitutes 'fun'.

The crux of the argument rested on the idea revolving around our motivation for helping others. Do we help people for the sake of helping or do we assist those in need because it makes us feel better about ourselves? In essence, is there any such thing as a a selfless act if we derive (any amount of) pleasure from what we've done? There were sound points supporting and critiquing each position and we spent a lot of time thinking about this idea.

The interesting thing about philosophy is it's ability to be either useful or inane. If we apply our energy to seek out problems and then address those issues then we are contributing positively to society. However, if we do nothing more than quibble about abstract ideas and theories without finding solutions, then we do little more than take up valuable space and oxygen. I won't tell you which side of the coin I landed on (because it changes all the time), but what was often left out of the discussion was the actual good deed. Fair enough, it was a class.

But since I work in the sphere of social services, I want to focus on the actuality of how many people are out there, in the Valley, doing good deeds. There are thousands of people in need in Flathead County who are either homeless, living below the poverty level, or just a step or two removed from becoming homeless. A few years ago I would have spent more time dissecting a person's motivation for helping than being appreciative of the help provided by that person.

Ultimately, to those in need, it matters little about why someone helps. If a person donates to a worthy cause because they feel homelessness is a communal issue that affects the while of society... Great! If another person brings a bag of groceries to the shelter or a trunk of clothes because it makes them happy... Awesome! It matters not why people help, only that people DO help. Whether it's obligation, guilt, responsibility, joy, benevolence, or empathy... People help for all manner of reasons. Our job is not to judge the motivation, but to be thankful for the act.

This is totally backwards in context to what we discussed in my class and I would have received a failing grade for what I just typed. Fortunately, we can adapt these ideas and postulations to life outside the halls of higher education. Every day we rely on donations and contributions from people just like you. We are thankful and appreciative and will never question why you help us.

We just humbly ask that you keep doing it!

Monday, June 22, 2015

One Step At a Time

I have a confession: I hate running.

Sports have always been enjoyable to me, but I need to keep score and compete so I can win against someone else. Running is a battle that pits me against me, so I get bored. Also, and this is most likely the real reason I don't like it... I get tired. My wife, however, is training for a marathon and I think that it amazing. I can't fathom running more than 26 miles.

Watching her commit to a strict training regiment made me think about exercise for the homeless or those at risk of homelessness. Over the years, I've met many people who try to stay in good shape in spite of being homeless. Here is one man's story and the positive results it yielded. My thanks to the Washington Post's health and science editor for passing this on.

Three years ago, when Tyrone Duncan was jobless, recovering from a spinal injury and a stint in a homeless shelter, some volunteers at his transitional housing site encouraged him to run with them as they trained for a race.

“I didn’t manage more than a block at a time back then, but I kept at it and they kept at it with me,” Duncan recalls.

Now Duncan, 53, is the fastest member of that running group, and he credits the regimen of training for helping him stay off drugs and alcohol. He also has a full-time job at a Giant grocery store, a position he says he got not only because of his newfound discipline but also because members of that same group helped him write a resume and learn the skills necessary for his work.

So it’s no surprise when Duncan says running turned his life around. He is far from the only person in sneakers to make that claim. A growing number of national organizations are using the sport to help kids and adults facing such challenges as homelessness, drugs and cancer. They have a variety of names — Back on My Feet, Achilles International, Alex’s Lemonade Stand, Run to Recover — but all have turned to running for the psychological and physiological benefits that training for a race can bring.

Any exercise, when done with enough vigor and for long enough, helps reduce stress and fuels the brain with chemicals that create a sense of well-being even after the sweating is done, says Michael Lehman, a researcher at the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Research at the National Institutes of Health. But few activities are as inexpensive and easy to do as running.

The link between exercise and better mental health has been well documented. A 2007 study of people with major depression in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, for example, found that the effects of exercise were comparable to those of antidepressants. When the researchers followed up with the study participants a year later, they found that keeping up with exercise helped prevent relapses. And a 2008 study found that people with anxiety saw their condition ease after a two-week exercise regimen more than a control group that was not enrolled in the workout program.

Its obvious exercise can play a vital role in the physical and mental well-being of anyone, especially those who are struggling in life.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

How We See Things

Project Homeless Connect is over and soon I will compile some interviews to share with you. However, before I get started on that assignment, I wanted to share something with you. Actually, it's a question regarding our different perspectives on life and I owe it all to Dairy Queen.

Recently I was standing in line, patiently awaiting my turn to order. The particular location was not too busy and everyone, customers and employees, seemed happy and content with the world. There was only one person ahead of me and I was in the last throes of deciding what I wanted when the person ordering caught my attention. What happened was nothing earth-shattering or even anything remotely out of place. It was something I'd heard a thousand times but, for whatever reason, had never truly paid attention to until this moment. The person ordered, but it what what he said that got my (overactive) wheels spinning:

"Give me a ... " and he finished his selection. He was not mean or rude and nothing about him carried any appearance of unpleasantness. It was simply what he said that struck a chord. When I order things, I usually say, "May I have a ..." It dawned on me that people might fall into two (with some variances, of course) categories. There are those who expect things and there are those who request things.

I suppose there are countless influences on a person that shape this perspective. Age, economics, sex, beliefs, race, geography... The list could go on forever. And I'm not advocating one position as right and the other wrong; they're just different. Some people are given to make demands while others forge inquiries. It is really a very interesting phenomenon to just relax and listen to others talk. If you pay close enough attention, you can make some initial observations simply from listening.

After ordering and leaving the restaurant, I spent some time wondering whether or not people can change their default-settings. Just because I ask for something in one environment doesn't mean I won't expect things in a different scenario. We are complex and multilayered creatures, after all.

So, thanks to DQ for giving me pause to reflect a little on who I am.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Project Homeless Connect

It happens every year. People's lives from around the Flathead are irrefutably changed in a positive manner as a result of Project Homeless Connect.

A wide variety of services for individuals, families and veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless will be available during Project Homeless Connect. This year, the event will be held at the expo building at the fairgrounds in Kalispell, on Wednesday, June 17th, from 11am to 7 pm.

Guests will be asked to fill out an intake form that will assess their situation, including whether they consider themselves to be homeless or at risk for being homeless (about to be evicted or foreclosed etc.) and whether they have struggled to pay housing costs such as rent, mortgages or utility bills over the past six months. The intake form will help direct people to appropriate services.

Previous services have included:

° Bicycle repair

° Child car seat installation

° Dental exam, cleaning and treatment referrals and hair care

° Employment assistance

° Financial education

° Identification services (Montana driver’s licenses and birth certificates)

° Medical services, including immunizations, hearing test referral, reading glasses and general health information

° Pet services, including vaccinations, basic health checkup, spay/neuter certificate

° Veterans services, including transportation and housing options, medical services, readjustment counseling, advocacy and employment for veterans

° Household items and personal care items, including clothing and accessories, backpacks and sleeping bags and food bags.

For more information, please contact Samaritan House at 257-5801. Thanks!