Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Elephant in the Living Room

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines a chronically homeless person as someone who has been continuously homeless for over one year. In 2009 it was estimated that 23% of homeless Americans fell under this category. While current numbers have dipped to 12-15%,  the number of homeless Americans, overall, has increased.
Under 18 yrs old
18 to 20 yrs old
21 to 30 yrs old
31 to 50 yrs old
51 to 61 yrs old
62 to 64 yrs old
Over 65 yrs old
Incomplete Info

According to the 2011 Montana Homeless Survey, over 800 people sought services for homelessness last year in Kalipsell. The previous year's survey registered 722, so the numbers went up. And this only represents those individuals who took the time to participate in the survey because many many people did not respond or their information was too incomplete to use. I did some research and the population of Kalispell is just under 20,000. This means that close to 4 percent of the population was classified as homeless.
Or, another way to examine the situation is: 1 out of every 25 people in Kalispell, statistically speaking, was homeless. This is not an epidemic limited to New York or Los Angeles. This is Kalispell. Montana. The last great place? Not for everyone.
 Do you know 25 people? Do you have 25 friends or family members in Kalispell? For so many of us the issue of homelessness is disconnected from our daily life because it seems like a foreign issue or a reality that would never touch us here in the Valley. Homelessness has become the elephant in the living room. But how do we combat a condition that ensnares people in cycles? We need solutions based in longevity and sustainability. Quick-fixes and aid without a long-term plan will only slap a bandage on a gaping wound. If homelessness can be thought of as a disease, then what remedies can be provided?
Kalispell must be willing to ensure housing within reasonable price ranges. Education is another piece of this puzzle that can lead to jobs and careers that provide living-wage opportunities. When an individual has the chance to acquire the appropriate tools, then he or she can begin to construct a life that transcends living hand-to-mouth. Employers must be willing to take a chance by hiring those who have either escaped the talons of poverty or are doing their best to scale that mountain.
This is not a partisan problem or a dilemma relegated to politics. This is a human problem and I believe the people of Kalispell can help in numerous ways.
…which will be the next topic.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

TGI...T (Tuesday?)

Tuesday is strange and possibly the most neglected and least-talked about day of the week. Everyone hates Monday and Wednesday gets some press because it marks the middle of most work weeks. Thursday now hosts college football games on ESPN (okay, a bit of a reach) and Friday is hallowed for signifying the completion of five consecutive days of labor and toil.
But Tuesday? Blech…
I thought I would try to elevate the status of this latch-key day by attempting to write something informative about homelessness. And, instead of tackling the enormity of this issue all in one incredibly incompetent blog, perhaps the best way is to start at the beginning. What is homelessness and who is homeless? The government acknowledges two basic types of homelessness: chronic and episodic.
Chronic homelessness is more of the stereotypical idea that many people carry around with them. This term evokes images of a grizzled man or woman coiled up under a bridge with their belongings entombed in a shopping cart or a cardboard box. They seem to want little interaction with others and often refuse the assistance of organizations that offer services. We tend to cross to the other side of the street when they approach us. We use them as cautionary tales to instill principles in our own children. Many suffer from mental illness. But did you know that this is only a small fraction of the actual homeless population?
The other type of homelessness recognized by the government is episodic. This is the much larger demographic and these individuals more than likely ended up homeless because of circumstances beyond their control. Life was grand on Monday and then unfathomable by Friday. Death, unpaid bills, foreclosure, abuse… the reasons are often as relative as the person. We walk right beside these people on a crowded street. They are not singled out. They go to third grade with your child.
Homelessness is a multilayered phenomenon and over the next few weeks I want to explore the different facets of what it means to be homeless and the implications for not only the individual, but the entire community. I guess I figured Tuesday was as good a day as any to begin.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


I am having a standoff with my calendar. It still (for a few more fleeting days) reads 'August' but recently the mornings have been impersonating mid-September. The universe is coaxing me into wearing a jacket but I refuse to bow to its wishes. The season is changing and with it comes more than a meteorological discussion. The homeless demographic of Kalispell is fluid by nature, but the transformation in the weather signifies the beginning of the end for many transient or migrational sign holders. Executive Director Chris Krager explored this topic in an excellent feature.

Our residents at Samaritan House are asked not to hold signs and usually comply with this request. Chances are, the individuals you have seen at various fixed locations (sometimes at the entrances to certain stores or intersections) are not living at Samaritan House. Many people have different philosophies regarding how to interact with sign holders. No matter what your personal ethos dictates, you have probably been placed in that awkward situation when the traffic light stops you dead in your tracks right next to a sign holder. Your car idles there, with a trunk full of groceries or other items, as the individual outside your window looks over and silently invades your personal space without moving a muscle. 

This recently happened to someone I know. She is a very compassionate woman but is also blessed with a keen sense of intuition. As her car was stopped, she rolled down down her window and offered the homeless gentleman some fruit, which he indignantly refused. She apologized and told him she figured he could use some food since his sign proclaimed he was hungry. He moved to another location. Her intention was not act as an investigative journalist or to entrap someone who was trying to scam the public; she just wanted to give a hungry guy some something to eat.

I won't tell you how to respond to sign holders but I would like to express my sadness and frustration when those who are legitimately in need are denigrated because other (less scrupulous) people have decided to feign homelessness to make money by exploiting this situation. The faux-homeless migrational sign holders will soon be moving on to warmer environments as the temperature drops but those who are truly homeless will still be among us. My point is that we should not dismiss or marginalize the genuine need or cause of homelessness in Kalispell because we are irritated with impostors. I also warn caution against labeling all sign holders as fraudulent... some are truly homeless with corresponding needs.

So, as the Flathead Valley evolves into the beginning stages of a Northwestern Winter Wonderland, please be mindful that not everything is as it seems to the naked eye. Until we can create a system and environment that addresses the causes of homelessness, we will be forced to try and be as proactive as we can, while often being held hostage to misconceptions and appearances. Always use discretion and wisdom, but not without compassion and understanding. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Happy Birthday?

Birthdays can be a wonderful time in a person’s life no matter what age they celebrate. Children get pampered and feel special while adults pretend they don’t like the attention lavished upon them. We fuss and fawn all over someone simply because they debuted on planet earth on a certain day and year. We like researching and cross-referencing our birthdays to see if we share our day with anyone who was featured on either Entertainment Tonight or TMZ. We like to fib about our age sometimes so we can get back the occasional lost year. I think it’s a safe assumption that the majority of Americans love their birthday (mine is in October…hint, hint) and the personal 24 hour holiday it ushers in.

I recently read about a couple nonprofit organizations that provide birthdays for homeless children. One is in New England and the other is in Washington. Sometimes it seems that all the great ideas come from other places. After I read the articles, I wanted to kick myself because this idea was not some unfathomable concept or mind-blowingly revolutionary concept that defies logic. Rather, it is an idea based in simple human kindness and a recognition that sometimes it’s just nice to do something for others. Ugh… I had the same feeling of despair that I felt when I didn’t market my idea for what would have become the Snuggie!

A few months ago we had a six year old staying at the shelter on her birthday. This was made known to me only because her mother mentioned it in passing as they were heading out the door. I think I mumbled an obligatory birthday blessing and then went about my day saving the world. A few hours later, after I returned home for the day, my daughter received a birthday invitation to a party for one of her friends. She was annoyingly excited and I was equally perturbed that yet another one of her friends decided to be born in such close proximity to the other 4 kids that had also sent invitations to their parties. Then another thought pushed its way to the front of my mind…

I recalled my passing conversation with the mother and her daughter earlier that day and realized that (unlike humanity) not all birthdays are created equal. I wondered if there was something I could do that would not be construed as patronizing or embarrassing and might help other kids have a decent party. Many of our families at the shelter are in a difficult situation and can’t afford to spend extra money or resources on things like birthday parties for their kids. Those of us who are not homeless are sometimes quick to set the standard on what the homeless should and should not spend their money on. We quickly devise a category of wants and needs and become indignant when we feel people with little income are ‘wasting’ their money on frivolity. Fair enough and there is validity to that argument.

…I just don’t think birthdays should be included in that category. Try rationalizing the economy with an 8 year old who received a coloring book and some socks for his birthday.

My intent is to set up a specific account at Samaritan House just for children’s birthdays. Any money sent in and earmarked for this will be spent only for providing some resources for a party. Some balloons, a cake, maybe a couple streamers and an age-appropriate gift. I am petitioning you to please participate in this. You can even donate items if you do not want to send money. I think birthdays should not be limited to children with fixed addresses.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

August And Everything After

First, I apologize to the Counting Crows for stealing the title of their great 1993 album. Now that I have (semi) cleared my conscience, let us move on. While the weather in Kalispell is still plenty warm enough to remind us that we still have some semblance of a summer, we would be remiss to not at least acknowledge that autumn is waiting patiently behind the scenes. As much as I don't want to admit it, the next month on my calendar starts with an "S" and ends in a "burr." The mornings are getting a tad crisper no matter how badly I bask in the afternoon's warmth.

The fair is in full swing and that seems (for me, anyway) to mark the beginning of the end of summer. Last year many of our residents made the trek to the fairgrounds and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. They would come back to the shelter in the evening laughing and joking with each other and if you closed your eyes and just listened, it sounded like any college dormitory in America and you would never know you were in a homeless shelter.

 I remember talking to them in the mornings as they would recall the previous night's activities. The lights and sounds of the carnival rides and smells of cotton candy and burgers saturated their conversations. Spending the day at the fair reminded them of a time in their life when they were younger and life was different. We live in a society where we are not easily impressed by anything that is not an iSomething. We are often tethered to a lifestyle that is increasingly harder to support and maintain and unless we can view it in HD, an event is usually considered an antiquity not worth looking at.

I learn a lot from our residents and this time of year is no exception. August is almost over and winter is coming. If you have been (or are) homeless, this has drastically different implications than if you have  permanent housing. But what is the point in worry about something out of your control? Most of life is spent reacting to things that come our way and sometimes its better to enjoy the moment and not fret over every little thing. I'm not suggesting that we ignore our responsibilities or not try and make appropriate plans for the future. Both of these are very important.

I do think, however, that its okay to focus on the moment and enjoy the day before it ends. August will be over soon enough but I can take the feeling with me always.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Times Like These

I've covered many topics since I started writing this blog nearly 13 months ago. Occasionally I'll comment on a news story but I usually try to avoid sounding like a Law & Order retread so I stick to topical items. It would be easy to write articles that simply reacted to what was happening in the world because there is always something either morbidly interesting, gloriously triumphant, or some sort of middle ground that catches our attention. We are often outraged, encouraged, worried, and hopeful several times a day.

My content is sometimes inspired by what's being shouted incessantly at me by the news but I try to block it out so I can come to my own conclusions. Today I am epically failing at this. I recently read an article about a group of Canadian teenagers who assaulted and urinated on a homeless man in Winnipeg. I don't really know what to say about this but would love to hear from anyone in the "everything happens for a reason" camp. I know we use that phrase a lot and I understand the logic because it helps us examine an often horrific situation and try to find something good to extract from it.

But I just don't agree with it. It allows too many people to avoid too much responsibility.

This man did nothing to warrant such a vile attack. His only crime was being homeless in the wrong place at the wrong time. I can't even comment on his assailants because their behavior is so repugnant that anything I would write would just be another overused cliche that does not accurately capture the true evil embodied in their soul. I won't waste another keystroke on them.

There has been so much tragedy lately. As a student of history, I can attest that we have been bullying, killing, dehumanizing, and hurting each other since the dawn of time. The only difference now is that we are confronted with these themes on an hourly basis. We become desensitized and unmoved by things that might have induced nausea just a few years ago. I'm not blaming social media for this because there are some amazing benefits to knowing what your best friend in third grade ate for breakfast two time zones away. Technology is not usually the problem as much as the people creating it.

I wish I had some great advice or wisdom to dispense but right now I just want to believe that we can get back to a place where things like this bother us to the point that we want to do something about it. Lately I've had a lot more questions than answers. This transcends the issue of homelessness and strikes directly at the core of what it means to be human... humane. How we treat one another is crucial to he survival of this  planet. Fortunately, for every deplorable act that scrawls across the news ticker, there are multiple acts of kindness and benevolence. Maybe I'm just rationalizing things. Perhaps I am choosing to look for the good in the world.

I'm not quite ready to give up and I hope you are with me. How can we affect change?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

In The Bag

At Samaritan House we accept donations of all sorts. Clothing, food, vintage Jethro Tull 8-tracks… I’ve seen them all float our way and we are appreciative for the kindness so many people consistently demonstrate (Aqualung never gets old, by the way). Since we have children at the shelter, we often receive toys and other items intended to brighten the day of our youngest residents.
A few weeks ago, my daughter collected a bag full of toys she wanted to donate. They were in great condition and had many more miles left in them. I thanked her and told her I would drop them off at the shelter so other kids might enjoy them. She put them in a bag and placed them by the door, where they sat. And sat. And sat some more. I kept forgetting to grab them on my way out the door and since I leave for work before anyone else in my family is awake, I had no one to remind me. I really like passing the buck. Actually, once I did remember but my hands were full because I was juggling car keys a cup of coffee and some paperwork. Eh, I thought, I’ll just grab them tomorrow.
I didn’t.
Finally, after more than two weeks of this neglectful nonsense, my daughter’s exasperated rage boiled over and she took drastic measures. It was like every other morning and I had gone through the usual drill of waking up, getting dressed and was about to depart for the day when I noticed my daughter curled up in our recliner next to the door, fast asleep. I gently shook her and asked her why she was in the living room and not in her bed. She rubber her eyes and sleepily told me she didn’t want me to forget that bag of toys. I told her I would grab them and half-heartedly apologized and said I had simply forgotten. “I know daddy. You keep forgetting because it’s not as important to you as it is to the little girl who wants those toys.”
Ouch. She was absolutely, undeniably correct. I drove to work that morning (with a bag of toys on the seat next to me) rethinking many things. I claim to care about social issues and I work every day alongside some amazing people who have dedicated their lives to addressing homelessness in the Flathead Valley. But I was only seeing half the picture… just viewing the situation from one perspective that didn’t take into account what it might have felt like to be a little kid who has very little and is thrilled by a bag of donated toys. I had divided things into two categories: Important (food, clothing, medicine, shelter) and Not Important (toys for kids).
Please don’t misunderstand me. I know there is a difference and some donations have greater uses than others. The problem was not the utilitarian nature of the donation, it was that I had not bothered to care enough to be responsible for providing something for some kids simply because my hands were too full. I am now trying to relearn the idea of importance.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

One of Those Days

I loved reading 'choose your own adventure' books when I was younger. These were great because no matter how badly I did, I could always put the book down and start over. And... for the record... I was terrible. It seems I spent more time in abandoned mine shafts and warding off bear attacks than I ever did rescuing the princess or saving the earth from the alien invasion. But, at the end of the day, I had the luxury of closing the book and going outside to recreate my literary misadventures. Remember, this was pre-Call of Duty and let's face it... Frogger was never really that interesting so I often ended up playing outdoors.

Sometimes I wish I could live in those books. Make a mistake? No problem, just turn to a different page and start all over. Don't like how one scenario ends? Cool. Just go back and have as many do-overs as needed. The prisoner is freed, the game is won, the mystery is solved, and everyone lives happily ever after. How amazing would it be if life truly imitated art and we were afforded the opportunity to correct our mistakes and spare ourselves (and our loved ones) the pain of such terrible circumstances. But, unless you have a Delorean and 21.1 jigowatts of electricity, then you are forced to live in the wake of whatever life you've created.

My point is simple. We all make mistakes and partake in things we regret from time to time. Many of us are fortunate enough to recover and, while there will always be some residual effect, we can move on and still make a very nice life for ourselves. The poor choices we made can eventually fade into the recesses of our memories and serve as little more than a reminder that we need to be smarter with how we live. Some people will actually learn from their mistake and then try to help others avoid that same pratfall.

However, some people lack either the ability or inclination to allow themselves to forget and move on. Every sunrise is another reminder of how badly they screwed up and all situations lead to unrest and a lack of peace. There is no support network that provides an outlet for reconciliation or redemption and each day feels worse than the last. I see this every day in the lives of some of our residents, but this condition is not limited to the homeless. We need to know that life can have purpose in spite of what we've done. I wish it were an easy problem to fix but I am not a psychologist nor a counselor. All I can do is offer you the chance to read some words on a page and hopefully seek avenues that lead toward whatever brings you peace and forgiveness.

Maybe one day we can all save the princess?