Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The New Poor

Poverty is a loaded term. It conjures images of deprevity and isolation and often is accompanied by stigmas and stereotypes. This polarizing issue divides society by casting people in certain terms that have many presuppositions. We hear the term poverty and a certain picture dances in our head.

Perhaps a hungry child or a family living out of their automobile. A man or woman fighting the logistics of the unemployment office or quietly eating lunch at a shelter or rescue mission. I think these are all demonstrative of the products of poverty but it runs deeper than this. Poverty is the result of a broken system that needs more than a subtle tweaking; a massive overhaul is called for.

The thing about poverty is that it creeps up and can engulf a person a little at a time. A missed shift at work, here... an unexpected, uninsured medical emergency, there... Poverty is not confined to black and white glossies from the Great Depression era found in our children's school books. I did some research and found these staggering numbers relating poverty to the average American income for families living in the Lower 48 states (apologies to Hawaii and Alaska!). The number on the right represents the total number of people in a family and the income level on the left is the benchmark for what is considered the poverty level for a family that size.

1 person           $11,170
2 people           $15,130
3 people           $19,090
4 people           $23,050
5 people           $27,010
6 people           $30,970
7 people           $34,930
8 people           $38,890

There you have it. A familyof 4 is considered below the poverty level if their income is less than $23,050. I know many hard working, socially contributing, personally moral people who fall well under the poverty level for their respective family size. They are in their current situation because of low wages or having to work multiple part time jobs to take care of their children. They are not drug addicts or alcoholics or gamblers or frivolous with their finances. Rather, they are working the best they can within a system that can trap a person just as easily as it can advance them.

Our residents at Samaritan House meet the criteria for living in poverty, but they are part of a larger family that deals with it every day. This is not a call merely asking for donations or help. Rather, its a reminder that we all are in several boats together whether we are homeless or housed or working or unemployed. The need for empathy and charity toward one another is only surpassed by the frightful prospect that many of us are living paycheck to paycheck.

Poverty and homelessness are communal and societal problems that affect millions and they require societal and communal solutions!

Saturday, July 27, 2013


A lot can happen over a slice of pizza. Our dining room is often much more than a place for our residents to grab a bite to eat. It's a gathering center for conversation and a hub for catching up on all the news of the Valley as well as the rest of the country. An epicenter of laughter and contemplation all wrapped up in the form of a mini-cafeteria.

Recently, I had stopped by for lunch and had the pleasure of talking with one of our residents who was preparing to leave Samaritan House. The woman I spoke with was a single mother of two young  children and was preparing to move out into her own permanent housing. She had been staying with us for the past couple months and was ready to get back on her feet because we offered her the opportunity to save her finances and focus on some issues that were preventing her from having a home. She shared and the whole room was encouraged by her story.

I finished my lunch and plodded back to my office, determined to write about something that would inspire world peace or solve homelessness or at least earn me a congratulatory letter from Five Guys Burgers (my favorite). I sat in my chair, staring at my screen begging an idea to plop down from the nether-regions of the universe. Nada. Nothing. There had to be something I could muse about.

Data and statistics are always riveting so I sifted through a few projects we are working on and realized that presenting the information was slightly more thrilling than watching paint dry or any number of professional golf tournaments. It's not that the work is unimportant, but sometimes presenting this information can be challenging and due to the massive amount of pizza nestled in my stomach, I was in no shape to be creative. Ugh.

Then I recalled the conversation with the woman at our shelter and I felt very dumb for not immediately realizing the importance of what was happening with her. She was not going to be homeless in just a few days and life was changing for her and her kids. I couldn't believe it never occurred to me that this was a very noteworthy accomplishment. You see, sometimes we get so bogged down with meetings and papers and logistics, that we miss the forest through the trees.

The human element of what Samaritan House does has always, and will always be the catalyst for true change in people's lives. We do more than move around figures and crunch numbers and make appointments. We help moms and kids stay off the street while they transition into housing. Our staff works very hard to foster dignity and our case managers are relentless in their pursuit of assisting our residents better their stations in life. Our director is constantly raising funds to keep the lights on and food in the fridge, as well as overseeing all the day to day dealings of the shelter.

There is a definite progression that we clamor to see in our resident's lives and it feels good to see changes even if its over a slice of pizza.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

An Overdue Conversation

Homelessness is a multilayered issue.There are certain elements that are difficult to miss unless a person is intentionally ignoring the obvious. We often make assumptions toward people based on their physical situation. A man with a bundled up sleeping bag and a few boxes sleeping in an ally might be homeless. A woman walking down the street with a shopping cart filled with personal items could also be homeless. But these examples are extreme and often mask a larger issue that needs to be discussed: mental illness.

While chronic homelessness (refusing services) is easier to spot that episodic homelessness (when a person is suddenly homeless due to an unexpected event), there are facets at work which require deeper investigation as to why a person would choose to live a homeless lifestyle. What if choice was not really a viable option because the person was unable to make a rational decision?

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 20-25% of the homeless population suffers from some form of severe mental illness. In comparison, only 6% of Americans are severely mentally ill. The chasm and disparity in numbers are staggering and an indicator that addressing mental health is paramount to addressing the overall issue of homelessness. When a person is mentally ill, certain essential functions of their life are unable to be carried out, causing difficulty and challenges not encountered by other people. Social interaction is effected and interpersonal decision making can lead to dangerous consequences.

If a person is unable to mentally manage their life, then those close to them suffer, whether they are a spouse, sibling, or children. Mental illness does not yield isolated results. In a survey by the US Conference of Mayors, 20% of cities listed better coordination with mental health service providers as one of the top three items needed to combat homelessness.

As Samaritan House endeavors on its 5 year plan to end homelessness in Kalispell, please be aware that this battle cannot be waged alone and we are asking you for help in unraveling the issue of homelessness in all its complexities. Mental illness is simply the beginning of a conversation that is long overdue.

-statistics courtesy of National Coalition for the Homeless

Friday, July 19, 2013

Back to the Future

Right now I am out of the office for a few days. Through the advancements of modern technologies and space-aged science, I was able to write a few articles and save them until I wanted to post them today. Ah… the joys and benefits of an intelligent, opposable-thumbed society! I suppose I could spout off in a direction that applauds science and our greatest achievements, but I would rather focus on another element: the concept of the future. I never would have done this if I didn’t believe the future was an accessible avenue for success.

Many people operate from a default-setting that views the future as a viable thing. We don’t give it a second thought because we believe it will yield to our expectations. It’s a comforting feeling when events that have not happened are anticipated instead of dreaded. When a person feels entitled to a positive future, an element of hope is involved. No matter what the current situation is like, things will get better. This is an amazing concept that often is lost or simply taken for granted because it happens with such regularity.

I am not minimizing the difficult times that hover on the periphery or float among the horizon. There are certainly times that present themselves when we can be leery of what’s ahead of us. But, have you ever lived in an emotional or physical state that expected failure or disaster? I know people who have lost all faith in the future because they either believe things will never change and their history of frustration and disappointment will continue, or they are so mired in a seemingly hopeless situation they see no positive outcome. Their perception becomes a reality they fear they will never escape.

At Samaritan House, one of the ways we rely on helping people grasp hope is by treating them with dignity while assisting them with tangible steps to correct past mistakes. Our staff does everything they can to provide an environment that provides them with the chance to collect themselves and refocus; the past is the past and we want our residents to be in a position where they can anticipate good things. Your donations are an instrumental part of our process. We are appreciative and grateful for all you do.

The future should be enjoyed by everyone.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The I of the Beholder

Perspective is a great thing because it allows a person to survey a situation and then make an assessment about what is happening. Two people can view or participate in an identical experience, yet they might extract different meanings or conclusions. The interesting thing about perspective is that it is a compilation of numerous things and it evolves as time goes on; a person’s background and history are two key outliers influencing the way reality is perceived.

If a person has grown up in poverty and understands what it feels like to be hungry, then a hot meal on a cold, February evening might mean something different to a person who eats the same thing on the same day but has never missed a meal. Same caloric intake and ingredients but a different appreciation. And this is not limited to food. The principle is the same no matter what scenario is involved or what type of person is included into the mix.

The things that many of us take for granted because they are a sedentary part of our lives might be the very things that others are overly appreciative for. My challenge for all of us is to reexamine our existence and take an inventory of what we have. I would surmise that we all have numerous things and items in common but the one great distinguishing factor is the level of appreciation. Thankfulness should not be dependent on the lack of something; should we only be grateful when we experience something that supplements a need?

Every day I am an environment where people have few possessions, yet a perception of the world that makes me call into account my grumblings and dissatisfactions with things that have only become a nuisance because I have never been without them.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Ghost of Tom Joad

Inspiration comes in different forms on different days.

I recently finished a book that I hadn't read in along time and it reminded me that the issues of homelessness and poverty have been haunting America for a long time. The culture of homelessness has been written about and examined and is inextricably wound into the fabric of this nation's history. We spend so much time and energy dissecting the system perpetuating homelessness, its easy to marginalize the actual faces it entraps. Statistics often replace the people and data under-represents the stories.

Sometimes by default, we highlight the tragedy associated with homelessness. The narratives of heartbreak and depression and despair are often front and center and should not be forgotten or neglected. But every day I see a different drama unfold in the same way it has been unfolding for decades; there is a type of camaraderie among our residents that is only known by them. The trials and tribulations they've endured breed a fellowship that unintentionally excludes anyone who has never been hungry or worried about making rent. There is a communion between them reserved only for the broken-spirited. For those who mend themselves and then extend a hand to others who have given up.

I write this not to patronize or even diagnose what I see everyday. Rather, I am inspired by the sense of hope and dogged determination so many of our residents demonstrate. The way in which they sacrifice so much energy to encourage one another reminds me that we all are just a small piece of a much larger picture. There are elements of each one of us wrapped up in the greater human story of life. I am thankful that our residents teach me things every day.

"Whenever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Whenever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there... I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an'-I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build-why, I'll be there."    - The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Can a Right be Wrong?

Everyone wants to be right. I haven't met many people who pride themselves upon their ability to be perpetually wrong about everything (apologies to Socrates, whom I never met).  Human nature revels in its ability to find correctness and truth in matters that are important. Being "right" in this context implies a verb, adjective, or adverb... actively seeking a verifiably correct solution to a question, dilemma, or curiosity.

But there is another kind of right. This one is a noun and we, as Americans, hold these rights dear to our hearts because they distinguish us from other people who might not have the same ones as we do. This type of right is defined as, "a just claim or title, whether legal, prescriptive, or moral (" This version of the word opens a whole new conversation as to what people are entitled to have under the auspices of being an American. We just celebrated our national Independence Day and it inspired me to think about some of the rights we cling to and hold as paramount. The rights that transcend political partisanship and religious or philosophical discussion. I'm referring to the basic rights of any person in any state in any country in any continent.

On a basic level, I argue we have the right to food, shelter, and safety. There are more things we could quibble about, but I'm keeping this at a generic level and not delving into specific politics or other systemic structures. I believe all people, everywhere, are entitled to these three things and there is nothing that should ban or cause them to forfeit these rights. Hopefully, these do not seem too sensational or illogical and we can agree these (in some form) rights to be universal.

But how do we apply these rights to the homeless? I don't think there would be too much opposition when discussing food or safety. These aren't absurd concepts snatched from the cosmos. Food and personal safety are instrumental to imminent and long-term survival. If a person is unable to eat or is subject to uninhibited physical violence, then death is an outcome that is inevitable. Where the discussion gets mired down and involved, is when the idea that housing, as a basic right, is proposed. It makes sense in our heads, but does that mean it translates to reality?

Does every person on this planet have a right to housing? Are all Americans entitled to have place to shelter them from the elements? Does every person in Montana automatically deserve a place to live? Should each individual in Kalispell be included in this conversation? How would it even work and what measures would have to be taken?

The question revolves around the principle that people deserve housing because it is earned or because it is innate. And if housing is only a result of merit, then what qualifies and what disqualifies a person? Who gets to make that decision?  A lack of housing becomes a punishment. However, if food was ever withheld from a person for punitive reasons, then there would be an outcry of injustice. Now imagine if it was a family of 5 who was denied food. If housing is a right, then who is held accountable for the large number of unhoused people in this country?

If not, then what is an acceptable alternative?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Heat Index and a Plea for Auga!

"At least it’s a dry heat."

I've heard that a few times since moving to Montana in 1996. I'm not a meteorologist and, while I wish I had the keen insight of Mark Heyka, it’s not happening for me. All that truly resonates when I walk out of my office are the radiating heat ripples that try and fool me into thinking there is a puddle gathering in the edge of the parking lot; I will never reach this mirage but it will perpetually be there. I am not comforted by dry heat even though I grew up in an environment of gross humidity. I am an equal-opportunity hater when it comes to the power of the sun in regards to making door handles too hot to touch or pavement too blistering for bare feet.

Imagine if you were out in the sun all day. This is a reality for our residents in the shelter because they are gone from the building during the hours of 9am and 4 pm. Since many businesses have no patience for loitering, those who are homeless often spend countless hours outside, forced to brace whatever the elements might toss their way, heat or cold. Rarely is there a respite from the heat that saturates the Valley.

Now, imagine that you were in the constant heat without anything to drink. The current heat wave engulfing us has dangerous effects. Heat stroke and dehydration are just two of the potential hazards the homeless face every day. These are preventable conditions that can be remedied with water.

People often ask what donations would benefit Samaritan House. This time of year we could really use bottled water for our residents. If you are interested in donating water, please drop it off at our shelter or call Kassi at 257-5801.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Homeless Connect (A Limited Photo Anthology)

Time has a way of helping people revise history to suit their beliefs. Past events and circumstances can be reshaped and molded to fit current expectations even if the new product does not fit properly but still allows everyone to assume everything works fine.

Project Homeless Connect was a success and served nearly 700 men, women, and families. Over 30 different social service providers joined together to try and strengthen the community by addressing the needs of Kalsipell's homeless.

But the needs are still many and we, at Samaritan House, are still doing all we can to live in the present. We acknowledge that a great service was provided but there is an ongoing problem that requires immediate action and urgency. Please continue to partner with us in a way that we can rewrite history by making the present livable for so many other people.