Friday, August 30, 2013

The Power of Choice

Expectations are an interesting thing. They usually stem from a belief that we think a situation will turn out a certain way based on information or routine. If something happens enough times, then we suspect the same (or similar) result will occur because it makes sense. This applies to everything in life, whether we realize it or not. In nature, we expect the sun to rise in the east and set in the west. We expect winter to be cold and summer to be warm. We expect the Dallas Cowboys to be Super Bowl contenders before the season starts but then fail miserably because they are perpetually over-hyped and overrated. These types of expectations don't require much faith because they are impersonal and regulated by laws of nature.

When dealing with people, though, expectations can be dangerous at times because they unfold from stereotypes that are more damaging than realistic. We paint people with broad generalizations by saying "these people always..." or "those people usually..." We don't allow for individualism within a group because we round everyone up together and stereotype them. Sadly, this is common and its comfortable because it makes life easier by allowing us to see the world in a way that excuses our prejudices by not permitting others the freedom to be their true selves.

Because I work with the homeless, I often hear people get riled up because they think that all homeless people are looking for handouts and are uninterested in working. I know this is one of those false stereotypes based on misconception and negative portrayals but sometimes its difficult to get others to see this. The majority of the people at Samaritan House want to work. They want to provide for themselves and their families. They desire an opportunity over a handout. That's why I was very excited when I came across a story in the national media that drives this point home.

I've linked it to this article so you can read it in its entirety, but here's a summary: a homeless man in New York was given the choice between some free cash and the opportunity for an education and the gentleman met my expectations. Please take a second and check it out.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Rosa's Story

Rosa's alarm beeps, cutting through the silence to remind her that another day has arrived without her consent. The days never stop coming no matter what her circumstances are. They are indifferent towards her as she groggily washes her face, scarfs down some Pot Tarts, and then brushes her teeth. Her mom left for work two hours before she woke up but she knows the drill by now. She's the oldest 9 year old in her apartment complex.

Rosa's school is only two blocks away but today it feels like the Bataan March. She is the new girl in a classroom full of kids who have known each other for years and bonded over baseball and soccer and dance lessons. Rosa just moved from the shelter and she has nothing in her room save a bed and dresser with some Legos stashed under her pajamas in the third drawer down. But constructing skyscrapers out of building blocks is the last thing on her mind on this day.

Rosa sits in the second seat back in the middle row of chairs. Avoiding the teacher's gaze is her primary concern and she wants nothing more than to show the other kids that she is smart and funny and has an infectious laugh that lit up the dining room at the shelter. But Rosa is scared because she worries her clothes stand out for all the wrong reasons. The bell rings and the first recess expels her from the comfortable structure of classroom anonymity to the social caste system of the playground.

Rosa eats her lunch slowly and methodically because she remembers the days when it was a privilege and not a right. Other kids complain and crow about what's on their plates while Rosa scrunches up her nose and joins in to avoid persecution even though she is over the moon, inwardly, about the potatoes, salad, and chicken teriyaki. Thankfulness is forced to coexist with peer pressure.

Rosa returns home and knows that she only has an hour until her mom will join her after work. They will talk about their days over a newly purchased thrift store table and a plate of pasta. Soon it is time for Rosa to clean up and get ready for bed so she can begin the cycle all over again. She drifts off to sleep where she finds herself equal with all the kids she spent the day with. She's not totally sure what 'affordable housing' means but its something her mom is concerned about. Her mom never says anything directly to her, but Rosa knows that if she doesn't get more hours at the grocery store, they will have to move back to the shelter.

Rosa's alarm beeps.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Faux Friends

I have a confession to make that will probably not win me many friends with today's techno-savvy, socially connected, globally personified generation. I'm not a huge fan of social media and the whole concept of cyber friendship, but I will admit value and merit can be extracted from these institutions. I promise I'm not some old curmudgeon grasping at my Brother 3000 Word Processor with white knuckles as the age of the typewriter sinks faster than the Titanic. Honestly, there are some incredible advantages to living in a world with immediate access to information.

On the flip side, I really do not care what 800 people ate for breakfast or believe its a necessity that people must comment on what the contestants of Big Brother are doing at any given moment. Being alive today is a double edged sword. A glass both half full and half empty. My biggest beef, however, is the whole idea of socially constructed "friendship." We have substituted the word friend for spectator. We spend an absurd amount of time watching the lives of others without interacting with them in a significant way. Intimacy is limited to whether a person feels up to hitting the 'like button.'

I will admit I am prejudiced because of my background. I grew up as a Generation Xer who thrived in social environments tied to reading people by  speaking with them on an individual level. Personal conversations were expected because that was the only way to determine if a person was real or a phony. I won't elaborate on this but if you have any questions then just rent (what I grew up doing) or download (what my kids do) Reality Bites and all your inquiries will be satisfied. We have become desensitized  to the ills of life by becoming over-saturated to their existence.

Google 'homelessness' and you can spend hours scrolling through images of people in their most desperate times. But then what? Click on to your other screen tab and either finish your round of Fruit Ninja or comment on your Facebook page about how people need to get involved? But how do we get involved in real and tangible ways? Do we participate or merely inform others who inform others who inform others without ever actually doing anything?

Combating the issues that cause homelessness requires more than viewing-inspired commentary. At Samaritan House, we are thankful for those true friends who invest in what we do on a real and tangible level. So many of you prepare meals and volunteer at the shelter and fundraisers. You support our residents by answering the call for donations and contributions. The concept of friendship is deep and lasting and we could not do anything without your help.

If you would like to become more involved, please call and we will be happy to let you know what you can do to help change the lives of others. Now, please forgive me as I need to go... There is a really cute YouTube video of a kitten playing with yarn that I need forward to a few people.

Monday, August 19, 2013

To Panhandle or Not to Panhandle

Okay, this is a very contentious topic and elicits passionate feelings and responses from people representing all different walks of life and persuasions. It is not as simple as proponents or opponents convey and it divides households and town-hall meetings like nothing since the War Between The States. And while some people are indifferent toward panhandling homeless people, most of us in the Valley have formed at least a smattering of an opinion.

Now, here's the kicker for this article.

I'm not going to come out in favor for or against panhandling. It is an issue that deserves more attention than this blog can offer and it requires a discussion, not a diatribe. So, for all intents and purposes, my goal is to address why a person would panhandle in the first place. I realize there are "professional" panhandlers who rake in some serious bank during their shifts at various locations across the massive expanse of this nation. I'm bracketing these individuals because they are not homeless and this is more of a racket for them than a necessary evil to survive.

When I write about panhandlers, I am referring to those who are homeless and genuinely in need of some cash. For me, the issue is not so much the mechanics and logistics of being homeless; the dilemma lies at the heart of what is causing the person to stand with a sign and beg total strangers for spare change or any 'little bit that helps.' The degradation attached to asking for money might only be outweighed by the humiliation of what the person returns to when he or she is finished for the day.

A shack or bridge. Maybe a shelter or camp?

The conditions driving a person to panhandle must be deplorable enough to prompt that person to shed their dignity long enough to be gawked and sneered at for long periods of time. No one wants to panhandle and the issue lost in the shuffle is the discussion about what it takes to eliminate the idea of panhandling for a person. When affordable housing and economic opportunity are available, then chances a person will panhandle decrease. Educational access that can lead to gainful and adequate employment is crucial. Business owners and law enforcement personnel are spared from having to pick a side that often unfairly paints them as inhumane or uncaring.

At Samaritan House, we are seeking viable options to eliminate homelessness in the Valley, which will lead to a monumental decrease in the need for people to panhandle. We're too busy trying to create tangible solutions than to get bogged down in arguments.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Homelessness in the 1600s

Our country has a deep and rich heritage of all sorts of values. We became the nation we are today after a few centuries of carving out a unique identity based on how we would separate ourselves from other countries. It's interesting (to me, at least) to see how far we have evolved as a society. Many of the problems and issues the original settlers faced have been eliminated and long-solved. I'm not sure of the last time anyone died of survey and, to my knowledge, today's log cabins are a bit sturdier than the Jamestown versions.

We've waged wars and grown industry. We've cultivated democracy and invented the Snuggie. As Americans, we have addressed and solved numerous issues that plagued or disrupted our lives at one point or another. But there are some issues that have baffled and confounded us since the near beginning. One of these problems is homelessness, which was first mentioned in written documents in 1640 (136 years BEFORE we became our own nation). There was a story about a family in the northeast who was rendered without a dwelling habitat due to natural disaster. So there you have it... homelessness has been just as much a part of our history as Manifest Destiny and the Articles of Confederation.

In the earliest years of our nation's history, it was believed that if a person was homeless, then it was God's will as a punishment for a life that was most likely morally reprehensible. There was not a great deal of compassion in many circles because the person homeless was simply reaping what they sowed. I like to think these attitudes have changed but I still encounter the occasional person who is condescending toward the homeless for this same reason. They believe it is inconceivable that a person who is homeless did not "do something" or make some poor decisions along the way that resulted in their condition.

Never mind the fire or flood.

Or medical bills.

Or sudden loss of employment.

Death in the family.

Fortunately, I think we have evolved enough as a society to move on from this archaic and socially Darwinistc perspective. There are numerous reasons a person can find them self without a fixed or permanent address and Celestial Retribution is not the answer. So, what is the solution?

Since homelessness has been around since before the inception of the United States, is there any reason to think we can find a permanent solution? I mean, if its been around this long then doesn't that mean that we need to accept it and just try to do what we can to regulate it?

Not even close. At Samaritan House, we are working on a five year plan to end homelessness in Kalispell and we believe that this not only can be done, but it must be done. We are hoping to write a new page in this country's history.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Great Expectations

Volunteers are crucial to the daily operation of Samaritan House. Recently, a young lady 16 years of age helped us out and these are her words.

“When my aunt asked me to visit her work at the Kalispell Samaritan House, I was a little apprehensive. It was the idea of a new place, with people I don't know, in a situation that I wasn't sure about. But, seeing that my aunt loved her work, I decided to go. When I first arrived at Samaritan House, I was pleased to find how clean it was. Now, admittedly, my experience with homeless shelters is extremely limited. But, Kalispell Samaritan House put the one other shelter I had seen to shame. It's large and well lit and feels welcoming.

Right away I got to meet some very friendly people. After that I warmed right up to this new place. I was my aunt's shadow for a bit as I got to look around and meet new people. As far as residents went, I hadn't been sure what to expect. In the end, I found that everyone I met was pleasant and polite. It made me happy to see several small families and that they had a nice place to stay. I had the privilege of serving the residents their dinner, goulash (Though, really, I'd call it noodles in meat sauce, the goulash I know is nasty). I was surprised to find how kind and polite they were when I served them. Not that I expected them to be drunken bums who flipped the bird, but people are so seldom polite these days about saying simple things like "please" and "thank you." Especially to people who serve food. Seriously, don't tick off the people who prepare your food.

Anyway, I loved getting to experience the different senses of humor that everyone had. I was laughing out loud seeing people tease my aunt, or lament that that day was her last working at Samaritan House. After dinner, dessert was served and there were calls of, "Awesome movie at 7:00 sharp!" And I helped clean up. As I went to get a vacuum for a man needing to do his chores, he began to tell me a story. He told me where he had worked before, and how good the pay was. Not an exciting story, really, but I was happy to hear it. That story got me thinking, everyone living in the Samaritan House had a story to tell. They probably weren't all bunnies, and love, and unicorns, but life had come along and kind of slapped them in the face.

I could see residents really getting on their feet again, there were ads asking for paid help, and people expressing interest in them. There were rooms for rent for people finally getting paid enough to afford it. I left a short time later, happy with my experience at Samaritan House. The staff and residents were very kind, the facility was nice, I got to help people, and I got to see a positive place that people could go for help.

May the Kalispell Samaritan House Live Long and Prosper.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Parting Shot

People are always coming and going at Samaritan House and sometimes they will leave a note of encouragement. Recently, one of our residents departed after a lengthy stay and left this note, which is shared with his permission.

  To Whom it may concern, My story with the Samaritan House has been one of the best experiences of my life! I started out in Kalispell at Pathways to go through medically supervised drug withdrawl. I came from Livingston, Montana, specifically for that reason. My parents asked that I try and find a place to stay (in Kalispell) so I could be away from certain influences back home and Samaritan House took me into their shelter. 

I stayed in the shelter for three months which was very generous as the max time is usually one month. The staff were very helpful. After that, Cary (case manager) let me rent a studio room which I stayed in for over a year and I'm proud to say I've been drug and alcohol-free the entire time due to my will to be clean and the support of the wonderful staff. I would like to thank Kent and the adminstration for putting up with my late rent at times, and for understanding. 

I would like to thank very much Billy, Kassi, Chris, Carrie, Kent, Lillian, Robbie, Korky, and any staff member I forgot to mention. I WOULD NOT HAVE MADE IT without your help and support.  

Thanks so very much!!! (name witheld)

Monday, August 5, 2013

Back to School

When I was a kid, I hated this time of year. The days seemed a little shorter and the autumn chill crept in little by little when the sun went down. It was a reminder that summer was nearing its end and school was hovering about in the not so distant future. Like most kids, I felt about as happy about going to school as I did about going to the dentist (disclaimer: my hometown dentist was not nearly as capable and pleasant as the dentists here in the Valley).

As I aged and matured and moved on from Def Leppard and Whitesnake to Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, I began to realize that school was not the internment camp I made it out to be. Sure, it was rigid and structured and really disrupted my sleeping schedule, but it was important in other areas. Even at its worst it was a means to an end. If I actually buckled down, I could catapult myself into the lofty realms of community college and then the unthinkable...

I was the first member of my family to graduate from college and I will be the first person to admit that a college education is not the only way to gainful, lucrative, and fulfilling employment. It's merely one way, but its a way that many of Montana's children will not have access to because they never even make it to the conclusion of high school. Homeless Children in America reports,

"The difference in lifetime earnings between those with a high school degree and those without is, on average, approximately$200,000. Researchers have calculated the additional costs of education necessary to achieve higher high school graduation ratesand the increases in amounts paid back to society in the form of taxes and the like. 

The results suggest that net lifetime increasedcontributions to society associated with high school graduation are about $127,000 per student. If we assume on the basis of their test scores a high school graduation rate of less than 25%, then the 431 homeless high school students in Montana, as a group, will lose $65 million in lifetime earnings and society will lose $41 million in potential contributions from them" 

Here are some common obstacles that prevent children in Montana from staying in school because they lack some, or all of these basic resources. So please, as the summer draws to a close and your children prepare to head back to classroom, please remember there are many kids who will not have this opportunity and the effects on their life can be staggering unless things change.

Reported Barriers to Enrollment
1. Eligibility for Homeless Services
2. Immunizations
3. Other Medical Records
4. Other Barriers
5. School Selection
6. School Records
7. Transportation

These are things we often take for granted because they are accessible for us, but these simple procedures and matters of logistics can prove to be quite unattainable for homeless children in Montana.

Friday, August 2, 2013

NBA Player Stomps Homeless Man

I normally don't like re-posting stories from other sources. However, I was reading a few different articles when I came across this story on Yahoo! news. The story focuses on a professional basketball player who makes a very comfortable living and is, quite possibly a multi-millionaire. 
"Houston Rockets forward Terrence Jones had a rather nondescript rookie season, but after a solid showing in the NBA Summer Leagues in Orlando earlier in July, he and his young Rockets team were probably hoping to make waves heading into a crucial 2013-14 campaign. Allegedly, Jones is off to a very poor start in terms of breaking into the public’s consciousness.
KATU is reporting that Jones was arrested after allegedly stomping on the leg of a homeless man after leaving a bar in Portland on Wednesday morning. Jones, who is a Portland native, was reported to have been observed by a police sergeant in the wee hours as shouting down the homeless man before kicking the victim’s leg. From the station's news site:
While watching the group walk away from the bar, the sergeant observed a man, later identified as Jones, walk by a doorway where two homeless men were sleeping, according to police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson.
The sergeant said Jones yelled, “Wake up,” then raised his leg and stomped down on one of the man’s legs. The men were sleeping in the doorway of 114 Northwest 3rd Avenue.

 The victim, 46-year-old Daniel John Kellerher, received a minor leg injury and did not require immediate medical attention, Simpson said."

Some people have absolutely no value for human life or concept of what it means to treat people with dignity, which is a key part of our mission statement at Samaritan House. We feel our motto reflects the heart and ethos of the Flathead Valley and we hope to mirror the compassion and empathy we see around us. 

I know that one individual does represent an entire community or profession (Portland is an amazing city and there are hundreds of professional athletes who don't go around curb-stomping the homeless). But we do live in a polarized society that often attributes worth to status. Prestige and wealth have, historically, been wielded as a double-edged sword to justify the detrimental treatment of the poor. I like to think things are changing and we are evolving toward a better understanding of what it means to care for those in need of our help instead of crippling them.

I like to hold out that we can make a difference in a positive way because we recognize every person deserves to be treated with dignity and equality.