Friday, September 27, 2013

Friday Night Lights

I recently finished watching a series (thank you Netflix) about a Texas high school football coach and the trials and tribulations related as he juggled his job and his family. He was perpetually stressed out and on the verge of being overwhelmed by playing the role of mentor, coach, and father to half the boys in his town. He had a catch phrase he would end each practice with and it became the rallying cry of his team: "Clear eyes, full heart... Can't lose."

Yeah, I know. It's cheesy and jingoistic and it makes for great television when there's dramatic music tugging at your heart strings while you're actually watching it. But the more I thought about this phrase, it began to carve a niche into my brain. I broke it down into its two main components and realized the complimentary implications were actually quite brilliant.

Clear eyes. When we see things clearly we are unencumbered by distractions and the hubris of life that seek to cloud the truth around us. If our eyes are truly clear, then the overwhelming reality of what is around us has no choice but to make us respond. Clarity of vision means we sometimes have to make a conscious effort to see straight and not be blinded by the convenience of indifference or willful ignorance. There are problems that need addressing and clear eyes imply we can focus on what needs to be accomplished. Things get ratcheted up a whole other level when we combine this mantra with what comes next.

Full heart. Having a full heart means we embrace the difficulties plaguing our lives and look for solutions based in empathy and humanity. A heart cannot break unless it has reached its maximum capacity for feeling. When is the last time we cared deeply enough about something that we were heartbroken if it didn't happen? Having a full heart means we are motivated by the need to be part of a greater solution to help others. We stretch ourselves to the point of being uncomfortable unless things change.

Can't lose. We live in a world of progress reports, employee evaluations and measurable results. We clamor for perfection because we do not want to be bypassed by others. I think we get so caught up in winning, that we forget it might be better to play as a team instead of focusing on breaking individual records. In the fight to end homelessness in Kalispell, Samaritan House implores you to join with our vision and our heart.

Together, we will not lose.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Middle Road

Middle school is an interesting concept. Back in my day it was referred to as 'junior high,' and I'm fairly certain it was the beginning of the end of youthful innocence. The older a student becomes, the less he or she relies on the word of others and personal opinions are formed based on experience and not inference. I like middle school because the kids seemingly live in a state of brutal honesty and they will tell you what they think without blushing. It's unnervingly refreshing.

Recently, I was talking with a group of 7th graders about homelessness and I was curious about what their perceptions would be. While their parents might sugar-coat answers based on politics or societal pressure, I knew these kids would let me know what they thought with little to no filter. And even thought I wasn't worried about swaying their opinions, I decided not to tell them that I work with the homeless.

The main topic we broached was the causes of homelessness and the majority of the students thought that people were homeless because life had dealt them a bad hand. Unemployment and medical bills were mentioned most often, while substance abuse and crime were not brought up at all. I found this interesting because I am so used to having discussions about homelessness where the beginning point centers on those latter issues rather than the former ones.

These kids believed that, of course, a person could make poor decisions that might lead to homelessness, but the overwhelming essence of the conversation kept moving from results of homelessness to what can be done to prevent it. It occurred to me that this current generation has something that has eluded their predecessors: problem-solving skills that have been grafted into their very fabric of being. They don't approach situations or problems from a perspective that things are too difficult to solve. It makes sense to them that homelessness does not have to be a permanent human condition. It might be a rough road to hew, but it can be done.

Instead of the pessimism and cynicism of older generations, I picked up on a refreshing sense of practicality. They weren't buying into partisan lines that focused on politicized solutions; they were more concerned if a single mom could afford groceries than they were if she voted a certain way. I was humbled and encouraged by the conversation.

Now, if I could only burn my middle school photos.

Friday, September 20, 2013

I am the Problem

At the turn of the 20th century lived a British journalist named GK Chesterton. Legend has it that one of the larger newspapers in London posed an open question to its readers, asking "What is the greatest problem in the world today?" Chesterton's submittal was brief and to the point:

Dear Sir,
I am.
- GK Chesterton

We live in a culture where people are quick to pass the buck and shift blame and responsibility to others very quickly. We often remain bystanders in situations when we could make a positive difference and it seems more convenient to remain uninvolved in the lives of others if we are given a choice. I don't think most people necessarily ignore the plight of others out of malice, so here are a few of my theories as to why people remain part of the problem without ever becoming part of a solution.

1. Fear of reprisal: Honestly, I think some people are afraid of helping others because there is an underlying fear that their kindness might be rewarded with culpability if things go a bit haywire. America is a place where we love to sue each other and why should a person reach out to assist someone else if the action leads to a lawsuit because the person being helped takes advantage?

2. Feeling overwhelmed: A person can be overwhelmed if they look around and take notice of all the problems in their environment. Good intentions get paralyzed because there are simply so many issues that need addressed. Taking inventory of what needs to be done ebbs into a withdrawal from action because there is a feeling that nothing can help.

3. Not knowing what is needed: Sometimes we're just not aware of the issues in our own backyard. We have subscriptions to 20 different news sources detailing the ails of countries thousands of miles away but we don't realize how dire things can be for people living two streets over.

4. We feel under-qualified: This might be why the majority of people do not help others. We don't believe we have the skills or ability to help. Fortunately, this is an easy myth to dispel. Helping others can can be as easy as providing a listening ear or making a donation of time or finances; Volunteering a helping hand to paint a room or sharing a conversation over a meal.

Our needs at Samaritan House are vast and perpetual. There is never a day in which we cannot use help of some kind, whether it be finances or practical help. Over the years, so many people have invested in our mission to house the homeless and provide them with dignity and the resources to carry on with their lives in difficult situations. For that, we are truly appreciative and grateful of the generosity shown.

If you are reading this and find yourself in one of the above-mentioned categories, please know that you do not need to remain there. Becoming part of the solution is easier than you think!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A House is not a Home

Ever wondered why homelessness is not called "houselessness?" The root of both words are nouns. Neither are plural. It's not like the word homelessness rolls off the tongue with poetic splendor. I might even argue houselessness has more of an alliterative ring to it. I suppose in the grand scheme of life, this is really a non-issue and I'm just quipping over words. But it got me thinking, which is quite the task during college football season.

House seems to imply a physical structure: nails, wood, mortar, stone, electricity and a whole lot of other things I am confused by when I visit Home Depot. A home is impersonal and lacks intimacy or tradition. It's another name for an empty building which is why people go house-hunting. There is no sense of history reverberating through the halls. No scuff marks tracking up the floors or smudged fingerprints staining windows.

Home implies an environment: security, longevity, happiness and a lot of other things I experience anytime I visit my favorite burger stand. It's another name for a lived-in place which is why you see tacky doormats proclaiming "Home Sweet Home." If you close your eyes and listen intently, you will hear echoes and laughter and footsteps bounding down staircases and hallways. There is a story attached that grows grander and larger with each passing day. Generations nestled into a common structure.

Hmm... Being homeless is not the same as being houseless.

When a person is homeless (as opposed to houseless), they lack more than a place to live. There is an absence of comfort that accompanies and plagues a person by robbing them of everything that is attached to a home. The emotional aspect is a searing reminder that not having a home is much more dire and horrific than not having a house.

Thank you for supporting Samaritan House and our ongoing mission to help people get through their difficult circumstances. Because of you and your generosity, we can keep the lights on and food in the pantries. Your help does not go unappreciated or unnoticed. It is heartbreaking to imagine a life without pleasant memories or an expectation that the future will be better than the past. Losing a home can be emotionally crippling and has far-reaching ramifications that eclipse just checking into and staying at a shelter. Being homeless entails losing more than just a mailing address.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Importance of a Fridge

My refrigerator has been on the fritz the past three days. I noticed something was wrong when I retrieved an ice-cold beverage that was actually ice-tepid. The annoyance factor was through the roof but I was more inconvenienced than angry. Its going to take the repair man a few days to fix the problem and besides the cost of some spoiled dairy products, I think my family will survive.

But I'm a bit of a whiner and I've been moping around, hemming and hawing, while I try and convince myself that its not the end of the world and the pangs in my belly are not a result of starvation, but simply because I've gone to microwaveable entrees with a vengeance reserved for the gods of Olympus. Again... besides the slight aggravation, I think I'll make it. I can file this ordeal under "First World Problems" like running out of my favorite extra dark coffee and having to settle for the nasty light blend. The problem will be remedied tomorrow with a slight adjustment and I'll be back to the winter wonderland temperature well-suited to cool my deli meats.

This little refrigeration hiccup has spurred some thought, however. How do other people survive without refrigerators? If a person is living on the street or in a camp, then keeping food cold can be a major issue that surpasses annoyance and leads to danger. Certain types of food must be chilled or the results can be disastrous or even deadly. Or what if a person can't afford to have their fridge fixed if it goes bad or won't keep the food at a safe level? My slight annoyance is a harsh reality for others who might have their electricity shut off because of a missed payment.

Sometimes we aren't overly grateful for our appliances because they are routinely counted upon to NOT malfunction. We only think of the hot water heater when it goes out. We rarely wake up every morning and are joyful that our car battery is charged. It's when these things aren't functioning that we realize how dependent we are upon having them around. Unfortunately, there are too many people out there who consider a fridge a luxury and not just a stainless steel magnet for our kids terrible (but cherished) school art projects.

I try and teach others to be empathetic but I'll admit that its a great deal easier to espouse morality lessons while drinking ice cold lemonade on a hot day.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Homeless, not Hopeless

Sometimes its easy to try and sum up life or circumstances in cute little phrases that often look better on refrigerator magnets than they do if we actually try to live them out. Working in social services must be the Mecca of catch phrases because there are mantras and phrases for (and on) everything.

Need a quick pick-me-up? No problem: there's a wall calendar with a few inspirational quips. Having a bad day and want to feel better? Easy as pie: just read the plaque with the sunset and pretty font displaying a motto that is worthy of making Oprah blush.

Now, I'm not disparaging these items that make people smile by simply existing next to the half-filled coffee cup on a desk somewhere. Inspiration comes in all shapes, sizes and flavors and I will not begrudge anyone the opportunity to be happy. My problem is that we too often memorize these auto-responses and blurt them out like they're Dr. Ron Jon's Magical Miracle Tonic. We can focus on the words and feelings so intensely that we neglect the intention of the message. One such message is one I've heard (and used) often at Samaritan House: Homeless, not Hopeless. I've said this a thousand times but seldom actually thought about it. The rest of the staff have no problem living this out and genuinely reflect it on a daily basis. As usual, I'm the one late to the game on this one.

I was driving today when I saw a bumpersricker that simply read, "HOPE," and it reminded me of our  phrase that is the title of this blog. I even uttered the catchphrase out loud a few times when the significance started to seep in and I was truly humbled by the message. Being homeless is usually only synonymous with hopelessness when people who aren't homeless are the ones doing the talking. Many of the homeless I've met over the years are not hopeless at all; quite often its the polar opposite and they display an optimism that could be a lesson for everyone. They understand that life can get better and hope is sometimes all they have so it becomes more than a theme. It becomes their reality. They live in expectation that things will improve.

I am often the one who pays lip service to this idea but doesn't buy into it. I am the one who needs to remember that reality is what we make of it. Once again, I can take a lesson from our residents.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Illegal to be Homeless?

Should it be illegal to be homeless?

South Carolina outlawed homelessness in certain parts of the capital city of Columbia. Anyone found sleeping outside will be taken 15 miles away and placed in a shelter or jailed if they refuse to comply. The logic behind these relocation centers is too improve the situation for local business owners and to cut down on crime.

 As small business owners on Main Street, we see firsthand how the homeless crisis is affecting the city,” Jessica and Joe Kastiner, owners of Paradise Ice, told the city council. “Please think of the everyday citizens, the revitalization of Columbia and the safety of everyone.

Interesting... I thought the homeless were citizens, too. 

I understand that business owners have a right to make a living and create conditions that maximize their opportunities. I can even empathize with them because my parents owned a small business when I was a kid. It's a difficult path and requires diligence, hard work, and a bit of luck. But I don't think the answer is shipping off people who are homeless. I don't think tossing them into the slammer is quite the right idea, either.

The article cites the cost of housing one person at a shelter at $22,000 for a year. To house someone in an apartment and include services like rehabilitation (which is NOT necessary for all homeless people), the cost is between $16-17,000. Hmm... Interesting.

But besides the economics of the situation, this is also a moral issue. Is it right to round people up and force them to leave an area if they are not bothering others? Are the aesthetics of a situation now the base foundation to dictate policies that infringe upon the rights of citizens? I grew up on the east coast and spent a lot of time in South Carolina as a child and young adult. The people are hospitable  and friendly and I don't want to stereotype the entire Palmetto State with this blog. 

But, for now, it seems that Montana is warmer place to live in some aspects.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Jobs for the Homeless

The difference between a job and a career has some subtle differences. The distinguishing contrast is that the former is a stop-gap until a person lands the later, which implies longevity and fulfillment and a better conversation at stodgy, dull cocktail parties that you never would have been invited to if you only had the former.

Over the years I have helped quite a few of our residents work on their resumes. I use the term ‘work’ very loosely because there is no real word that comes to mind to depict filling in decade-long gaps of employment. Too often, these missing years consisted of homelessness, chemical or drug abuse, and even jail time. These are not really the items that scream viably employable.

Many of the men and women I worked with were at a place in their lives where a career had been set on the back burner and what they sought was a job. Something to help them get to the next step. There is a damaging misconception that homeless people don’t want to work. I have found that most of the people at Samaritan House would gladly accept gainful, legal employment if they were offered a chance. But the stigmas attached to hiring the homeless often override the concerns of even the most benevolent of people.

I came across an article about hiring the homeless and found some helpful tips. These are courtesy of the North Carolina Coalition for the Homeless. 

What homeless people need, so to best get back into the work force, is a service that can help connect them to employers willing to help the homeless. This service would do three things:
  1. Find employers who are willing to hire the homeless. 
  2. Find homeless people who are able and available to work.
  3. Create a vetting process by which the best candidates for employment would be matched up with potential employers. 

It's really no different than any other job service, except that it deals with the specific needs and issues of the homeless. There are employers out there who are willing the hire the homeless, and there are homeless people who are qualified and are willing to work. But the unique situation of homelessness often makes it difficult for employers and potential employees to find each other. Most importantly, this service should be provided by real people getting involved and making things happen by getting to know both employers and potential employees. Automation would just not work in this situation.

For homeless people, it would be a great relief to know that the employer they are going to interview with has already been apprised of their homeless status, and that the issue of being homeless is not necessarily going to be an obstacle to employment. Homeless people can than relax enough so to focus on having a good job interview - developing a good relationship with the potential employer - and not wasting time worrying about how to dodge certain questions concerning their homeless situation.

Employers also have certain needs in hiring people, especially homeless people. I imagine most employers don't want to spend a great deal of time finding qualified applicants, neither do they have the time, usually, to learn all the specifics of how to deal with the different homeless types, trying to figure out which would be the best candidate for a job. It would work out much better for them to hear from a knowledgeable third party whom best to hire. And I'm sure most employers would appreciate being told up front by an expert in homelessness, how best to deal with the specific needs of homeless employees, such as scheduling and transportation issues for the employee.

Posting job openings on a board or web site, for any homeless person to find and attempt to apply for is problematic in a number of ways, which I don't think I have to elaborate on. This particular service requires a real person as liaison. Doing so would insure a much higher rate of success, homeless people would be more likely to apply for jobs and potential employers would not be discouraged by any potential negative experience.

Anyways... I thought these were very practical ideas that would help employers and the homeless.