Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Last week it was almost 60 degrees. The sun was out and I even heard a misguided bird dare to chirp a little because it was fooled into thinking it might be spring.

Today its blustery and snow flurries are whipping around on an 18 degree afternoon. Its gray outside and there are more than a few disappointed robins nestling back into their nests, wondering what happened.

When I moved to Montana in 1996, someone told me if I didn't like the weather that I should wait 5 minutes because it will change. They were right and I have since experienced meteorological anomalies only other Montanans would understand. I've seen snow in June and wore shorts and flip-flops in December. Chinooks and Arctic fronts have been introduced to my vocabulary. There are many variations of temperatures and weather under our Big Sky. I've grown used to the winters and revel in the summers. Something that has been instrumental to my adaptation is the concept of layering. Life became easier when I learned that dressing for a few different seasons (all in one day) was the key to survival.

This is common sense, really. From November till May, throw on a tee shirt, another shirt, a hoodie... And you are good to go. A wool cap is nice to have in case the temperature dips and always keep a spare coat or jacket in the back of your vehicle. Oh, don't forget the gloves. Once summer rolls around, we have a veritable thrift store's worth of assorted clothing compiled in the back seat. We clean it out, pack it up, and store it until the cooler months come calling again.

But what happens during the late fall and winter if you don't have adequate storage for your emergency clothes? Sometimes layering becomes less than a luxury and more of a necessity. When they are not living in our shelter, many of our residents have no place to keep their clothes. The only viable option is to either store the clothes they can't carry in makeshift hiding places around the city, or to pile on as much as they can and wear them. I've talked to several residents over the years and this is a common dilemma they face. Neither is preferable but both are realities.

Samaritan House provides a valuable service for the homeless because we afford them a place to keep their clothes warm, dry, and clean. And, they have adequate room to store things so they are not forced to store their clothes outside or have to wear everything at once. They can watch the news and local weather forecast to determine what they might need to wear during the day. Our shelter provides clothing at no cost for our residents who need it. We rely on your donations to stock our clothing pantry and are very appreciative when items are donated. The very things we discard can provide warmth and comfort to others. We also accept new items.

So, please remember to be thankful if you are able to throw your layered clothing in the trunk of your car. Its much easier than wearing it all at once.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


The pale hall light crept under the uneven closed door. Natalie often went to bed long before she was tired because restlessness was preferable to the beatings she endured when her husband's mood plunged from affable to angry. He wasn't an alcoholic and he didn't abuse drugs. He also was no longer the man she married 12 years earlier. Chronic unemployment after the death of their daughter altered their familial landscape forever and the numbness they both felt was demonstrated differently by each one.

She withdrew into a shell; Cut herself off from those wishing to help her struggle through the grief. There was little point in looking forward when all her dreams for the future would remain forever in the past. Days dragged on into weeks and months and before she knew it, years had passed. Things never got easier and time was not the great healer that poets lamented about. Life was not imitating art.

The physical violence began a few months after the accident. Initially, it was infrequent and he plead remorse after every encounter. But he never seemed sorry enough to stop and the more she endured, the greater his contempt for her grew. It was pointless to fight back and calling the police meant she would have to follow through with a plan that she was scared to implement. Anyway... He always said he was sorry.

The pale hall light was interrupted by the silhouette of a monster who abandoned decency long ago. Feigning sleep would offer no salvation on this night.

Two days later she found herself sitting on the edge of a bed at the shelter. In a room full of strangers, her's was just one more story of a woman who preferred homelessness to domestic violence. The beatings were not her fault but she was being punished. She fled a horrific scene and substituted freedom for safety. She refused to go back. Her life would take a different direction from this point forward, and she simply needed a little while to collect her thoughts and make a plan.

She had not been destitute and her employment résumé was impeccable. But she had no place to go. Her clothes were not tattered or dirty. She was not an addict nor a criminal. But her family lived two time zones away and her self-imposed shame kept her from reaching out to them for help.

So she sat on the edge of the bed.

Domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness in the United States. Some studies indicate that every 8 seconds a person is the victim of physical abuse. The psychological impact of embracing homelessness as an alternative to living in a violent environment must be unimaginable. Please take some time to see if there is anything you might be able to do to help with this epidemic.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hunger Games

I was driving around recently and passed a billboard that captured my attention. It said that one out of every five kids in America went to sleep hungry. These were not picky children who decided to skip dinner because they didn't like asparagus. They weren't stubborn boys and girls bent on winning a showdown with their parents by proving they could win the family's culinary standoff.

The message on the giant sign on the side of the road was not meant for over-analyzation or complex dissection. In simple black and white, the proclamation was heartbreakingly clear: 20% of American kids live in households where there is not an adequate amount of food to sustain their dietary needs. Like most other kids in this nation, they washed their faces, brushed their teeth, and then tucked themselves into bed for the night. But there was one glaring difference.

The gnawing in the pit of their stomach.

According to the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, more than 3.5 million people experience homelessness each year. And the the fastest growing segment of the homeless population are families with children. Recent numbers suggest that almost 40% of the total number of homeless people in America are families with kids.

In urban communities around the States, these families are homeless for an average of eight months. Or, just slightly less than an entire school year. Or, the full term of a pregnancy. I am a parent with 2 kids in school and life is challenging enough getting them to focus on their studies without the distraction of constant hunger or not having a fixed, stable place for them to live. The statistics indicate that 1 out of every 5 of their classmates, while not necessarily being homeless, still struggle by going to bed hungry.

This leads to a more restless state of sleep and makes for a more challenging school day. Students not receiving proper food and nutrition are more likely to be irritable and prone to lapses in concentration. The result is not only an empty stomach and bad mood, but a tangible disparity in their educational experience. When kids don't get enough to eat, the end result is more than a growling belly.

Food donations are always welcomed at Samaritan House. When you provide food for our residents or drop off items for our kitchen and pantry, you are doing more than simply feeding people. Because we serve families and children, the food you donate literally has the potential to change the course of our children's lives.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

An Individual Communal Problem

As Samaritan House continues its ongoing mission to end homelessness in the Flathead Valley, sharing information is crucial. It is important to reiterate that homelessness rarely the result of a single event. There are a number of factors that differ for each person or family. For most people, the most significant cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing paired with a drastic increase in the nation's poverty. Cost often rises above income and many find themselves homeless because its difficult find stable employment that pays a living wage. Others become homeless because they can't pay their medical bills or are unable to qualify for public assistance. Domestic violence, mental illness and addiction disorders may also cause a person to become homeless.

While most people equate homelessness with urban life, there are many homeless people in rural areas. The causes of homelessness are not contained within a city---they spread across the nation and affect everyone. Homelessness can be especially high in rural areas due to lack of resources and treatment facilities.

If you think a person became homeless due to laziness and unwillingness to find a job, think again. Many people think having a job will reverse a homeless person's situation. But this isn't always the case. In fact, many homeless people do work--they just don't make much money. Thirteen to 25 percent--and possibly more--of the urban homeless population are employed. Many homeless people are stuck working with temporary labor agencies that offer low pay and long hours. It can be challenging for a homeless person to land a career when he has no address or reliable means of communication.

Homelessness is increasing across the nation. When the economy is in a rut, homelessness increases. When jobs are scarce, expect to see more homeless people. Though it's a temporary condition, homelessness is a cycle that's difficult to break out of. Many people will become homeless at separate times in life for different reasons. In some ways, homelessness begets homelessness. If a person has a previous mental health disorder, being homeless will make it worse. Addictions are difficult to treat if you're dealing with life on the street. Homelessness is a vicious cycle.

An increase in affordable housing, job opportunities, and affordable health care are some ways to prevent people from becoming homeless. The gap between income and housing costs need to be lessened so people can keep their homes. The nation needs more quality jobs with benefits that offer a living wage, rather than a lot of dead-end jobs that pay minimum wage.

Thanks to Sarah Valek for providing information.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Cut and Dry

I am accident prone. Its a bit embarrassing to admit, but I've learned to live with my inability to go long stretches without bumping into or knocking something over. Bumps? Bruises? I've had my share although nothing major has ever hindered or crippled me. Its usually no big deal and if I happen to knick myself or do something to become mildly injured, I know I'll survive.

Any wound I obtain can be cleaned and sanitized and bandaged and then I move on about my day like nothing happened. I don't think twice about what happened because its really a non-issue. But what about those who don't live in a relatively clean and sterile environment? I don't fret if I have a cut or get scraped up because I have access to clean my cut. This is not the case for many people living in places not suitable for human habitation. Something as seemingly harmless as a small cut can become easily infected and lead to more severe problems such as dangerous infections.

The very thing I take for granted, like being able to clean a wound, would be a luxury for someone living outside or in a camp. While I might forget about what ails me and sleep well, they may lose sleep from anxiety about their inability to heal properly. This is something some of us have never considered and it is a real problem for many people.

It is also a stereotype and misconception that the homeless are quick to visit the emergency room every time something happens. Because they have no insurance, the cost is saddled to the rest of the community and several of our residents have personally told me they would avoid the ER at all costs because they didn't want to accrue costs they couldn't afford. The problem is expedited when a minor cut or infection goes untreated and evolves into something worse and then the treatment becomes more expensive and complex.

So, the next time you find yourself on the wrong end of an injury that you might normally not give a second thought to... be thankful for the clean water and antiseptic used to dress the wound. Please remember those who do not have the same access to treat their own cuts.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Rank and File Homeless

I came across this article by Ross Tucker in Yahoo! news and thought it was definitely worth sharing:

He spent 30 years in the U.S. military, earned three graduate degrees and eventually worked his way to the Pentagon retiring — but today, former Air Force Col. Robert Freniere, 59, is living out of his van, filling out job applications on public computers in libraries.

Freniere's story stands in stark contrast to common beliefs about unemployed, homeless veterans being made up of former soldiers from the rank-and-file. But an in-depth profile of Freniere by The Philadelphia Inquirer shows that problems affecting veterans don't discriminate based on chain of command; they go up to the top brass.

How could this have happened? The answer is complex and representative of what veterans face when they attempt to re-enter civilian life.

After retiring, it took Freniere a year to get a job with a defense contractor. When that work dried up, it was hard to find a civilian job that complemented his background in intelligence. A divorce, the costs of two kids' college expenses and struggles with dyslexia left Freniere calling his van his home.

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, some 58,000 vets face life on the street each day, and "over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness," the organization says. "Only 7% of the general population can claim veteran status, but nearly 13% of the homeless adult population are veterans."

Unemployment is an even bigger problem. The rate among veterans who have served since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon stands at 10 percent, or 246,000 out of work. For those under age 25, the rate increases dramatically to 30 percent.

But Freniere isn't giving up.

"I'm a military guy. I'm mission-oriented," he told the Inquirer. "I've got a lot of good experience. I've got two beautiful sons. I've got a van. I don't know how long it's going to hold up, but I've got it. I've got a lot of things to be thankful for."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Money Talks

Sometimes stating the obvious leads us to conclusions we might not have considered.

It seems like a no-brainer that ending homelessness would be an amazing feat to accomplish. Can you imagine a community void of the homeless? What an amazing place. No one needing housing because there are enough resources to supply the demand to solve the problem. A place where people are not forced to sleep and camp outside or in places never intended to be dwelled in.

The moral and ethical implications are reason enough, right? It is the right thing to do. It smacks of compassion and empathy. Sometimes people need a cause to rally around and I cannot think of many other issues worthy of time, effort, resources, and financial commitment. We would all sleep more soundly at night knowing that everyone is sleeping indoors. Even the meanest Mr. Grinch would be hard-pressed not to shed a tear or two if homelessness was eradicated. Obviously.

However, some people are moved more by pragmatism than they are by emotion. For those out there who are more prone to be practical, eliminating homelessness should also make sense. Or, perhpas I should say it makes cents. A lot of it.

According to an article by, studies have shown that providing housing for a homeless individual, even for a brief period, saves the community about $3,500. If a quarter of the 1.6 million who are homeless at some point in the year were housed, that’d save the economy $1.4 billion. This is not an attempt to sway the bleeding hearts or overly emotional people who tear up during those Sarah MacLachlan animal commercials. Rather, this is an appeal to those who might be (undeservedly, mind you) labeled as professionaly frugal or not keen to part with money unless its absolutely necessary.

Can you imagine saving this economy  almost a billion and a half dollars? There must be some kind of award for that. Probably a big, shiny one. We don't care about winning awards at Samaritan House. Our hope is offer practical soultions to end homelessness because it makes sense and cents.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Not Fit To Live In

Spend only a few minutes outside and you will be happy enough when the front door closes and you are lounging comfortably in your favorite recliner watching the NFL playoffs while (though you would never admit publicly) your Snuggie wraps around you. This time of year we traverse the elements in brief, controllable spurts: Quick jaunt outside to start the car before we run errands. Mad roundtrip dash down the driveway to collect the mail. Record-setting sprint from the parking lot to the grocery store.

January in Montana is not pleasant unless you are a polar bear and since most of you are not covered with thick white fur, spending as little time as possible outside is a very sane choice. A few weeks ago the windchill plummeted to almost 50 below zero in Great Falls and Havre.  Kalispell was bitteryl cold in a Hoth (Google it) sort of way, too. And please stop me from jamming icicles into my eyes before someone tells me that at least its a "dry cold." Negative 50 is deadly.

Yet, there were people living outside in places not meant for human habitation during that freezing spell. And there are people living outside right now. And there will be people living outside next week, month, and year. We live in a society that is saturated by instant images and pictures of events happening in real time. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and numerous other social media sites have produced a culture of voyeurism that numbs us to things we cannot see. Since life is now viewed by multiple angles and snapshots, our imagination is stunted and we forget that "what you see" encompasses much more than "what you get."

Please try to remember those who are living in tents outside city limits. Alleys and vacant lots become makeshift campsites. Snow blown parks and abandoned buildings serve as places where some of the homeless bunker down and try to survive day to day and night to night. Just because many of these people are hidden from public view does not mean they aren't out there. Frostbite and hypothermia are constant dangers and living outside this time of year can be a death sentence.

One service Samaritan House provides is the compilation and distribution of backpacks for those living in the elements. These mobile care packets contain items that can help an individual survive in freezing weather. Sleeping bags, blankets, warm socks, gloves, and other items can mean the difference between life and death. If you are interested in donating material items or financial help toward these backpacks, please don't hesitate to call the shelter  (257-5801) for more information.

You might literally save a life.