Friday, February 28, 2014

Jayden's Story

Researching articles for this blog often takes me all over the place. I'll begin the evening thinking about one issue or idea and, before I know it, 3 hours have elapsed and I've ended up with a few sentences conveying absolutely nothing I had intended to write about. Tonight is one of those nights and I came across this story about a boy and his mom who live in Portland, Oregon. I believe this short tale exposes several of the issues facing single parent families who are homeless.

"For Jayden’s mother, Suzanna, homelessness started with abuse. She is 24 years old, married, and the single mother of three. The walls of Jayden’s room failed to protect him from the sights and sounds of his father threatening and beating his mother. After six years, it finally became too much. Concerned for their safety, Suzanna fled with Jayden and his siblings first to a domestic violence shelter and ultimately to a different state.

The family found refuge in an emergency shelter where Suzanna and her three children shared one room. Soon after arriving, Jayden developed an unremitting cough that required several trips to the emergency room. Ultimately, Jayden was diagnosed with asthma and depression, for which he was prescribed medication...and a home for his family.

The experience of homelessness had taken a toll on Jayden’s physical and emotional health. Asthma triggers pervaded Jayden’s environment. He grew tired of his inhaler – his constant companion. His emergency room visits grew more frequent. Coughing and breathing difficulties limited his ability to play, talk, and sleep comfortably. Suzanna’s homelessness made it difficult for her to access the services needed to address her central concern – Jayden’s asthma.

Jayden feels excluded from the community in which he grew up. Emotionally isolated, he has had difficulty connecting with his peers at school. While Jayden is aware that the search for safety spurred his family’s move, he still longs for the life that he has lost. He blames himself for their presence in the shelter and apologized to his mother for being unable to prevent his father’s violence. Nightmares plague his sleep along with the pervasive fear that his father will return. His ailments interfere with school attendance and homework.

Jayden hopes his family will find a better life. His future depends in part on legislators and public leaders far away from the little room where he coughs his way through the night."

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

To Be Determined...

The history of Montana is an amazing and fascinating tale.

There were the boom and bust cycles of the miners, ranchers, and homesteaders. We are home to Copper Kings and Railroad Barons. Lewis and Clark traversed our terrain and Crazy Horse defied an entire nation. Big sky country has always been a progressive state, allowing women to vote before much of the rest of the country and then sending the first woman, Jeannette Rankin, to the United States Congress.

Again... the treasure state has a treasured history.

As a transplanted east-coaster who has called this state home since 1996, I admire Montana's moxie. People of the 406 have strong conviction and aren't afraid to voice their opinions. There is a ferocity that demands results when dealing with issues that affect this state. We are fiercely independent and do not take our rights for granted. And, as an advocate for the homeless, I cannot think of too many other states I would want to have in our corner as Samaritan House tries to address the needs and rights of the homeless in Kalispell.

Other states have begun adopting a Homeless Bill of Rights, and while the semantics of the issue are being argued on both sides of the aisle, Montanans do not need a piece of paper to tell them how to act regarding moral issues. Here is some of the content of said Bill regarding the individual rights of the homeless:

Protection against segregation, laws targeting homeless people for their lack of housing and not their behavior, and restrictions on the use of public space.

Granted privacy and property protections.

Being allowed the opportunity to vote and feel safe in their community without fear or harassment.

Provided broad access to shelter, social services, legal counsel and quality education for the children of homeless families.

These are all issues that revolve around the fundamental idea of personal dignity. And while the history of Montana depicts battles for the rights of several people groups and cultures, the present shows that there are tireless individuals who will not rest until there is equality on all fronts, including the homeless. The future of Montana is yet to be determined but it is being written every day by the same people who have made this state great.

People like you.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Gold Medal

Every four years we have the opportunity to put aside our differences and bond as a nation. The Olympics afford us the opportunity to stop our partisan squabbling and focus, as Americans, on a common goal: beating the Canadians in hockey. This singular task joins the greatest of foes together and turns the most entrenched enemies into chums as they chant, in unison: "USA! USA!" while burning effigies of Sidney Crosby and Jamie Benn.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend (at least every four years), right?

This sense of community and fellowship exhibited by proud Americans is a reminder that we have much more in common than we have as differences. I've learned this over the years while talking to many of our residents at Samaritan House. Just because a person does not have housing does not mean I have nothing in common with them. Over time, I have had the privilege to meet, and learn from, some incredible men and women who are just like me... Americans. They might be struggling and their circumstances have rendered them homeless, but that does not define them.

We all share a better hope for the future and a longing to provide for those we care about. What truly connects us is not our income or address; not what we drive or sail or where our children go to school. The genuine, inescapable factor binding us together is that we all live in a nation that promises us the same rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of being happy. But we spend too much time rooting against each other. We get upset if others have more than us and our neighbors are turned into competitors. It shouldn't be this way.

I've seen in many of our residents the same determination and commitment to hard work and dedication that I see in some of the Olympic athletes who represent our country. They do not want to be homeless and work hard to better their lives for themselves and their families. I have been just as inspired by some of their stories as I have by the stories of our country's athletes. I see in them the spirit of and desire to succeed, only the desired prize is not a medal, but life, itself.

* EDITOR'S NOTE: All references about Canadians were made in good fun and with no animosity. I actually love Celine Dion, and no Canadians were harmed during the writing of this blog.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Extraordinary is a great word because it is the sum of two concepts smushed together to create an incredible idea: Extra (having more that what is needed) and ordinary (common) combine to produce an picture of greatness. An idea that even the most average thing can achieve epic results if it reaches outside itself. I love it.

Over the past few years I've spoken to countless men, women, and children who were either homeless or on the verge of becoming homeless. It would be a gross inaccuracy to say that all of them could be represented with one or two statements or generalizations. Each person has their own tale and some had been beaten down and were running low on hope while others possessed a seemingly immeasurable amount of hope. Many have dreams of greatness and refuse to let their current situation dictate their goals for the future. Being homeless does not mean an individual must forfeit their dreams. I did some research and here is a list of three extraordinary people who were, at one time in their life, homeless.

Colonel Sanders
Seeing Colonel Sander's pictures and statues on every KFC outlet, one assumes that he must've had invested millions of dollars to make such a large network of fast food restaurants. However, it's not true. Colonel Sanders, who started Kentucky fried chicken (KFC) in 1952, had to experience homelessness for a long period during his childhood. His father died, when he was five and his mother quickly remarried. At the age of ten, he decided to leave his home because his step-father used to beat him. After that, he remained homeless for a long period of time and did many jobs, during that time. It was not until the age of forty, that Colonel found a proper home and a Job as a cook in a restaurant and started working on his own Secret recipe, which would later on become the main item on KFC menu.

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin was not just an Oscar-winning actor, director and author. He was also one of those famous people who faced homelessness. According to his autobiography Charlie's parents separated before he was three. Throughout his childhood he lived with his mother, except for a small period of time when he and his brother moved with their father and his mistress. At the age of 12, Charlie's father died of Cirrhosis and soon after that his mother became mentally ill and had to be admitted to a hospital. This left Charlie homeless and he had to go to a workhouse in London. He spent the rest of his childhood moving from one charity home to another. Charlie continued his struggle until he reached United States in 1912, where he started getting roles and acted in major silent films.

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the most powerful nation in the world (USA) and one of author of American declaration of Independence, also went through a rough patch when he had no home to live in. In his birthplace Boston, Benjamin worked as an apprentice to his brother who published a Newspaper named "New England Courant". Benjamin wrote certain materials in that paper which were not liked by the authorities of his time so they banned the "New England Courant". However, Benjamin continued to publish against the government without the consent of his brother. This raised a quarrel between the brothers and Benjamin ran away to New York. It was in New York that he had to face homelessness because he had very little money and he knew nobody in the city. However, Benjamin remained homeless for a short period of time and found a Job after moving to Philadelphia.

We must never give up on people or lose faith that greatness is attainable for those we might think are beyond the scope of contributing to society. I wonder what incredible person might be homeless in Kalispell tonight?

Research courtesy of Umer Guchani

Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Grand Design

I do not have grandchildren. I am a (mostly) proud parent of two (mostly) well-behaved children who are in elementary and middle school. Parenting is an adventure and, while it is (mostly) rewarding, I am looking forward to the day when my kids have kids. "Why?," you might ask...

So I can hang out with my grandkids, get them all hopped up on cookies and Mountain Dew, and then return them to their parents who will be forced to talk them down off their sugar-induced ledge. Grandparents are supposed to be afforded all the privileges of the fun side of parenting while not shouldering any of the responsibility. They already put in time and effort with their own children so they can enjoy the grand kiddies on their own terms. Right?

Recently, I heard a report on the radio that there were over 4,000 grandparents in Montana who were taking care of their grandchildren. I did some research and found out across the United States, almost 7.8 million children are living in homes where grandparents or other relatives are the householders, with more than 5.8 million children living in grandparents’ homes and nearly 2 million children living in other relatives’ homes. These families are often called “grandfamilies.”

The threat of homelessness is so real for so many American families, that grandparents are coming to the rescue of their families. In what are supposed to be their 'Golden Years,' there is an entire generation foregoing the peace and relaxation of retirement to help bear the burden of again raising their children and their children's children. Many parents work more than one job and childcare is often too expensive, so grandparents are called upon to join the fray. Difficult economic circumstances and low wages have resulted in many families losing their homes and either becoming homeless or moving in with their parents.

This often creates an environment that is not ideal, but better than the alternative. Many grandparents, themselves, still work and this results in long and tiring hours at their job, only to return home and then take over as the primary caregiver to the grandkids. Now, I'm sure they (mostly) help out because they love their families, but the strain can be very taxing. When a home is expanded, certain costs are incurred. There is an obvious financial increase due to extra utilities and food. But there is also an emotional weight added to the family unit. Its easier to bridge two generations than it is to constantly span three in closed quarters.

It is crucial for communities to keep working toward providing affordable housing so this trend can decrease. When a family can afford to live in a house or apartment, then the entire community benefits on many levels. The obvious ramifications result in less people living in places not meant for human habitation or in temporary shelters. But the hidden benefits can reach much deeper. Families can go back to more of a traditional model and grandparents can be relieved of the burden of re-raising kids.

Samaritan House would like to thank al the grandparents in the Valley who are doing a remarkable job of helping their families avoid homelessness by sacrificing their time, energy, space, and finances, so their families have a place to live.

- Statistics courtesy of American Association of Retired Persons

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Is Housing a Right or a Privilege?

I recently spent a few days talking with an 8th grade history class in Montana about discrimination and stereotypes in regard to civil rights, and one young lady raised an interesting question. She asked that if housing was a fundamental need for existence, then were the homeless being discriminated against by not being allowed to live in a house or apartment? We discussed the differences between rights and privileges and the conversation (in typical middle school fashion) went all over the map, peppered with exciting and refreshing commentary from kids who were wrestling with these issues for the first time.

When the day was over and I was driving home, I couldn't help but reflect back to what had transpired earlier in the day. Most of us would argue that having a place to live is crucial to survival. Using this logic, its not too much of a stretch to conclude that housing is a right of all people. Without delving into all the semantics of socioeconomic conditions, quality of life, or the physical makeup of the structure, I believe people, at a base level, must have a place to live. This is what elevates housing from a need to a right. We can argue about the logistics and implications, but the basic idea remains: people must have a place to live.

But I think America treats housing like a privilege.

We are consumed with celebrities and sports stars and what (and where) their homes are. We marvel at the amazingly stupendous mansions and homes that are so marvelous they seem to belong on another planet. Then we look at our own lives and (hopefully) find contentment even if we only have 3 bedrooms and no indoor basketball court or putting green. Whether we rent or own, we can lay our heads down and close our eyes in our own place. We are thankful and feel blessed. But what about those with no place to live? Are they living without a right or a privilege?

Would we work harder to help end homelessness if we truly believed people had a right to live somewhere and having a house or apartment wasn't a privilege that could be forfeited if the person made some bad choices or simply had some terrible, unforeseen circumstances land them homeless. We see people on the street and sometimes think they don't deserve a home for a multitude of reasons. We might not admit that, but I think it happens. Would we say food and clothing should be withheld from people (even if they made bad choices)? Then why are we okay with denying people housing? And, the majority of homeless people are not homeless because of addiction or criminal behavior. Rather, they are without housing because of unexpected financial burdens that were out of their control.

I know the concept of 'housing as a right' might sound controversial and my intent is to simply put the idea in front of you, for your consideration. If society truly believed this, and not that housing was a type of reward, then maybe more people would be angered with the current state of homelessness and not simply annoyed by it.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Great Disconnect

I keep convincing myself that I'm not old enough to have one of those, "when I was a kid..." rants. I never walked through miles of snow to go to school. Not once did I fashion a weapon out of buckskin and bailing twine. Walter Cronkite always seemed old to me and there are no first-person recollections of Watergate. My childhood laments revolve around having to get up off the couch to change the TV channels. Another complaint was that I was tethered a stationary phone (hello, rotary dialing!) with a cord that seemed to stretch 300 yards. In retrospect, putting up with ALF and Mr. Belvedere wasn't too bad of an experience.

But, as a true child of the 80s and 90s, I now feel old and crotchety enough to comment on one of the saddest things I've noticed with each successive generation since " I was a kid." In truth, the evolution of technology has always been ebbing this direction since Marconi and Edison, but since I wasn't around then, I can only write about what I've observed in my time: something I call the death of Connection.

We live in an age of immediate and uninterrupted communication. We have, at our fingertips, instant access to other people anywhere on the planet any time we want them. Living in a wireless world has great benefits because we can conduct business and research any topic our heart desires. We aren't bound to offices like we once were and results of our transactions can be felt mere seconds after the 'send' button is clicked. We can also talk to friends and family who live far away from us. There's no denying the enormous upside to the society we inhabit.

But, should it worry me that my 9 year old daughter just texted me from her room? We are bombarded by requests from our 'friends' to 'like' whatever it is they've just posted on Facebook or Pintrest. Surrounded by all our contacts and friend-lists, I wonder if there is more of a disconnect than ever before. In spite of the ability and reality of constantly staying abreast of one another (thanks to Twitter for allowing me to hashtag every single noun on the planet) every second of the day, I wonder if we've substituted true intimacy and empathy with status updates and instant messages? We have become disconnected from one another in the midst of Big Brother's all-access world.

Are we losing the ability to relate to each other outside of a computer, phone, or tablet screen? Can I really have 420 friends or do I simply have 420 snippets of information? I hate to say it, but I wonder if kids today are losing touch with any sense of reality that involves personal experience. Texting is not talking. People view life through YouTube but have no idea what it feels like to actually interact with one another. I know there exceptions and I'm making a huge generalization, but I feel that society is heading this way... issues are being commented on without ever being helped.

As we advocate for ending homeless, it is crucial that we don't fall victim to becoming observant bystanders. As much as we appreciate social media and its beneficial aspects, it would be foolish to discount the human element of interaction and connection. We are thankful for our volunteers and those who not only process and read about what is needed, but who also physically help us in numerous ways. We count on the human connection every day
Sadly, I must go now. My daughter just Skyped me from the living room, wanting to know what's for dinner. SMH...

Sunday, February 2, 2014


"There, but by the grace of God, go I."

This is a phrase many people use when they encounter another person in a very unenviable situation. Its a very penitent mantra usually uttered in hushed and whispered tones, accompanied with a grimaced frown. Often, a barely noticeable head shake can be observed if an onlooker is paying close attention.

I'm not especially keen on using trite phrases to diagnose other people's lives or circumstances. Its a lazy formula that sterilizes the situation into a neat and tidy box, allowing the muser to pass judgement without really attempting to understand what is going on. I've learned, over the years, that people are rarely what they seem so it makes very little sense to simplify or stereotype them with a bumper sticker.

Anyway, back this phrase. It seems to imply that while life might be horrendous for another person, it is generally okay for me. Even if that other poor, tortured soul is experiencing a rough go at it, my situation is fine. Then we summon and drag God into the argument because he is the reason we are not suffering while they are. There is an admittance that the other person could be "me" but it seems the heavens have a different plan in mind. Please don't misunderstand this little blog. I am not questioning your particular theology or epistemology. My intent is not to blame any person or deity for anything.

What I am getting at is this... We should not be absolved of our obligation to help others simply because we are not suffering. I don't think its ethical or moral (or just plain nice) to see someone else in trouble and then be thankful that we are okay just because we are NOT them. Because we see and even acknowledge others in trouble does not mean we are contributing toward the solution of a problem. It is perfectly fine for a person to be grateful they are at a good place in their life. I will not begrudge anyone the opportunity to shout their happy status from the top of any rooftop they deem worthy.

But we can't be content with our own good fortunes. There are millions of people out there who signify the former part of this phrase and not the latter. It is not enough to use them as a template to justify our own comparable comfort and happiness. The true measure of humanity involves helping them in real and tangible ways.

Maybe one day the phrase can go, "There, by the grace of God, go we."