Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Why Ask Why?

Throughout history, there have been a few rhetorical questions that have elevated thought and contributed to the advancement of modern society.

"Are humans evil with good intentions or good with evil intentions?"

"Which came first... The chicken or the egg?"

"Why did Joplin and Hendrix die so young, yet Nickelback will probably survive as a band well into their 90s?"

Most people like to have the answers to life's mysteries, but I have always been a firm believer that questions are more important than answers. While answers seek to pacify us, questions nudge us in a general direction of dissatisfaction that can prompt us to focus on the problem. Once we have the answer to something, we tend to move on to something else that needs 'solved' and can quickly forget the journey of investigation that led us to the solution. Answers are nice, don't get me wrong; There is solace in figuring something out. But questions can be just as rewarding when we learn to ask the right ones.

Examining the issues affecting the homeless in Kalispell requires spending a great deal of time and energy looking at the question of 'why' someone is homeless. The obvious solution to homelessness might seem to be housing, but there are many layers to the question of why someone might be homeless. Simply offering housing will not be sufficient to keep a person housed unless other issues are unearthed and examined. The process of questioning can lead to longevity while a quick-fix answer can do harm.

When we understand the roots of homelessness, we can effectively provide positive actions that will help the individual take responsibility for their situation. If it was self-destructive behavior that resulted in their homelessness, then steps can be taken to offer treatment that will lessen the likelihood of that behavior happening again. When a person overcomes addiction, then the whole community benefits. A stable person can find employment, which leads to paying taxes and contributing back to society. There is a greater chance they might be able and willing to start a family and put down roots, which gives them (and possible future generations) a stronger tie to their environment and it's success.

Sometimes people find themselves homeless as a result of circumstances beyond their control. Unemployment, unexpected expenses, health problems, domestic violence, and natural disasters are just a few causes of homelessness in the Flathead Valley. Asking 'why' in these instances points to a larger picture of the way society operates and is a stark reminder that many of us are just an accident away from the possibility of losing important things in our own lives. It is essential to remember how fortunate we are and to never give up trying to figure out how we can address the systemic causes associated with homelessness.

Sometimes asking why can save a life.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Memories and Legacies (Happy Memorial Day)

Sometimes words cannot sufficiently express the sentiments behind them. We string a couple consonants and vowels together and end up with a word we recognize. Next we attach meaning to that word, but here's where things get tricky. Each one of us have our definition of what something means. Concepts like good and evil; hot and cold. There is a general understand of these ideas but each is influenced by the context of our life's experiences so even if we can agree on a word, it's difficult to wrangle together a meaning we all can agree on.

Today is Memorial Day. When something is memorialized, it is remembered for the value it brought to it's surroundings. When we apply this to people who have dedicated and sacrificed their lives to a greater cause, we seek to honor and esteem them for making choices many of us have never had to face. Choices we are spared from making because of the very sacrifices of those we commemorate. For me, Memorial Day is not about just honoring those Service women and men who have passed. It is about looking around and acknowledging the legacy they left and the future they have selflessly provided for us.

Traditionally, many if us will enjoy today with a barbecue or a cookout. If the weather is accommodating, we will fellowship over food, drinks, and laughter while enjoying a stable and free society. I hope we can realize that the same environment we share with one another is not typical of many places around the globe. We are a blessed nation and need to reflect upon those who have provided us with such an unequivocal gift of freedom.

And hopefully, as this day transcends politics and partisanship, we can stretch the sentiment out a little longer thanks a mere afternoon or day. Memorial Day is a specific designation and should be the minimum amount of time we honor those who have died. I think in order to pay true homage to their legacy, each one of us should do our part to make this country better every day.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Family Matters

Sam wakes up and stares at the ceiling. It's Sunday and NBA playoffs are starting in 2 hours. He groggily stirs around internally debates a proper amount of time to lay in bed before he needs to get up an make some coffee. A day of nothing awaits him.

Brandon wakes up, rolls over, and stares at the wall. It's Sunday and the NBA playoffs begin in 4 hours. He lays motionless and tries to figure out the best way to collect his belongings without waking the 6 other men in his room. A day of nothing awaits him.

There are exactly 13 different flavors of K-cups in Sam's coffee wheel. He disapprovingly grunts and it becomes apparent he wishes there was a 14th. Blindly, he selects one and plops it into the machine, impatiently waiting out the 17 seconds it takes the machine to produce his perfectly brewed cup of coffee.

There are exactly 2 types of coffee on the counter in the breakfast room at the shelter: caffeinated and decaf. Brandon is early enough to ensure himself some caffeine and he thankfully fills mug. About 10 minutes later he is finished and washing out his cup so sometime else can use it.

The game starts and Sam is entertaining a few close friends. Pizza and chicken wings serve as the first course of a buffet that will stretch the entirety of the game. Each person occupies a Barca lounger or a couch with an optimum view of the 70-inch, HD flat screen. Drinks flow while laughter and camaraderie fill up every inch of the television room as the game soon takes backseat to side conversations and merriment.

The game starts and Brandon is watching in the recreation room with 5 people he does not know. His bottle of water is permitted in the room because it has a lid but there are a few others who have smuggled in juice boxes. The folding chairs are arranged in a semicircle facing the card table supporting the box television. The antenna captures a decent picture but periodically the screen dances and fizzles before returning to a watchable state. It is silent, save for the occasional cough or clearing of a throat.

Halftime emerges with pie, cake, and a few other assorted desserts. Sam is a hospitable host and he excuses himself when his phone rings and he accepts the collect call from 2 time zones away.

Halftime emerges with most everyone else gone. Brandon quietly ambles down the hall and makes a collect call to his brother in Philadelphia.


Sometimes there is a thin line separating family members who are housed and who are homeless. Circumstances and geography might create chasms that are not easily overcome. One of the chief reasons for homelessness in the Flathead Valley is a result of people who have exhausted their stay with family members who can no longer provide food and shelter. And while it seems unfathomable that a parent or sibling could reach a point where housing another family member was no longer an option, this happens a great deal.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Answers May Vary

There are two types of people in the world (okay... I realize there are way more than two types of people, but please give me a little latitude so I can write my article). And as I present the extreme versions of each perspective, ask yourself where you fit along the sliding scale of personality and profiles. But, before I elaborate on my main point, let me explain a little about where the idea for this article originated. I know, you're riveted to your chair right now, so... You're welcome!

A few weeks ago I was attending a conference and the keynote speaker asked everyone to respond to a series of questions. As I thought about my replies, the speaker transposed the questions upon the giant screen at the front of the room. In the space provided for the answers, three little words were typed on each blank line. Three little words which prompted me to begin thinking about numerous things not even remotely related to the topic at hand. Three little words that excite some people and frustrate others. Three little words that read:

Answers may vary.

Let me start with the person who detests and dreads this trite little treatise. The idea of multiple answers is not comforting because there can never be a concrete resolution. Varying answers are not positive things because how can more than one correct solution exist if, by definition, the correct answer excludes all other possibilities? I mean, c'mon... If the goal is to resolve a problem, we cannot have a thousand different scenarios all leading to closure and ultimate productivity. This phrase becomes a warning because it deconstructs stability and absolution.

Now, the other type of person enjoys this conclusion because they see it as freeing and fluid. Since problems are normally composed of numerous factors and components, it makes sense that the answer(s) should also be malleable and relative. Varying answers imply multiple facets and levels of correction, which entails examining and applying different solutions to the same problems in some instances. I mean, c'mon... How can the same shoe fit every limp? If the goal is to resolve problems, we must have the freedom to explore more than one fixed solution. This phrase becomes a template to a larger schematic.

So, which person is correct? Both. We need both because balance is essential in problem solving relating to homelessness. Over the years, we have faced all manner of obstacles and problems at Samaritan House and we have come to appreciate each perspective. There are certain times when only one solution is plausible and beneficial to whatever problem has presented itself. Other moments require an ability to evaluate the best possible outcome out of multiple opportunities.

Because we deal with people experiencing some of the most challenging issues they have ever dealt with in their entire lives, we are not afforded the luxury of having a simple manual that addresses every problem. We often have to make decisions based on people and not just predicaments. Our mission statement says we do our best to provide dignity and not just services for our residents. We keep this at the center of every decision and are honored to be able to play a part in addressing the needs of the homeless in Kalispell.

Whatever that might look like.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mental Illness and Homelessness

"No vision haunts America’s conscience more than the sight of the street people… The irrationality and anguish that grip so many of these individuals leap out during any encounter, whether in Washington or Albuquerque." ---Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM)

Mental illness is a complex issue and its relationship to homelessness is often inextricable. Stereotyping is often an involuntary process and we sometimes do it without realizing its happening. I thought it might be important to take a look at some of the numbers relating to mental illness and homelessness in America. If we can see people as individuals, and not merely statistics or numbers on a spread sheet, we (hopefully) are more likely to humanize their situation and realize we can help.

People with untreated psychiatric illnesses comprise one-third, or 250,000, of the estimated 744,000 homeless population. The quality of life for these individuals is abysmal. Many are victimized regularly. One study found that 28 percent of homeless people with previous psychiatric hospitalizations obtained some food from garbage cans and 8 percent used garbage cans as a primary food source.

Between 250,000 individuals with schizophrenia or manic-depressive illness are homeless among the 744,000 homeless population. These 250,000 individuals are equivalent to the population of such cities as Dayton, Ohio; Des Moines, Iowa; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Providence, Rhode Island; Richmond, Virginia; or Salt Lake City, Utah.

A survey by the National Alliance to End Homelessness reported that there were approximately 744,000 homeless persons in the US. Among these, approximately two- thirds were single persons and one-third were families. One-quarter of the homeless persons were said to be chronically homeless. Numerous studies have reported that approximately one-third of homeless persons have a serious mental illness, mostly schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The percentage is higher among those who are chronically homeless and among homeless women and is lower among homeless families. If overall one-third of homeless persons are seriously mentally ill, that means that there are approximately 250,000 homeless persons with serious mental illnesses in the US.

At any given time, there are many more people with untreated severe psychiatric illnesses living on America’s streets than are receiving care in hospitals. Approximately 90,000 individuals with schizophrenia or manic-depressive illness are in all hospitals receiving treatment for their disease.

The New York Times reported that in Berkeley, California, "on any given night there are 1,000 to 1,200 people sleeping on the streets. Half of them are deinstitutionalized mentally ill people. It’s like a mental ward on the streets."

If you are interested in helping to address homelessness in Kalispell in a real and tangible way, please contact us and we will be happy to find ways for you to volunteer.
Thanks for your support!

Statistics courtesy of

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Open Letter to an Employer

To whom it may concern,

I am homeless. I realize this does not look good on a résumé. It fosters images of irresponsibly and perhaps even negligence. My lack of a fixed address might seem like a red flag and scare you away before you even take a look at the person behind the predicament. But circumstances rarely paint an accurate picture and if you old delve a bit deeper, you will see that I am qualified, responsible, and willing to work hard.

I am homeless. I know there are some employment gaps on the application I filled out. It would be wonderful if life was as systematic and logistical as a spreadsheet, but its not. There have been times when I was unable or incapable of working. But the wonderful thing about life is that we can change and improve. I am inquiring about this job because I know what it means to not have an income and I will appreciate the opportunity to work hard for what I receive.

I am homeless. I, like everyone else on this planet, have made mistakes. But not only have I learned from them... they have made me a stronger person. Taking a chance on hiring me means you are getting an employee who understands redemption. I will not take things for granted or be unappreciative for the chance to contribute to society by working an honest job and making an honest wage.

I am homeless. But I am not a statistic or stereotype. I am a unique individual with circumstances and momentum. I respectfully seek employment because I recognize there are attributes within myself that will make an organization better. I am resilient and have the ability to solve problems. Responsibility and respect must be earned so please understand that if you hire me, I will prove it was a wise decision.

I am homeless but not hopeless.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Happy Mothers Day

A day just for mothers.

When I was a kid, I wondered why Mother's Day existed. I assumed all moms loved the role of being a mother so why did it need to be commemorated every year? It was like thanking Santa for bringing presents or writing a card to the Easter Bunny for delivering those delicious chocolatey baskets. If a person loves their job, do they really need to be applauded for performing it? I mean, wasn't having the privilege of raising me more than enough thanks for my my mom!

My wife and I were married about 6 years before our son was born. And as I watched her role evolve from spouse to mother, I was amazed with all the changes happened. Being a mom involves sacrifice and love and the greatest moms have learned to walk this blurry tightrope with the deftest of precision. The sacrifice of a mother takes is evident in how she places the well-being of her child before her own. It is neither easy or natural to place the needs of another person in front of our own. This is human nature's default setting, and it is an excellent example of how moms all over the planet ensure the security of their children at the expense of what they often want.

I have seen numerous examples of maternal sacrifice among our residents. Mothers who work long hours in unglamorous jobs simply to pay the bills and provide food and housing for their kids. I know mothers who keep one eye in the present while the other is focused on the future. There is nothing they would not do to ensure the safety and longevity of their families. Its a shame they are publicly recognized only one day a year.

Alongside sacrifice, strides love. It works in connection with and compliments sacrifice. Sacrifice without love can only last so long until the obligations and stress becomes overwhelming. Love, in this instance, is often a decision that transcends feelings and emotions. It is a steely resolve that permits a mom to sometime make tough choices for the good of everyone involved. A mother's love allows the family to survive in the midst of chaotic circumstances and the most unenviable situations. Love nestles and caresses as much as it restricts and protects.

The love an support of a mother has the ability to make all the difference in the world to a child. So, to all the mothers at Samaritan House, as well as our own moms, we say, "Thank you."

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Spring Thaw

*Thomas knows summer is nearly here. And while he appreciates the abundance of warm weather and enjoys the long Montana days, he doesn't share the same enthusiasm most of us have as June, July, and August hover just around the corner.

Since November, he has been living in a mostly dried creek bed in the outskirts of the county. It was a difficult winter but he had everything he needed to survive. Occasional trips into the closest town afforded him supplies to help him manage the weather and freezing temperatures. His tent was nestled beneath the 5 foot gulley that shielded him from wind. Blankets and sleeping bags insulated his dwelling place and fire pit he dig at the entrance of his tent provided heat.

Food was sometimes scarce but the periodic trips into town allowed him to fill his pickup truck with donations from the food bank. He parked his truck in the woods, just off an access road about a quarter mile from where he camped. It was his only possession after the fire that forced him into his current situation. On the rare occasions when he still drove it, he was reminded of what it was to not be homeless. Every time Thomas turned the ignition over, he closed his eyes and remembered his life of just a few short months ago.

During the winter, the creek bed was a slow and steady trickle, just deep enough to catch fish. It provided him company, protection, and solitude. In the back of his mind he understood it would be a temporary habitat, and now that supposition was becoming a reality. The increasing temperatures and warmer weather was melting the snowpack miles above him, producing a steady expansion in the creek. By all accounts, Thomas estimated he had about another 3 weeks until he would have to find a new place to live.

Thomas sat in the entrance of his tent, looking up at the clouds rolling across the sky. And while the rest of Big Sky Country applauded and welcomed springtime, he knew if he were any other person, he would probably feel the same way.

But he wasn't. And he knew that his life was about to change again.

*Not his real name

Monday, May 5, 2014

Staying Connected

If I asked you to tell me where many homeless people in America live, you might describe a cityscape or another urban setting. We imagine boxes set up in a dark ally or a sleeping bag strewn over a heating grate. Conjured silhouettes of people pushing shopping carts contrasted against the glare of neon marquees and traffic lights will drift into our thoughts. And while this might be appropriate for larger metropolitan areas like New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles, it excludes thousands of the homeless living in much smaller cites (but cites, nevertheless) like Missoula, Great Falls, and our own Kalipsell.

But there are many homeless who live in rural environments; in small unincorporated communities, the countryside, or camps in the woods. And while there are some advantages to living in the country (less crime, solitude, lack of harassment), there are also drawbacks. In larger cities, connectivity is not an issue. We don't often think of the role that the Internet can play in the lives of the homeless, but access to the Internet can be essential for helping someone improve their situation.

Job searches and résumés can be aptly updated. For people looking for employment, its vital to have a way to find opportunities to work. Job services can be searched and postings can be perused. This is not the case for those living in rural areas who do not have access to public libraries. Libraries offer an invaluable service to the whole community.

Phone service is another positive for people residing in cities. Montana is a vast and expansive area and receiving a cell phone signal can sometimes be challenging or even impossible, depending on where a person lives. When I was a kid (wow... I know have evolved into my grandparents), phones were stationary devices that tethered a person to the wall, allowing them approximately 15 feet to wander while they talked. Today, smart phones are instrumental for communication and life management. Bills are paid, appointments made, updates are posted, and research is conducted all with a swipe of the screen. Again, this is not possible for those living in rural areas.

And while an argument can be made that people choosing to live in these out-of-town environments are voluntarily forfeiting their rights to technology, there is still a significant population of the homeless who live in cities but do not have the ability to access the Internet because they either have no phone or transportation. Single parents sometimes are forced to chose between groceries, utilities, and rent or a cell phone plan. I've known numerous families who are frustrated because they cannot afford both. Living day to day means saving every cent and managing each paycheck. Often, someone on a tight budget cannot afford childcare, so trips to the local library are problematic. Or transportation becomes an issue if their residence is far away from Internet access.

And there are few things as frustrating as being surrounded by beneficial technology, without having the ability to take advantage. The Internet can be used for much more than Youtubing adorable kittens. It can be a lifesaver.