Wednesday, July 29, 2015

When Life Goes Bad in Oregon

Sam grew up in Kalispell.

He was familiar with the terrain and culture and day to day life in the Flathead Valley. Montana has a unique ability to captivate a person and lull them into a state of contentment and before long, time passes amiably and days and weeks have stretched into years. A great many native sons never leave this state. Not so with Sam. He moved to Oregon and owned his owned his business, and built motor coaches. As much as he loved Montana, he wanted to strike out on his own. He embodied the spirit of the pioneer.

It was during his time in Oregon that he met Tiffany and they began a life together. After some time, the couple moved to Medford and took care of Tiffany's father for a few years, until he passed. During this difficult period, the couple felt they needed to move away from Oregon due to some trying and stressful family situations that began to manifest. Sam had a sister still living in Flathead County, so she enticed them to move. Sam, Tiffany, and their son would have a homecoming, but not one he could have imagined.

Upon arriving back to the place of his childhood, Sam soon realized the anticipated life he expected would not materialize. They gave up their life in Oregon to make a fresh start but nothing panned out as promised. They found temporary lodging with family but this did not last long and they needed a different solution. After 14 years in Oregon, Sam had returned to a place that now seemed as cold and distant as a faraway planet.

Homelessness was never a logical consideration for Tiffany and Sam. Why would it be? They were hard workers and industrious people who were now interjected into an existence they imagined would never happen to them. Eventually they ended up at Samaritan House and needed to start all over again. When Sam scanned the streets and avenues of Kalispell, he saw them though a perspective unbeknown to him, before. Many of the buildings and structures were the same, but the warmth and affection from his childhood was now replaced with a frustrated and frantic view.

With no money, possessions, or transportation, the family was faced with a decision that would affect the rest of their lives. The indelible impression left upon heir nine year old son; the disappointment of a wife and mother of a misrepresented situation; the call of a father to respond to an environment he never imagined. This family was now forced to deal with a life that only happened to other people.

(To be continued...)

Monday, July 27, 2015

Steven and Jessica, The Present

Jessica and Steven celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary while living at Samaritan House. Now, conventional wisdom says there might be a whole slew of places more romantic to commemorate such an event. In fact, if most husbands or wives would suggest a homeless shelter as an anniversary-destination-location to their spouse, there is a great chance there would be no anniversary to celebrate the following year.

The couple was used to having money. Back in Massachusetts, they might not have been wealthy, but they were comfortable. Previous anniversaries were met with gifts and dinners and all the trimmings of society's ideas of what an anniversary should be. Never, in a thousand years, did the couple imagine the reality they would face. And it was a great anniversary; perhaps one of their best.

They had a picnic and focused on what was important: each other. It was a happy occasion because their life was improving and they felt as of they were getting back on their own two feet. It was a reminder that even if they lost every possession they had, they ultimately still had what was most important in life. They had each other.

After their entry into Samaritan House, Jessica decided to pay a visit to the local Boys and Girls Club in Kalispell to see what activities might be available for her kids. It was important to the couple that their family remained active and the Boys and Girls Club would provide an avenue for mental, social, and physical activity for her sons. She soon noticed two things: an advertisement for a summer camp for the kids and a job opening. Jessica would eventually secure both. Steven began volunteering his time, as well, sharing his artistic abilities with kids at the club. It was important to him that he set an example to his family. Being homeless did not equate with being a victim.

And that's what this whole story has been about, really.

It would have been easy and convenient for this family to have given up at any point along their journey. But they continued to persevere through each situation and never gave up hope. They have learned to be grateful in the midst of disparity and found that giving back to others helps them heal and move forward.

They will not be at Samaritan House forever, but the time spent there lets them reflect on their life and what they've gone through. Growing closer together permits them to affect change in other people's lives. Steven and Jessica never intended to become homeless, but life often tries to dictate circumstances to us. It's how we respond that counts and allows us to feel a connection to the rest of humanity.

This was one specific family's story, but it could be anyone's.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Steven and Jessica (Part Four)

In late April of this year Steven, Jessica, and their two sons entered Samaritan House. It was the conclusion of an unintended journey that had whisked them across the United States. After Steven's job in Kalispell proved to be a rouse, the family was forced to acclimate to an existence no one ever thinks will happen; they were homeless.

There can be no emptier feeling for a mother and father in regards to taking care of a family.

Like thousands of people in this position, Steven and Jessica would now have to respond. The path of least resistance would be to succumb to the difficulties and sink into an atmosphere of despair. Nearly everything they had back in Massachusetts was gone. South Dakota provided only a temporary respite before they were forced to head further west to Big Sky country, where, once more, things did not pan out.

And the damnable misery of their situation was not a result of laziness or addiction or a desire to not participate in society. Rather, they had endured a series of unfortunate events. They wanted to work. They wanted to contribute to their surroundings as viable citizens. And finally they were faced with a decision that would resonate and help define their family legacy.

Would they quit or persevere?

As an epileptic, Jessica needed money for medicine. They needed to provide for their children. Steven had extensive experience in auto body work and construction. But he was also an artist. Living in one of the family units at Samaritan House provided them with a platform to get back onto their feet. What they needed was an opportunity to catch their breath and refocus. The events of the past year swirled together and would revisit them every night as they closed their eyes and tried to sleep.

As spring slowly made its appearance in Flathead County, Steven and Jessica pledged they, too, would reemerge as a family. In spite of all the trauma and deception and heartbreak they traversed, they understood their position. Would they slip into the sea of demographics and statistics of homelessness, or would they persevere and write a legacy contradictory to their surroundings?

Summer was approaching and everything would change with one simple inquiry.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Steven and Jessica (Part Three)

The camper was small and cramped and not meant for permanent habitation. It leaked. There was mold and traces of dog hair from the days of a former occupant. The stove didn't work so Jessica was forced to cook their meals in the microwave. Instant noodles had become the staple meal for her family in what was turning out to be a surreal existence that was spiraling out of control. Cramped nights meant sluggish days. The family crowded onto mattresses each night and tried to steal as much sleep as possible.

The job in Kalispell was supposed to come with a cabin. The Craigslist ad promised legitimate work and a place to rent as part of a package deal. It was March, 2015, and Steven and Jessica had been in Montana for a few weeks because life in South Dakota had become unlivable.

After scouring different sources for potential employment, Steven found a managerial job in a garage. The employer expressed the beginning pay would not be great but after a few jobs, the money would increase. After working a certain amount of jobs on commission, Steven would be put on an hourly wage. In any event, the position would be supplemented with food and Steven was told his family would certainly not starve.

And while they never starved, they came close.

Their oldest son was enrolled in a school only a 15- minute walk from where they were staying. The cabin they anticipated living in would not be a reality and the garage was using Steven for free labor. Their current situation reduced them into a condition of indentured servitude and they were trapped. After numerous disputes regarding the bait-and-switch pulled on them, Steven and Jessica had to leave. Their dream of moving to a new place and beginning a life based on hard work and family values was disappearing a little more each passing day.

The situation was further inflamed when the employer kept most of Jessica's and Steve's dress clothes that were being stored in the garage. After a few weeks, they found themselves in dire straits and staring homeless right in the face. A false promise from a dishonest employer coaxed them into believing in a future that cruelly teased the family.

They would soon undertake a new task of trying to resurrect dignity while putting their life back together. Through no fault of their own, Steven and Jessica had been begrudged of money owed to them, food, lodging, and even their own clothing. It was time to move on, so they needed to find something else.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Steven and Jessica (Part Two)

Moving from one locale to another is not just a physical exercise. Boxes and furniture can be loaded and transported from one area code to another with relative ease. Its the emotional and mental aspects of moving that can be terrifying, especially so for children. When a person spends their entire life in one place, attachments are made and bonds are forged organically and normally. A sense of home is cultivate and the familiarity of one's surroundings makes life comfortable. Starting over in a foreign environment uproots every element of life and resurrects all manner of insecurities. Staring into the great unknown is great in novels and movies, but doing this in real time and space is neither romantic or beautiful; it simply is.

Problems with family members forced Steven and Jessica into an unenviable situation. If they remained in their current situation in Massachusetts, the results would be calamitous. The couple had never left the state but had family in other parts of the country. A decision was presenting itself to them and they needed to be sure whatever choice was made would be in the best interest of their family. To stay in Massachusetts meant alienation and estrangement; moving meant starting over.

The South Dakota town they moved to was nestled in the south eastern part of the state and had just over 600 people. It was different from Worcester, Massachusetts in nearly every way one place can be different from another. The climate, topography, and culture were foreign to Steven and Jessica and they understood that 'starting over' was not merely an overused phrase; It was a stark reality.

August in South Dakota can be brutally hot. Steven had family there and it made sense to relocate in order to have a fresh start. He found work as a carpenter and did body work on the side for extra income. The days were long and he worked diligently to provide for his family but he was having difficulty in securing payment for his work. It was mentally taxing as well as physically stressful to work so hard with no payment for his services. The couple was trapped in a small town and began rethinking the choice they made.

On one hand they could try and eek out an existence in their new home. Steven had family in the area and that had been the main reason they made the jump from New England. But the strain of Steven's employment was compounded with some difficulties they began having with some of the families in their new town. In spite of having some of their own relations in the area, there were a few entrenched families in the town who controlled several aspects of daily life for everyone. Again, the family faced another decision.

Things were about to change, and not for the better.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Steven and Jessica (Part One)

Character is not revealed when a person is knocked down; it is measured when they get back up again. This is the story of Steven and Jessica and how a dream can evolve into a nightmare that seems impossible to wake from. This is the story of a family who chose to persevere rather than become a statistic. And this tale is far from over... They are still writing their narrative every day.

Life in Massachusetts differs greatly from life in Montana. Traffic clogs streets that wind between skyscrapers and storefronts. People congest sidewalks and alleys and the general hustle and bustle of organized chaos directs everyone where to go. Having grown up and lived in Massachusetts their entire lives, neither Steven or Jessica ever set foot outside that state. Steven was a successful provider, who steadily worked construction jobs as well as body work on automobiles. Jessica suffered from epilepsy and her medical costs, as well as their rent and other various expenses, were always taken care of.

Life for the couple and their three children was not much different than life for most families in America. And that is entirely the point. Few people see homelessness darkening their doorstep. It rarely announces itself with fanfare or warning. For Steven and Jessica's family, life was about to change and obstacles and challenges would soon be presented that only happened to other people. The unknowing road they would embark upon began with good intentions and honest anticipation for a better life. There is a sad common perception that people who become homeless deserve it; that homelessness is some sort of great karmic equalizer that punishes those who need to become living warning-signs to the rest of the universe.

Steven and Jessica would ask you to lay your prejudice down and consider their story. And this is not hard to do. Neither of them are substance abusers. There was no deviation into criminal enterprises or any refusal to work. Alcoholism and gambling were never a factor in this family's equation and my name or your name could be swapped into the narrative just as easily as anyone else's. Over the next two weeks, I will attempt to unpack their story and provide some insight on a family living in Kalispell.

This is a family who does not demonstrate character because they are trying to be an example to the world. This is a family who demonstrates character because they know it is not a series of isolated events strung together in various situations. It is a lifestyle.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Homeless Can Vote

There is a common misconception that the homeless are not legally allowed to vote. Just because a person experiences homelessness does not mean they are excluded from having a voice in the political process. In fact, people experiencing homelessness can register and vote in all 50 states.

It is recommended homeless registrants list a shelter address as their voting address where they could receive mail. Alternatively, homeless registrants may denote a street corner or a park as their residence, in lieu of a traditional home address. The federal voter registration form and many state forms provide a space for this purpose.

Most states have some durational residency requirements for voter registration, often having resided for 30 days or more before the Election Day in the state or county. Contact your local elections officials to find out what the rules are in your state.

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA - 2002) is a federal program that reformed aspects of the United States election system. The law was prompted by voting issues encountered in the contested Presidential election of 2000. HAVA has specific components, including:

Budgeting nearly three billion dollars to U.S. states to replace punch card voting systems.

Creating the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to assist in the administration of Federal elections.

Providing assistance with the administration of certain Federal election laws

In Montana, anyone of legal age can vote, but they need to have a driver’s license number, state ID number, or the last four digits of a social security number must be provided to register. If an applicant has not been issued any of these numbers a photocopy of an ID (photo not necessary) is needed to register. An ID is required to vote. If one does not have an acceptable form of ID, they may vote by provisional ballot and show an ID by 5pm the next day, or they may fill out a “Polling Place Elector ID” form.

Acceptable forms of ID in Montana can be:
Driver’s license
School district or post-secondary institution photo ID
Tribal photo ID
Current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck, government check, voter registration confirmation, or another government document with the voter’s name and address on it.

-Information provided by

Monday, July 6, 2015

Homelessness and the National Conversation

It is nearly 2016 and by the time I finish typing this sentence we might have a few more preliminary presidential candidates, bringing the bipartisan total to around 42.

And no matter who you support or from which forums you get your (mis)information, there is one common denominator that unites them all: homelessness is not an issue that merits much attention. I am not advocating or campaigning for a specific person, but merely emphasizing there is an entire homeless demographic that is largely ignored or chained to other issues like poverty, unemployment, hunger, or a myriad of other social ills. But the issue of homelessness as a headliner is largely ignored. Why?

Show me the money. Resolving homelessness requires spending and re-appropriating funds in different avenues with unconventional ideas, especially when the housing-first model is seriously considered. The most obvious solution to homelessness is providing housing which can be an expensive solution. This would entail billions of dollars that political leaders are not willing to spend in spite of strong evidence showing it is demonstratively cheaper to house the homeless rather than allowing them to live on the streets using emergency rooms, paramedics, and law enforcement.

No vote. Homeless citizens are a silent political bloc with no influence because most of them do not vote. If politicians were forced to deal with this large demographic - on a single night in January 2013, 610,042 people were experiencing homelessness*- the political narrative of this country would change. But these voters are not empowered and political dollars go to the most influential. I'll have more on homeless voting later this week.

Longevity instead of a quick solution. Because American politics are cyclical, working toward realistic solutions involving homelessness would last more than one term. Leaders willing to invest billions of dollars and implement the construction of hundreds of thousands of housing units would not see their results accomplished in one or two political terms. The next leader would get the credit and this is, sadly, not acceptable in a society where politicians need to produce immediate results.

It makes people uncomfortable. Resolving homelessness means admitting homelessness, nationally, exists. In a Pinterest-Instagram-society of piano-playing kittens, images of homelessness are disconcerting and prompt discussion and not simply liking something on Facebook. How do you describe and explain the solutions to domestic violence, post-traumatic stress syndrome, substance abuse, and/or mental health disease with Tweets?

Finger pointing is less expensive. Anyone taking the blame for social ills commits political suicide. Because there is a lack of advocates for the homeless, they are a silent and underrepresented majority which lacks a strong national voice. It seems easier to blame the homelessness and make inaccurate generalizations; they are in their respective positions because they are lazy, criminal, mentally disturbed, and choose to live on the street or or happy to live on government help. Investing money and political capital on them is a futile endeavor.
What can be done to raise these issues and make our legislators take notice of homelessness? I would love to write more, but 6 more candidates have jumped into the presidential pool and are ready to pay marginal attention.

*Information courtesy of National Alliance to End Homelessness

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Hobo Code of Ethics

Being a curious person has definite drawbacks.

Sometimes I will read or see something that initially piques my interest but then slowly seeps into my mind and provokes me to do some further investigation. Lately I've been interested in the whole concept of how homeless camps (referred to as hobo camps by those who live there) exist. I realize anything I unearth will be secondary information and, because I've never lived in one of these camps, subject to misinterpretation or misrepresentation. But I'm trying.

After beginning my research, I found an interfering article on something called the "Hobo Code of Ethics." This was composed in 1900 at the Hobo National Convention (yes, you read correctly). The National Hobo Convention has been held on the second weekend in August, every year since 1900. This tales place in the town of Britt, Iowa, and it is sponsered and hosted by the local Chamber of Commerce. The National Hobo Convention is the largest gathering of hobos, rail-riders, and tramps, who gather to celebrate the American traveling worker. At their initial meeting in the beginning on the 20th century, they decided on a code that would govern their existence.

Obviously, not every hobo has followed this creed to the letter and there have been many who have not adhered to it at all. But, I find a quiet dignity and resolve in these commandments; it is a testament to a group of transient people who are often stereotyped as outlaws and criminals. Anyway... I found it interesting and wanted to share it with you.

1. Decide your own life, don’t let another person run or rule you.
2. When in town, always respect the local law and officials, and try to be a gentleman at all times.
3. Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a vulnerable situation, locals or other hobos.
4. Always try to find work, even if temporary, and always seek out jobs nobody wants. By doing so you not only help a business along, but ensure employment should you return to that town again.
5. When no employment is available, make your own work by using your added talents at crafts.
6. Do not allow yourself to become a stupid drunk and set a bad example for locals’ treatment of other hobos.
7. When jungling in town, respect handouts, do not wear them out, another hobo will be coming along who will need them as bad, if not worse than you.
8. Always respect nature, do not leave garbage where you are jungling.
9. If in a community jungle, always pitch in and help.
10. Try to stay clean, and boil up wherever possible.
11. When traveling, ride your train respectfully, take no personal chances, cause no problems with the operating crew or host railroad, act like an extra crew member.
12. Do not cause problems in a train yard, another hobo will be coming along who will need passage through that yard.
13. Do not allow other hobos to molest children, expose all molesters to authorities, they are the worst garbage to infest any society.
14. Help all runaway children, and try to induce them to return home.
15. Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.