Wednesday, September 30, 2015

...The Rest of the Story

Here is the conclusion of my discussion with a group of high school seniors regarding homelessness in America.

The common consensus was that most people who ended up becoming homeless because of poor decisions they made. It was eye-opening when I had them do some research and they discovered some of the most common reasons people ended up homeless were:

* A lack of affordable housing and the limited scale of housing assistance programs have contributed to the current housing crisis and to homelessness. Recently, foreclosures have also increased the number of people who experience homelessness. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that the 2013 Housing Wage is $18.79, exceeding the $14.32 hourly wage earned by the average renter by almost $4.50 an hour, and greatly exceeding wages earned by low income renter households.

* Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. Poor people are frequently unable to pay for housing, food, childcare, health care, and education. Difficult choices must be made when limited resources cover only some of these necessities. Often it is housing, which absorbs a high proportion of income that must be dropped. If you are poor, you are essentially an illness, an accident, or a paycheck away from living on the streets.

Two factors help account for increasing poverty:

1. Lack of Employment Opportunities – With unemployment rates remaining high, jobs are hard to find in the current economy. Even if people can find work, this does not automatically provide an escape from poverty.

2. Decline in Available Public Assistance – The declining value and availability of public assistance is another source of increasing poverty and homelessness and many families leaving welfare struggle to get medical care, food, and housing as a result of loss of benefits, low wages, and unstable employment. Additionally, most states have not replaced the old welfare system with an alternative that enables families and individuals to obtain above-poverty employment and to sustain themselves when work is not available or possible.

Other major factors, which can contribute to homelessness, include:

Lack of Affordable Health Care – For families and individuals struggling to pay the rent, a serious illness or disability can start a downward spiral into homelessness, beginning with a lost job, depletion of savings to pay for care, and eventual eviction.

Domestic Violence – Battered women who live in poverty are often forced to choose between abusive relationships and homelessness. In addition, 50% of the cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2005).
Mental Illness – Approximately 16% of the single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2005).

Addiction – The relationship between addiction and homelessness is complex and controversial. Many people who are addicted to alcohol and drugs never become homeless, but people who are poor and addicted are clearly at increased risk of homelessness.

The class period flew by and it was beneficial for all of us. Its too easy to stereotype people and these kids seemed interested in finding solutions rather than merely dwelling on the problems. By the end of the conversation, I think these future leaders of America had a few more things to consider than when we began talking. My hope is that the future transcends the present.

Monday, September 28, 2015

An Informative Discussion

Next year is an election year, and I've already covered the lack of exposure homelessness garners in political circles. I wish politicians would pay more attention to this issue but it rarely gets noticed because its not as trendy as the same 'ol talking points that candidates typically hammer away on, while never really telling us anything new.

Recently, I was talking to a group of high school seniors about homelessness and I was surprised how little they knew about homelessness in America. They could talk quite elegantly about immigration and foreign policy. We had a great discussion regarding national debt and national security. But after a while I thought I might throw a wrench in the conversation and introduce the topic of homelessness. The room got really quiet and no one had much to say. But I can't fault them because the issue is rarely, if ever, brought up.

They were stunned to know that homelessness is not exclusively an urban phenomenon. This perception exists mainly because homeless people are more numerous, more geographically concentrated, and more visible in urban areas. However, people experience the same difficulties associated with homelessness and housing distress in America's small towns and rural areas as they do in urban areas. Some of the students could not fathom that there were homeless people living in Kalispell.

Rural homelessness, like urban homelessness, is the result of poverty and a lack of affordable housing, and research has shown:

The odds of being poor are between 1.2 to 2.3-times higher for people in non-metropolitan areas than in metropolitan areas.

1 in 5 non-metro counties is classified as a ‘high poverty’ county (having a poverty rate of 20% or higher), while only 1 in 20 metro counties are defined as such.

Homeless people in rural areas are more likely to be white, female, married, currently working, homeless for the first time, and homeless for a shorter period of time.

We talked for a while about stereotypes regarding homeless people, covering the government-approved definitions of chronic, transitional, and episodic – which can be defined as follows:

Chronically homeless individual are most like the stereotyped profile of the “skid-row” homeless, who are likely to be entrenched in the shelter system and for whom shelters are more like long-term housing rather than an emergency arrangement. These individuals are likely to be older, and consist of the “hard-core unemployed”, often suffering from disabilities and substance abuse problems. Yet such persons represent a far smaller proportion of the population compared to the transitionally homeless.

Transitionally homeless individuals generally enter the shelter system for only one stay and for a short period. Such persons are likely to be younger, are probably recent members of the precariously housed population and have become homeless because of some catastrophic event, and have been forced to spend a short time in a homeless shelter before making a transition into more stable housing. Over time, transitionally homeless individuals will account for the majority of persons experiencing homelessness given their higher rate of turnover.

Those who are episodically homeless frequently shuttle in and out of homelessness are known as episodically homeless. They are most likely to be young, but unlike those in transitional homelessness, episodically homeless individuals often are chronically unemployed and experience medical, mental health, and substance abuse problems.

I will present the second part of our conversation later this week.

By the end of the conversation, I think these future leaders of America had a few more things to consider than when we began talking. My hope is that the future transcends the present.

*Statistics courtesy of national coalition for the homeless

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

...And the Oscar Goes to...

Since the beginning of our endeavor to provide housing for the homeless, thousands of people have passed through the open doors at Samaritan House. Each person has a unique story and our brief time with them provides only a snapshot of who they are and who they might become. It is easy to make assumptions that life will always be difficult for the homeless; Statistics point to an existence mired in poverty and complications. But we refuse to adopt this attitude and firmly believe those who stay with us for a while can go on to achieve amazing things.

Apple mastermind Steve Jobs crashed on friends' floors during college and returned glass Coke bottles to make a little bit of money. He recalled his meager beginnings during a commencement speech at Stanford University: "I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple."

Halle Berry found herself homeless when she was first starting her career in Chicago. She told Reader's Digest that she is actually grateful for the situation, saying, “It taught me how to take care of myself and that I could live through any situation, even if it meant going to a shelter for a small stint, or living within my means, which were meager."

Jim Carrey opened up about his experience with homelessness in an interview with “Inside the Actors Studio” host James Lipton. Carrey recalled, “My father was a musician who got a 'regular job' to support his children. When he lost his job, that's when everything fell apart. We went from 'lower middle class' to 'poor.' We were living out of a van. I quit school at age 15 to begin working to help support my family as a janitor.”

So, who knows what will become of our residents once they depart Samaritan House and head off to whatever is next? I am not prophesying the next Academy Award winner will be from Kalispell. My expectations do not measure greatness through a celebratory grid; success is not defined by public notoriety or how magazine covers or financial portfolios. All I'm advocating is that we only see our residents for a short time and then they are gone so perhaps their paths can lead to places we would never expect. I'm not proclaiming the next Steve Jobs is at our shelter.

...of course I'm not ruling it out, either.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Practical Advice

Someone wiser than I once said, “If you’re in a hole... stop digging.” Good words to live by. It means to stop using any more money that will cause your expenses to out weigh your income. A common mistake most people that are struggling make is that they are oblivious to their financial disposition. They don’t know where their break-even point is. They don’t know what their base average monthly expenses are in respect to their monthly cash flow

Sometimes we forget how easy it is to find your self in a financial jam. If you live on your own, and you're barely staying ahead of your bills, you could easily fall prey to being homeless. Even if you are a two-income family without a large savings parachute, it doesn't take much to off-set the fragile balance.

Like so many families in America, you live paycheck to paycheck with little chance of putting together any kind of a savings plan. Families usually have a months worth of income to live off of in case of an emergency – but that’s it. Their financial status is such that if one thing goes wrong – like the car needs a new transmission – all reserve savings will be lost. A job loss at this time from one of the wage earners will only increase the tension. The monthly bills keep coming, and soon, you have to scramble for the rent or the mortgage.

This is the ‘homeless formula’. It's a myriad of problems and expenses that hit one after another, until all your bills are way behind, and you find yourself facing your first homeless night.

You should know exactly where you are financially - this means you should know how much expenses you have verses incoming moneys every month. If your expenses are more than your income, you need to take your scissors out and start cutting the fat from your monthly frill bills.

When you know what your base monthly expense is, versus what income you’ll make at the end of the month, you’ll be more apt to resist foolish spending. Just knowing what your numbers are will make you react more frugally to the sirens of the fast food restaurants.

You need to keep adding to your savings with every check you deposit. As soon as you have a handle on your bills, incorporate a pay-yourself-first habit. Try to accumulate at least six months of income as fast as you can. Having the peace of mind in knowing that you have the financial backing for 6 months should an emergency occur, will give you the time you need to ensure you land on your feet. Once you reach your 6 month savings target, you can consider investments, retirement funds or other needs that you or your family have put off.

When you know what your base monthly expense is, versus what income you’ll make at the end of the month, you’ll be more apt to resist foolish spending. Just knowing what your numbers are will make you react more frugally to the sirens of the fast food restaurants.The more you are in tune with your finances, the more of a fun game it becomes. It gives you a charge when you save more than you expected to – this also fuels your thought process into thinking where else you can cut, stretch, re-use and recycle.

Your entrepreneurial spirit may surface and give you an incredible idea to market. You’ll soon find that once you start purposefully safeguarding against mindless spending, you’ll wonder why you didn't start this a long time ago.

Anyway... just some practical advice.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Problem With Simplification

Anytime we discuss problems related to youth homelessness, there is potential to oversimplify things. I realize this issue is multilayered and can't be corralled into neat, explainable packages. There are always mitigating factors that need to be taken into account, so we need to keep that in the back of our minds. However, to address youth homelessness topically, here are three inter-related categories.

Family problems. This might be the most obvious, but it still needs to be mentioned. When a child feels unsafe in their living environment, everything breaks down and that child can find him or herself considering options no kid should have to consider. Disruptive family conditions are the principal reason that young people leave home and many homeless youth leave home after years of physical and sexual abuse, strained relationships, addiction of a family member, and potential parental neglect.

According to interviews conducted by the Street Outreach Program through the US Department of Health & Human Services, youth attributed homelessness to the following causes:

51.2% were asked to leave home by a parent or guardian
24.7% were unable to find a job
23.8% were physically abused, beaten, or left due to caretaker's drug or alcohol abuse
17% were forced into unwanted sexual activity by a family or household member

Economic problems. Some youth may become homeless when their families suffer financial crises resulting from lack of affordable housing, limited employment opportunities, insufficient wages, no medical insurance, or inadequate welfare benefits. In these instances, the kids suffer for happenings out of their control. Youth may become homeless while still with their families, but may be separated from their families by the shelter, transitional housing, or child welfare policies.

I've spoken to enough of our residents over the year to know that there are few things more heartbreaking than a parent who feels responsible for the homeless condition of their family. Children suffer greatly when they are forced out of the comfort and stability of their homes and forced to readjust to life in a shelter.

Residential instability. Some youth living in residential or institutional placements such as foster care, become homeless because they are discharged or emancipated with no housing or income support. One national study reported that more than one-in-five youth who arrived at shelters came directly from foster care, and that more than one-in-four had been in foster care in the previous year.

So there you have it, a brief summary of just a few reasons youth homelessness is an important issue in America. And the most important thing to remember is that these kids are really out there, right now, living their lives as you are reading these words. They are not merely demographics or statistics and this issue will not solve itself.
Information courtesy of

Monday, September 14, 2015

When I Grow Up...

I remember when I was a kid and adults would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up? The reply was almost always something bigger than life. In no particular order, I would rifle off a list including (but not limited to): astronaut, archeologist, fighter pilot, soccer star, president, and a few other jobs I imagined were simply up for the taking. Over the years it became apparent what was within my grasp and I am happy with my current station in life even if I never married Alyssa Milano or became a professional jet pack tester.

One thing I never would have thought about was the possibility that I might grow up to be homeless. Most kids don't consider this because it's not a topic children think about.
Homelessness is a major social concern in the United States, and youth may be the age group most at risk of becoming homeless.

The number of youth who have experienced homelessness varies depending on the age range, timeframe, and definition used, but sources estimate that between 500,000 and 2.8 million youth are homeless within the United States each year. This is a far cry from dreams of being a doctor or lawyer. And it is not a simple case of kids deciding to abandon their homes because they have their phone taken away and are mad.

Youth run away for a whole host of reasons, including involvement in the juvenile justice or child welfare systems, abuse, neglect, abandonment, and severe family conflict. These youth are vulnerable to a range of negative experiences including exploitation and victimization. Runaway and homeless youth have high rates of involvement in the juvenile justice system, are more likely to engage in substance use and delinquent behavior, be teenage parents, drop out of school, suffer from sexually transmitted diseases, and meet the criteria for mental illness.

Experiences of unaccompanied homeless youth are different from those who experience homelessness with their families. While negative experiences persist for youth who are homeless with their families, their experiences may not vary drastically from youth living in poverty. Studies have also found distinct variability in outcomes experienced by homeless youth, suggesting that youth experience homelessness differently.

Providing timely and direct interventions to homeless and runaway youth is important to protect them from the risks of living on the streets and to support positive youth development, yet despite the risks and needs of these youth, few appear to know of, and access, support services. Even more critical is addressing the family or parental needs to prevent youth and their families from becoming homeless and addressing their behavioral health needs through comprehensive methods that involve both youth and their families.

No one wants to grow up to be homeless. I'll have more about this topic later in the week because if we truly believe that the youth represent the future of our country, there needs to be recognition that this is, indeed, a problem that is not going to go away on its own.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Life Without College!?!

Education is an excellent tool for a person to increase their chances for success in life. I will argue that a college degree can make an important difference in someone's life. However, the reality is that more and more people are not going to college and are still able to make an excellent life. Here are some six-figure income jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree:

1. Real Estate Broker
Although being a real estate agent requires a license, interested applicants only need a high school diploma to apply. Brokers are always on call, often work nights, weekends, and holidays, and may experience long stretches of time without generating income.

Real estate brokers have an estimated annual salary range of $30,144 to $180,434. During the real estate and house flipping boom, many people became licensed real estate agents, making this a very competitive field. If you have dedication, and continually seek out new clients, however, you can make a good living selling real estate.

2. Air Traffic Controller
Air traffic controllers have to take multiple tests, participate in pre-employment medical screenings, submit to background examinations, and take classes.

Air traffic controllers command large salaries, up to $158,966 on average. The job is stressful, however, as air traffic controllers are responsible for maintaining the safety of thousands of people every day.

3. Small Business Owner
You can set your own hours, create your own dress code, and write off some of your expenses (i.e. tax deductions for small business owners) when you own your own business.

However, it can take a long time for your new small business to pay off. If you have time, effort, and energy, and if you offer a viable product or service, your risks can pay off with a nice-sized salary for you and your family. We don’t have a salary range for small business owners, but profitable small businesses can expect a six-figure salary if

4. Fire Chief
Most firefighters have at least a high school diploma, and if they stay with a division or battalion long enough, working through the ranks, they can step into a leadership role with the department.

Fire chiefs have rewarding careers that also include a lot of risk, and a lot of time away from home. Salaries for fire chiefs range from $42,096 to $119,250.

5. Construction Manager
If you have worked in construction for several years, you may be ready to step up to the role of construction manager. Managers must be on call most of the time in case of any emergencies or delays.

Construction companies frequently promote from within, because managers must have a strong knowledge of the company’s core values and policies. Salaries for construction managers range from $41,562 to $130,845.

6. Plumber
Many plumbers make an excellent income without having a college degree. Plumbers learn the trade through technical schools or apprenticeships. Plumbers are always in high demand, and they are paid well because of that demand.

For example, I know someone who recently paid a plumber $120 for 5 minutes worth of work, to replace a valve in the kitchen sink. Plumbers’ salaries can soar as high as $103,731 and beyond, depending on specialties and training.

7. Network/IT Manager
Someone has to keep computers and related equipment working flawlessly, and corporations pay well for experienced IT people. Interested applicants have to keep up with current technology, and have a desire to keep learning as technology changes.

Network managers and IT managers employed by companies have stable, 9 to 5 jobs with good salaries, benefits, and retirement accounts. Salaries for IT managers range between $53,477 and $125,101.

8. Hotel Executive Chef
Sought-after executive chefs can easily make over $100,000 per year. Executive chefs work long hours, spend a lot of time away from home, and may have high stress levels. However, for someone who loves to cook, working in a hotel kitchen every day can be rewarding.

9. Radiation Therapist
Radiation therapists must have a two-year associate’s degree, or a certificate in radiation therapy, but they don’t need a four-year college degree. These therapists use radiation to target cancer cells in patients, and are paid in accordance with the importance and detail-oriented nature of their work. Radiation therapists can earn as much as $116,000 a year.

10. Court Reporter
It may not be glamorous or exciting, but if you can transcribe 250 words per minute, and have impeccable attention to detail, there may be a courtroom willing to pay you well for your services.

You may need to take classes in transcription, and pass a background check in order to qualify for a job as a court reporter. Depending upon the city of residence, court reporters can earn between $29,995 and $104,000.

Income estimates courtesy of

Monday, September 7, 2015

Happy (What are the Fruits of Your) Labor Day?

I've written about the history of Labor Day before, so I didn't figure it was necessary to repost that information. I don't think the past has changed, so perhaps it might be beneficial to connect this wonderful day to the broader topic of homelessness and present a narrative for discussion.

The more I thought about this, the more it seemed logical to cast Labor Day and labor issues to the challenge of poverty and homelessness in America. For many people, poverty and homelessness has roots that derive from their place of employment. In other words: there are a whole lot of people who cannot afford to live on the wages they receive. How maddening it must be to work hard but still feel captive to the looming and constant threat of homelessness because the wages earned are not sufficient to exist on.

If you earn $8.05 per hour (which is minimum wage in Montana), this is your budget if you work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 40 hours per week, 52 weeks a year. This does not allow for any vacation, sick days, maternity leave, or any other unexpected time off:

$64.40 per day

$322 per week

$1.288 per month

$16,744 per year

According to, here is the average cost of rent for Flathead County. Keep in mind, this does not include utilities, health care, transportation, groceries, clothing, or anything other than rent.

Single Studio Apartment $508
1 Bedroom Home or Apartment $595
2 Bedroom Home or Apartment $736
3 Bedroom Home or Apartment $1,085
4 Bedroom Home or Apartment $1,304

Living on minimum wage is not a realistic life. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once stated, "there is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum and livable income for every American family."

But can today's reality truly be a product of simple 'shortsidedness?' Many in the business sector resist paying livable wages and benefits to workers because of the cost and potential loss of jobs. Yet, few businesses and government policy-makers dare to honestly factor the high economic and human cost of unlivable wages and denial of basic benefits for millions of Americans.

I understand this is a complex issue with many mitigating circumstances and factors that need examining. But I am calling for an examination that stems from the heart and not the bottom line. Is it too naïve to ask society to look at this issue from a humanitarian perspective and not simply from a platform of fiscal decision-making? People are in jeopardy of never rising above the fray of generational and cyclical poverty if things are not seen through more empathetic eyes. The problem is that many people never consider what life is like for others.

I hope you have a great Labor Day. Enjoy the final days of summer with friends and family and barbecues and well-deserved rest. But I also humbly ask you to remember that there are millions of people who are working just as hard to avoid homelessness. They are not lazy or unwilling to work hard; they're just underpaid.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Hunger Myths (Part II)

Hunger in America Myth 4 - The food that America wastes could feed everybody. It has been said that up to 40% of the food that America produces is not consumed but thrown away. Much of it is decomposing fruits and vegetables, which is unfit to eat or not practical to collect. Many canned foods are thrown out due to the expiration dates. Unfortunately, we cannot feed everyone hungry with these kinds of leftovers. There are initiatives around the country that have made it possible to retrieve millions of pounds of nutritional food from hotels and restaurants. These food donations have feed the hungry and also provided culinary job training for people who are not currently employed. Food banks in America have given hundreds of millions of pounds of nonperishable food items, and many food activists, also called gleaners, go to farms to get vegetables and fruits that may have just been thrown away.

Hunger in America Myth 5 - Hunger is about food. The number of Americans who struggle to put food on their tables has never decreased since the advent of the food stamp program. This is due to hunger is not just about food. It's really comes down to jobs and wages. What America needs now more than ever are jobs and decent wages. What America needs more is living-wage laws, tariffs which safeguard American jobs and affordable health care. There is certainly a need for more local food production, especially fruits and vegetables. These kinds of nutritional foods can keep Americans healthy and help end hunger in America.

So there you have it; the issue of hunger is America is not as cut and dry as we sometimes think. This is an amazing country and it is beyond criminal that people often face hunger pangs that are avoidable.