Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Montana Eats (Or... How to Practically Save the Planet)

Ingenuity is a nice thing.

Image result for sophia skwarchuk montana eats
Ms. Skwarchuk and Governor Bullock
But when you marry this attribute with intelligence, life becomes interesting and people get uncomfortable. I recently spoke with Flathead High School student, Sophia Skwarchuk, about a social media app she created to address the glaring lack of awareness regarding hunger imbalance in Montana. I expected her to be bright and industrious, but just a few minutes into the conversation I realized she had a level of empathy that truly makes her culpable in changing the world.

Hers is not a helpless compassion, either. It doesn’t fall victim to circumstances and implode with frustration or despair at what is unfolding around her. Instead, it confronts a heartbreaking need with calculated pragmatism; it is the strongest type of empathy because it is proactive.

It is terribly frustrating to notice a societal need that seems to be hiding in plain sight. Nearly 1 in 7 Montanans struggle with hunger, and approximately 48,000 children live in food insecure homes. These are not statistics from Port-Au-Prince or Mogadishu or Bogotá. These are mothers in Helena, grandparents from Havre, and children in Lakeside. People in Montana are going to bed and waking up hungry and either no one knows or no one cares.

While attending the Governors and First Lady’s Council for Childhood Hunger, Sophia assessed this problem and began taking tangible steps to create a remedy for an epidemic plaguing our state. There are resources in Montana for people experiencing hunger, but access to them was problematic because they are so decentralized.

So, what if there was a way for someone to find out what was available in close proximity? One of the most wonderful qualities of the Millennial Generation is their ability to shrink an enormous world into the size of a computer app. Sophia knew it was time to enter the fray and utilize social media to present a lifeline to people who are in danger of drowning in plain sight.

Her app, Montana Eats, was born with the three-fold purpose to provide lists of food banks and pantries around Montana, help locate summer feeding programs, and provide hotlines people can use to for emergency assistance. But getting from point A to point B required more than having an idea. Lots of people have ideas. Lots of people wax eloquent about saving the planet. Lots of people get bored and eventually move on when they realize their benevolence requires a bit of elbow grease.

But how many people read a book and research the internet so they can learn how to write a computer code without having any experience in this area? How many people decide this isn’t enough and discovers there needs to be an intentionality to the program because the majority of low income people in Montana have Android and not iPhones?

I know one.

Montana Eats is an indispensable tool in linking people in need with the proper resources they require to remain healthy. Everything can be found on one data base that helps people find relief and assistance.

It is people like Sophia Skwarchuk that are conduits for hope because she understands despair is created by systemic issues that can’t be wished away. If people are hungry, they need food and if they don’t know where to find food then all the best intentions in the world accomplish nothing. Montana Eats is an amazing resource that is helping save lives because one young lady decided to do something about hunger.

Ingenuity surely is a nice thing.


Monday, June 27, 2016

No Rest for the Weary

When is the last time you were deprived of something? We all have certain things we enjoy and when we can’t partake of these things we often feel a sense of loss or disappointment. Usually we rebound and go on with our lives until another opportunity presents itself, but what if we were not allowed to experience these essential components to life? Food, shelter, healthcare, education…these are all important but where does sleep rank on our lists? What if you were deprived of sleep?

Where and how a person sleeps is often a matter of discipline when said person is residentially challenged. If someone ends up sleeping in a car or RV, shelter or friend's couch, they usually have the issue of being up and about before the rest of the world ever wakes up.

In a shelter, rules typically dictate that the residents leave by a certain time in the morning. In regards to vehicles, some cities have regulations about overnight public parking. If a person is working, they have to find ways to make their job fit the situation; they are dependent on others’ schedules and this is where sleep deprivation hits the hardest. It can have a brutal cumulative effect.

Scientists often lecture us about the dangers of poor sleep habits. Don’t take your iPad into bed with you; stop binge watching The Americans in bed (guilty and guilty). Is it really necessary to edit that final report for work at 2am? Sleeplessness contributes to obesity, diabetes, poor diet, and unproductiveness. And yet, even those of us who should have no problem logging a solid eight hours often struggle to get enough.

But for those who don’t have access to a bed, a locked door, and an iPhone alarm, sleep deprivation is caused by more than just the frivolous decision to eat more ice cream at 11:30 p.m. For individuals without permanent housing, sleep is difficult to come by. When there’s no way to secure your personal belongings, it’s dangerous and frightening to be as vulnerable as we are when we’re in a truly restful sleep.

As a result, sleep becomes a matter of when-you-can, where-you-can. And often, you just can’t, leading to a host of other mental and physical ailments. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to an increase in mental illness and drug abuse among teenagers, and higher incidents of violence and aggression. The dangers of the elements (in colder climates, even nodding off in the winter may be a death sentence), the possibility of attack, and the physical maladies that arise from perpetual dampness and grime make achieving good sleep an impossible feat.

Even finding enough ground to stake out can be difficult. The discomfort of homelessness has driven some urban businesses to extreme measures, implementing anti-homeless spikes on their buildings to deter people from sleeping there. There are also potential legal ramifications. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reports that of 234 major American cities, 40 percent make it a crime to sleep in public spaces.

When the weather turns cold, some cities open warming shelters. When populations are hungry, food banks and soup kitchens provide nourishment. There are resources for assistance paying utility bills, applying for jobs, even getting to and from work.

But aside from low-income housing, which is often in high demand and still often unaffordable, there is no sleep resource. And without a sleep resource, there seems to be little chance for solving the myriad problems associated with sleeplessness.

Suffering from a lack of sleep, how is a homeless person supposed to do all the things necessary for overcoming their homelessness?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

When the Present Kills the Future

It’s interesting how one typing error can wreak havoc with an idea. I was methodically hunting and pecking my way through this blog when a simple keystroke malfunction led me to a place I didn’t intend to go. The ‘s’ and ‘d’ buttons are right next to each other and on their own play no greater role than being arbitrary letters assigned with a  certain sound. However, string them alongside a bunch of other random letters and ideas can be formed, and this is where things can deviate from what is intended to what it presented.

Everyone has a story conveys a much different connotation than everyone had a story.

My embarrassingly poor typing skills have caused me to reflect on the difference between these two thoughts because I accidently punched the d when I meant to hit the s. Present and past tense narratives are two entirely different things and we often forget that what we see today is not always an accurate indicator of what happened yesterday.

Or a month ago. Or a year ago. Or a lifetime ago.

Think how your own life has evolved over the years and how different you likely are right now when compared to the version of yourself from 5 years ago. If a stranger saw you today, would he or she get an accurate representation of what you used to be? But this doesn’t stop us from looking at others without ever really seeing them. Every person you drive pass on Highway 93 not only has a story, they had a story. The lady walking in front of you on the sidewalk in downtown Kalispell is not, exclusively, all that you see.

It is easy to label people and trap them in a snapshot of time. What we see is what we get and we lose the context for how that person became what we see. We eliminate the past because we are ignorant of it and don’t allow it to contribute to the greater, fuller picture of the person we see today. And this is scary because when we lose context we lose the ability to see past today. We no longer ascribe meaning to the future and we abandon tangible prospects of hope because we forget what we once were and narrowly focus on our present circumstances as the end-all and be-all of reality.

A man sleeping in Woodland Park was never a veteran who served 3 tours in Afghanistan. The lady using the internet at the public library was never a dental assistant who lost her job. The gentleman holding the sign, asking for work, never owned his own business that was destroyed in a fire.

We all had a story. The only difference is that some of us have better chapters than others but the ending is not yet written.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Surf's Up

If shelters are not the answer for everyone, but a person doesn’t want to live in a place not intended for human habitation, there must be a middle-ground for people experiencing homelessness. Couch-surfing seems like a viable option for someone who is trying to get back on their feet. Right? But let’s think about this and extrapolate what it really means.

To spend a night on someone's couch and use their home entails some extreme levels of inconvenience for the host. Usually without contributing financially, the person in need of a place to stay must convince their potential host that they won’t steal from them, make a mess, or be any sort of danger. I like to think most people are empathetic and willing to help others if they can, but there is a fine distinction between helping someone and inviting that person to live under the same roof.  Often it is close friends or family that ends up being the ones to turn their sofas into a Holiday Inn Express. But after a while, even the most gracious host can be depleted of patience. Couch-surfing is an often short-term fix to a perpetual state of crisis; it’s like slapping a Band-Aid on a deep, open gash.

People who live in this category -- those who try to couch-surf their way through homelessness – are sometimes referred to by a name: the “hidden homeless.” They don't fit the stereotypical image of homelessness we sometimes have. They do their best not to stand out.  But here's the thing: The longer someone is homeless, the less likely they are to blend in with people who have permanent housing.  It's hard for a person to keep a smile on their face when they know they’re just one quirk of fate away from sleeping in the dirt. It's hard to keep looking and smelling presentable when a hygiene and haircut budget is being spent elsewhere. They are caught in a type of transient purgatory and hope that friends or family members will allow them a few nights rest and comfort under a roof.

And this becomes even more heartbreaking when kids are involved.

The word "homeless" typically conjures a particular image -- usually a man, usually bearded, dirty, and mentally ill. This is not the typical homeless person. About three-quarters of people are homeless for less than 2 months, using shelters only once or twice the entire time. Only 16% of people in America are chronically homeless. The rest are just riding out a tough time in their life. "Homeless" doesn't necessarily mean "worn out," either: Almost 39 percent of homeless people are under 18, and almost half of those are under the age of 5.

This contradicts many ideas people have about the homeless that relies on homeless people being lazy or making communities look bad. These aren't roving bands of shiftless, alcoholic drug addicts begging for change on the street; they're normal people who hit one or two snags while going through a life just like anyone else's. In the case of the kids, they're normal kids whose parents hit snags -- they literally had no other choice or options.

So maybe the next time we walk past our couches we might see them in a different light?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Killing Time

All right, I’ve discussed the financial cost of being homeless, so what about stating in homeless shelters? If being homeless has built-in expenses and shelters provide a free place to temporarily stay, this should be a no-brainer, right? Staying in a temporary shelter would seem to be a great idea for a person who needs housing as they attempt to get back on their feet.

But many homeless never stay in a shelter, preferring to substitute autonomy for resources. By necessity, shelters have rules and schedules because communal living needs regulated for everyone’s safety. Anytime you have more than one person in an environment the potential for conflict arises. It takes a great deal of mental and emotional readjustment for grown men and women to live in a regimented and legislated program. Going from having total freedom to being told when to eat, shower, and sleep often is too big a deterrent for some no matter what amenities are provided. Many homeless have trouble making this transition.

Another thing about being homeless that few people think about is the amount of time a person has on their hands. Remember: no TV, no Internet, no video games, no inviting people over to hang out… make a list of how many of leisure time activities require having a place to live. How do people spend their days without breaking loitering laws? The library. The park. Hiking. There are only so many things a person can do with limited or no cash.

And here's where a seemingly routine problem can lead to insurmountable difficulties. Boredom has the deadly potential to spiral into illegal activities that can ensnare people who would have never considered such behaviors before they were homeless. Think about the last time you considered giving money to someone who was homeless, only to decide against it because you consider the donation might go towards drugs or alcohol. There is an assumption is that most people are homeless because they're addicts.  Their current dilemma is because they blew their rent or grocery money on drugs, right? And there are homeless who struggle with addiction and use money to fund their habits, but this is not always the case, and it isn’t even the majority of homeless people in America.

Please feel free to disagree with me but I think it is a strong possibility that prolonged times of boredom can lead to people doing and trying things they would have never done before.  Perhaps people who've been living on the street for a long time embrace controlled substances because the drugs not only get them high, but they also provide a schedule and a routine. And once again we see how a short-term problem can turn into a cycle that threatens to ruin the rest of a person’s life.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Cost of Being Homeless

Quick question: If you came home from work one day and found that your apartment was gone -- like if it got sucked into a portal to the underworld like the house at the end of Poltergeist -- where would you go? Your family?… what if you had just moved to a new state, away from everyone.  A friend's house?… what if the only people you knew were your roommates in said apartment.  A hotel?…  this might be fine for a night, but remember that the rates are 10 times what you pay in rent. The line between where you are living now and sleeping in your car is much thinner than you think. If you’ve had a home your whole life, it is nearly impossible to comprehend what it’s like dealing with homelessness.

People don’t realize that being homeless can be incredibly expensive. Living on the street wouldn't too big a deal if you were a robot. But as a functioning organism living in a society, you suddenly realize there are all of these basic needs you need to MacGyver solutions to on the fly. And while we all harbor awesome MacGyver fantasies, none of us have his skill.

Eating is important. The ability to prepare food usually involves the need for at least a camp stove and a mess kit, which will usually cost around $150 for stuff you can be reasonably sure won't break. And you also have to continuously pay for fuel. There are also complications that come from not owning a refrigerator in which to store food.  A lack of refrigeration means food needs to be eaten quickly and that limits things to non-perishable items.

Having a job is not an automatic path to escape homelessness, so it shouldn’t be surprising that nearly 30% of the homeless are employed and many have full-time jobs, even while living at shelters. While they're making enough to scape by, the expense of homelessness is enough to keep permanent or long-term housing out of reach.

"But wait," you're sputtering at my article through your tears of compassion. "The government! Aren't there all sorts of programs to help people in that situation? Didn't I hear a pundit say that people on welfare drive Escalades?" Shockingly, being homeless actually doesn't qualify you for the government gravy train we've heard so much about. Housing assistance exists, but it's limited in scope and scale. But what about food stamps? A problem with EBT is that, with little exception, a person can only but food that needs to be eaten relatively quickly, and if you're homeless that presents a tangible challenge. If you want to eat more junk food, homelessness is great! If you don't want to die of kidney failure, though, your options are more limited, because crackers and cheese just don't keep a person going -- especially when you have to be ready for a week of physical labor.

So, it pays not to be homeless and the homeless often pay a great deal.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Remember to Eat Well

I love food. This cannot be stressed enough. So when I can combine my love and affection of Montana’s warm time of year WITH food, I feel as if I am in paradise.

But while summer is here and many families look forward to this magical time of year in the Flathead, the next few months present a challenge for others. Children who are either homeless or who come from families with limited financial resources often find it difficult to sustain a healthy diet during the summer. Many of these kids rely on school lunches and breakfast programs to provide healthy and nutritious meals so a vacuum is created when this support system is removed during the summer months.
Members of these households have trouble affording high-quality food and settle for eating nutritionally poor diets. This isn’t rocket science but it also isn’t intentional. Instead, it is usually the end result of a couple things. First, some kids are left alone during the day while their parents work so they tend to eat what is found around the house. The majority of these kids would not likely qualify for the Food Network’s Chopped Junior, so easily-prepared and unhealthy food is typically what’s available. It’s much less likely a child will burn down the apartment if he or she is using the microwave instead of the stove.

Second, some families rely on fast food during the day because it is more easily accessible and convenient. It is a quick alternative to shopping for, and cooking food. If a parent is under time constraints from working shift work or more than one job, fast food provides a viable option. I love a great burger as much as the next person, but I don’t make these delectable treats the cornerstone of my nutritional foundation. And while both of these solutions provide quick results, nutritionally, they are not the best alternative for children who need a balanced diet.
It’s really quite simple… low-quality food directly translates into poor nutrition. In some homes, adults and teens, rather than very young children, are the most likely to be subsisting on diets low in vitamins, minerals, fruits, vegetables, grains and meat. There is a really detrimental cause and effect that unfolds. This problem is referred to as food insecurity.

Over the long term, food insecurity can be responsible for diet-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. These are somewhat preventable with a healthy diet According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, just over 14 percent of American households are food-insecure, suggesting that 12.6 million U.S. households experience food insecurity, while 4.6 million have one or more family members going without food. Can you now see the vital role school breakfast and lunch programs play in our community?
Among younger children, food-insecure meant less milk consumption and -- among those between 1 and 3 -- lower consumption of fruits and vegetables. Kids are not eating the right things when there is no support system in place.

Adolescents, however, were a different story. Boys between the ages of 14 and 18 living in food-insecure environments appeared to have very poor diets, consuming less milk, fruit and vegetables than their peers.
The poor dietary patterns of those in food-insecure households provide a moral question. How do we address the root causes of this problem? This issue is very serious because the flip side of the low intake of minerals and vitamins is that these kind of low-quality diets are usually characterized by large amounts of starch and refined sugar. I think it’s fair to assume these people are not loading up on brown rice and quinoa. So, we're talking about empty calories that predispose people to becoming overweight and definitely increase the risk for heart disease and diabetes.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Summer Needs

People often think about doing something for people who are homeless during the winter. They might take jackets, winter caps, sleeping bags, blanket and other winter items to help homeless people who might be stuck in the cold. But what should we do when the weather changes and the heat index climbs like a Bighorn?

Summer presents another set of challenges as temperature soars into the nineties and in some areas above a hundred degrees. Some of the health risks then are dehydration, heat stroke, general exhaustion, and athlete’s foot. You can make the summer a bit more bearable for people who are homeless. Some needs are year around, some are more seasonal. Obviously this really isn’t the time of the year to focus on providing blankets and jackets.

Here are seven ways you can help people who are homeless this summer… one idea for each day of the week!

Collect and distribute light summer clothing. This includes t-shirts and shorts. Most homeless people have limited access to air conditioned facilities so they really need cooler clothing during the summer. Be sure that the clothes are clean and in good repair. The general rule is, if it’s something you won’t wear yourself, throw it away. Remember the dignity of the people you are serving. Before distributing the clothing, have the items clearly marked with masking tape that it is for men or women and the size. If possible separate the items by size ranges so they will be easy to locate as needed.

Baby Wipes
You could provide people who are homeless with baby wipes. People who are homeless can use these to clean up when they don’t have access to proper shower facilities.

Bottled Water or Gatorade
You can give away bottled water. Water is essential to prevent dehydration on very hot days. If you can afford it, things like Gatorade will not only help people on the streets remain hydrated but will replace lost minerals as well. They don’t have to be ice cold, but make sure they are cool. You don’t want to give out hot bottles of water or Gatorade. Try to make it as refreshing as possible.

Foot Care
Foot care is a major concern for people who are homeless. Because of heat, lack of ability to stay clean, and lack of clean socks, athlete’s foot is a major concern for homeless men and women. You can help by giving new socks, foot powder, and athlete’s foot spray to people who are homeless Shower shoes are also very helpful since the only access most homeless people have to showers are showers used by many other people generally in homeless shelters or homeless resource centers.

Retailers often sell ankle and short socks by the pack for $7 or $8 each for a pack of ten. You may even be able to find better deals on line. You can get foot powder for a $1 a container. Athlete’s foot cream or spray is more expensive but is really appreciated.

When you help homeless people with their foot care, be sure to take a large container of baby wipes. You can give a couple to each person so they can clean their feet before putting on their new socks or applying the crème or powder.

Homeless people often need backpacks. This is a good item to collect all year round, but a great time to obtain these will be at the end of summer when it’s back to school time. A lot of retailers will have special prices on backpacks. People who are homeless have to carry almost everything they own with them. Backpacks can be a real blessing for them. Back to School time is also a good time to get others involved in collecting backpacks. A lot of people will pick up an extra one for a homeless person if they are already shopping for their kids.

Another item the homeless need year round is underwear. For men, they generally prefer boxers in dark colors. Also use masking tape to create an easy to see label and mark them with the size to make distribution easier.

Be sure to smile. Strike up a conversation with someone who’s homeless. You may find that your stereotypes get challenged. In addition, that person feels that someone actually sees them as a person and cares about them. Smiles are FREE.

However you choose to help people who are homeless, you don’t have to do it alone. If you are a member of a church, synagogue, mosque or are part of some other religious tradition, you can go to the leadership and tell them what you would like to do. Often they will let you organize a collection drive. You can tell friends what you are doing. They will often bring clothing or they may buy the items you need. Make this a community effort with friends and family. As you help those who are homeless, you will also find that you are being blessed as well. Please bring any donations to our office or call for information at 257-5801. Thanks!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

How to Have (Cheap) Fun

One challenging aspect of being homeless is determining what to do during the course of a day while others are filling their time with activities. This can be especially frustrating or intimidating if you are homeless and have children you need to watch while your spouse is at work or out looking for work.

Summer in Kalispell can be absolutely amazing and there are many things to do that suite all manner of interests. We live in a destination location and with so many things to do; often it’s difficult to narrow a list of potential activities down. So in my quest to stay consistent with frugality and limited financial means, here is a list of things to do on a limited budget. These are things that most people…housed or homeless… participate in.
1.  Read a good book – outside.  Head to the local library or used book store and get that book you’ve wanted to read. There are plenty of great book stores in the Valley and our Kalispell library has many amenities for the entire family. Sit in the sun and soak up some vitamin D as your imagination runs wild or your knowledge increases by leaps and bounds with your new books.

2.  Go on a scavenger hunt.  Have your kids or friends make a list of twenty or so outdoor things for your hunt.  Pick from different kinds of leaves, rocks, bugs, plants, critters and all kinds of other things. If you have a phone, then take pictures. 
3.  Go hiking.  This is an excellent cheap summer activity. There are some amazing trails abundantly available. Just make sure you have adequate supplies or resources if you want to have a picnic. It is also a good idea to have some pray in case you run into certain types of wildlife. 

4.  Go fishing.  No, you don’t need a boat.  Find a nearby fishing dock or public shoreline, dig some worms up in the backyard, and have at it.  If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to follow it up with a fish fry at home.
5.  Have a back yard movie.  Hang a sheet up on the outside of the house, grab your DVD player and a projector, and make your own little outdoor movie theater. 

6.  Take advantage of ice cream season.  Whether it’s a trip to your local ice cream shop for a cone, root beer floats at home on a warm summer night, or an ice cream sundae bar, ice cream is always a welcome treat. There are some incredible places in Kalispell to enjoy yourself.
7.  Go camping.  A back-to-basics camping trip is relaxing, fun and it helps you appreciate the many luxuries that abound in real life. If you have a tent, awesome…if you need a tent you can find one for a great price at a thrift store. Food costs are minimal and there are a bevy of locales.

8.  Go biking.  Take advantage of the warm summer weather and the many local bike trails in your area to get some exercise and have some fun. There is virtually no limit in how far you can go. From Somers to Kila, the trails we have are amazing. 
9.  Go on a picnic.  Search Montana’s state website for area parks and pack yourself a nice picnic lunch.  Head online and look for new and different sandwich and salad ideas to give your picnic lunch a little adventure, and enjoy eating in the great outdoors.

20.  Look for summer deals.  Websites like Groupon, Amazon Local and other local deal sites often get you a terrific deal on all sorts of cheap summer activities.
So, I hope you enjoy these inexpensive summer activities!