What to do about homelessness

“Four more days until we move into our apartment.”

A young mother confides this as she and her husband round up their two kids. It’s 7:40 a.m. They were supposed to be out the door at 7:30. They are staying at a church, one of several participating in an interfaith shelter program. Church volunteers let families fudge the departure time, but it’s stressful. This family has been moving between shelters for weeks. Finally, maybe, hopefully, relief in sight. “I’m lucky,” she says.

41 million Americans live in poverty. 9 million of those have no income. Diseases we associate with third world countries, like hook worm and hepatitis A, are turning up in homeless camps. The number of people living on the street in Los Angeles alone increased by 25% last year.

Homelessness is a problem in every country, but among western European nations the US ranks poorly.  A 2007 study found attitudes in the US less compassionate toward homeless people than other countries. The highest rates for lifetime homelessness were in the UK (7.7% of the population) and United States (6.2%). The lowest rate was in Germany (2.4%).

Can we be more like Germany?

The question is big, and complicated. Action on the national level looks unlikely in the short term at least. Funds to help low income people are being squeezed at every level of government.

For most of us, for me, the issues homelessness raises are overwhelming. Better to break them down and do what we can, now.

1. Avoid, as one woman living on the street puts it, committing the violence of looking away. Homelessness sooner or later confronts all of us: on the streets, in doorways, in parks and public restrooms. It’s tempting to judge, ignore, step over, turn away, forget. Don’t.

Homelessness embodies the heart of our divisiveness. It’s the dark side of a country where 3 people hold more wealth than 50% of the population. People are priced out of housing, don’t have access to training or a decent education, and there aren’t enough jobs that pay enough to live on. Face it, square on, and know we can do better.

2. Focus locally.  Sure, write congressmen and state legislators, maybe even run for office, but find out first what’s going on in your own neighborhood. Communities everywhere are experimenting with all kinds of strategies. Locally, you can feel the impact your effort makes, and learn what works and what doesn’t.

3. Volunteer, even if it’s only a little. Over time it makes a difference. Try shifts at a food kitchen or at one of the churches that house or shelter homeless people. Spend time in and support libraries, which absorb and manage homeless issues every day.

IMG_0177
Sunrise in the church gym housing homeless families this week. Everybody is already out the door.

This isn’t to make you feel virtuous or to relieve guilt. You’ll probably feel less virtuous and more guilty. But it will help you understand.

Having a conversation with a homeless person about kids, schools or the weather provides a glimpse into how small the gap is between your life and theirs, and how challenging it is to be in a strange situation 24/7. For most without a home, the basics of life — where to sleep, what to eat and where to go to the bathroom — are dictated by other people.

Cleaning up, cooking and organizing supplies and food offers insights into the complexity behind all of our lives, and why it is so difficult, once you lose everything, to put life together again.

Getting to know the volunteers and staff who run homeless programs, treatment facilities, and food programs is inspiring.

And hearing a young mother staying in a shelter call herself “lucky” brings to life any gift of time or money.

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Broken window at a facility temporarily hosting homeless families

It’s hard to face this dark underside of the richest country in the world, but we are perfectly capable of making things better. We start by bridging the gap between “us and them,” in small and powerful first steps.

Other countries have done it. We can, too.

A few of the many organizations working to ease homelessness in our town:
Shelter Care
Goodwill
St. Vincent DePaul
Interfaith Shelter Program
Square One Villages
First Place Family Center
Catholic Community Services
Food For Lane County
The Mission

Featured photo credit: D.C.Atty

20 comments

  • A scandalous, persistent and deeply concerning societal problem, which the political classes repeatedly fail to address, instead pumping asset prices (homes, equities) through QE and ZIRP so as to save the banks. What a total disaster the housing situation is for the young! Writing here from a U.K. perspective, though I think it’s the same as there in the U.S. But yes, engage on a personal level, hear some stories, show some kindness, offer what you can, because you can bet your life the political classes won’t, and you, me, any of us, could be next.

    Liked by 3 people

  • I try to show respect to all people including those on the streets. There are unfortunately people who prefer life on the streets – especially somewhere where the climate is mild. They can be a real problem when dealing with the homeless situation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • A percentage, somewhere between 2 and 10% of the homeless population, have intractable problems, either mental health or chronic addictions. They stand out the most, take the most resources and cause the most distress. The other 90 – 98% though fall more into the category of people who don’t want to be homeless but can’t get a job that pays enough, or training. They often get back on their feet, are more invisible and most in need of help!

      Liked by 1 person

  • 6.2% — That’s an astounding number. Almost 1 in 18 people. You’re right, we should all do our part. Supporting shelters is a good start. Thank you for an important and eye-opening article.

    Liked by 2 people

  • There is such a misconception of homelessness, which is a huge part of the problem. Society loves to play judge & jury as they turn a blind eye to people on the street, many of whom have a mental illness. A much larger population of homeless folks are in shelters trying desperately to climb out of their situations. That’s all it takes is a helping hand. I agree that it begins locally.

    Liked by 3 people

  • Sorry I hit a wrong button. Like a fever can be caused by many conditions, so is homelessness a result of many different things. That makes it difficult to address effectively. I do believe that it needs to be addressed at a national as well as local level. People are migratory and a disaster, like the hurricanes we had this year sends folks out from where they started. This puts a strain on places working to solve the problem locally.

    Liked by 2 people

  • I’m readily guilty of looking away, but I can do better. We can all do better. When I was a teacher, it would break my heart to learn this or that student was homeless. It’s hard to expect a kid to get their homework done if they are busy taking care of siblings while mom is working two jobs and the family has been couch-surfing for a while.

    Liked by 3 people

  • Perfectly awesome, girlfriend!

    First of all, I’m reblogging this to Success Inspirers World. Second, I’m an instant follower. Third, you might want to mine, or offer for advocacy mining, my web book: “The New Holocaust: Homelessness in America and What We Can Do About It” at yoursfoolie.wordpress.com — it’s had some really good reviews by some really good people. Fourth, here’s a poem, and fifth oh good for you!

    timelessclassics.wordpress.com/2017/12/07/dont-meet-their-eye/

    Liked by 1 person

  • I agree with Kate that there are many reasons for homelessness, but if there is a will there is a way as Medicine Hat has shown!

    Like

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