I woke yesterday morning to ice on my windshield. I instantly thought of the Code Blue.
That is the alert called by Sonoma County when nighttime temperatures drop to dangerous levels for the homeless population. Our volunteers at Catholic Charities were manning warming stations throughout a stressful night for people living on the streets.
I am grateful this Thanksgiving to work with folks who welcome people experiencing homelessness with a tremendous but matter-of-fact generosity. They offer a reprieve from fear, a look in the eyes that conveys respect, inquisitiveness that says each person is interesting and unique.
They help them find homes and employment, help their kids get into schools. They help write resumes and coach them in interviewing skills, even provide nice clothes for job interviews. They feed them and provide beds.
They set aside parking lots where families who live in their cars can feel safe at night.
Some of the people who come to Catholic Charities have criminal records.
So do I.
Some of them suffer from mental illnesses.
So do I.
Some of them are addicts.
So am I.
Some of them are unemployed.
I’ve been there.
Many of them are fleeing domestic violence.
You and I know someone who has, too. I promise.
An exhaustive 2011 government study found that nearly one in five women reported they had been raped or experienced an attempted rape at some point, and one in four said they had been beaten. One in six said they have been stalked.
If you are reading this, you know an addict or alcoholic. You know someone who is mentally ill. You know an unemployed person.
The face of homelessness may not be so different from you or your neighbors. Imagine losing three months salary, losing your insurance, going off your anti-depressants, your Lasix, your Lipitor, your benzodiazepines. Imagine missing one rent payment?
On this day when we are supposed to celebrate gratitude, be glad for those people you know. They have you. Be glad for yourself. Be thankful for support. Be thankful for a family, for friends. For ties that bind and break falls. For patient people who will not betray your trust and will tolerate you at your worst. Be grateful that you have not fallen so far that you have destroyed all of those ties.
One of the first questions asked when a family enters our shelter is what support system they have. A majority of them have no one. The sound of those words in the air is so icy it burns my eyes.
There is a sign hanging in an 12-step meeting I attend that says “Alcoholism is a disease of loneliness.”
Isolation can be fatal.
After two weeks in jail following a DUI, I was a shaking, terrified mess. All I thought I had going for me was a sobriety chip in my pocket. I walked out of the Buchanan Country Jail into my brother’s embrace. In the car I wondered what I would have done if he hadn’t been there. The answer was as clear as the fresh air through the open window. I would have broken my probation and walked into a bar.
Someone or No one.
That is a life and death difference.
I don’t like the expression, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It seems to say that God chose me over someone else. It’s more accurate to say, “There but for the grace of my brother go I.” “There but for the grace of a loving wife and beautiful children go I.”
I’ve seen people with 420 friends on Facebook decry “their” money going to lazy people who don’t want to work for a living. Drug addicts. Welfare queens. Drains on society. These are tough times for everyone and I chalk those statements up to fear and the spread of misleading information. There is a misconception that people are gaming the system or that less-deserving people are receiving homeless benefits at the expense of veterans. It’s not either or. In fact, Congress recently voted down a benefits package for homeless veterans because there is a surplus of benefits from last year. They will look at it again on the next budget.
The people living this dangerous life are in it together. The veterans, much like when they were serving active duty, do not concern themselves with the politics of their situation. They are surviving– head injuries, PTSD, poverty and loneliness.
In fact, there has been great progress on this front.
Since a 2009 Obama Administration initiative to end veteran homelessness, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness has decreased by more than 33 percent. The state of Virginia announced last week that it is the first state to meet the federal definition of effectively ending homelessness among veterans.
Tax dollars well spent
Research shows that for chronically homeless individuals, stable housing is essential to recovery. The solution to the problem of chronic homelessness is permanent housing coupled with supportive services that provide for rent subsidies, rehabilitation, therapy, and improved health.
These services are cost-effective. Chronically homeless individuals living in permanent housing are far less likely to draw on expensive public services. They are also less likely to end up in homeless shelters, emergency rooms, or jails, none of which are effective interventions for chronic homelessness. The costs to local, state and federal agencies is reduced.
A public program in Seattle found that it saved nearly $30,000 per tenant per year in publicly-funded services, all while achieving improved self-reliance and health for their clients.
Targeted prevention policies are equally important, connecting with people who are at risk of becoming homeless, such those exiting prisons or psychiatric facilities, before they have the chance to become homeless.
People who are chronically homeless are often the public face of homelessness. It is a common misconception that this group represents the majority of the homeless population. Rather, they account for less than 15 percent of the entire population on a given day.
Fortunately, there has been significant progress to address chronic homelessness in the last decade. The number of individuals experiencing chronic homelessness has declined by 21 percent since 2010.
A substantial number of people experiencing homelessness are in families.
- In January 2014, there were 578,424 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States.
- Of that number, 216,197 are people in families, about 37 percent of the homeless population, and
- 362,163 are individuals.
- About 9 percent of homeless people– 49,933 — are veterans.
Homeless families are similar to other poor families. They typically become homeless because of an unforeseen event– a medical emergency, a car accident, a death in the family — that prevents them from being able to hold on to housing.
Most homeless families are able to bounce back quickly, with relatively little public assistance. Usually, homeless families require rent assistance, housing placement services, job assistance, and other short-term, one-time services before returning to independence and stability.
It is estimated that there are approximately half a million unaccompanied youth in the U.S. They often become homeless due to family conflict, including divorce, neglect, or abuse. Most experience short-term homelessness, before returning to friends or family.
They provide special challenges because they are often not eligible for services used for homelessness intervention. For example, they cannot sign a lease.
There has been a rising focus on LGBT youth experiencing homelessness who have specific needs and are at heightened risk of harm compared to their heterosexual counterparts.
Domestic violence is prevalent among women experiencing homelessness. One study in Massachusetts found that 92 percent of homeless women had experienced severe physical or sexual assault at some point in their lives, 63 percent had been victims of violence by an intimate partner, and 32 percent had been assaulted by their current or most recent partner.
A strong investment in affordable housing is crucial to this population, so that the family or woman is able to leave the shelter system as quickly as possible without returning to the abuser.
Poor health is a major cause of homelessness, and homelessness creates new health problems and exacerbates existing ones. Living on the street or in crowded homeless shelters is stressful and made worse by being exposed to communicable disease, violence, malnutrition, and harmful weather exposure.
Common health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma become worse because there is no safe place to store medications or syringes properly. Maintaining a healthy diet is difficult. Behavioral health issues often develop or are made worse. Injuries do not heal properly because bathing, keeping bandages clean, and getting proper rest and recuperation isn’t possible. Minor issues such as cuts or common colds easily develop into large problems such as infections or pneumonia.
High stress, unhealthy and dangerous environments, and an inability to eat properly worsen overall health and result in visits to emergency rooms and hospitals. Thus, it is not surprising that those experiencing homelessness are three to four times more likely to die prematurely than their housed counterparts, and experience an average life expectancy as low as 41 years.
Currently there is talk in Santa Rosa, Calif., about how to provide hospice services to people on the street who are dying. The problem: hospice comes to homes.
Out in the cold
The first words that come to mind to describe the experience of homelessness are not lazy or weak, but rather, frightening, exhausting, overwhelming, lonely, deadly.
I have hit the bottom of addiction, stared into the abyss of a full-blown bi-polar break, heard the click of handcuffs and the clang of a jail cell door. They were all frightening. One difference, I didn’t go through any of these experiences without a home to return to.
I didn’t go through any of them with No One. That would have taken another level of courage.
I have never had to hide my children from the threat of violence.
I have never sat on a bucket all night in a grocery store parking lot to watch over my family sleeping in a car.
I have never truly feared a weather report.
Last night when I picked up the laptop to begin writing this, I threw on an extra sweatshirt because I get cold easy. I didn’t turn up the thermostat because our bill was too high last month.
This morning, as the sun relieves another Code Blue, I am grateful that I am able to write that sentence.