Code Blue: There but for the grace of ‘Someone’ go I

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.

AKBA177962_AA4E_41DA_B8AD_A6C470862909I 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.

No one.

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.

Veterans

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.

Chronic homelessness

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.

Families

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.

Fleeing violence

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.

Health

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.

 

 

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The Poetry of Damaged Wood

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”Chinese Proverb

When I lived in the Seattle suburbs it seemed that every wind brought a power outage. Young, fresh, evergreens toppled like stemware at a toddler’s birthday party.

Spoiled by soft living in saturated soil, the roots never reached deep enough to hold their ground.

6c5e5f09a999e8010bd1679d751970b7Replanted in clear-cuts, the emerald trees glowed in the dawn’s light off my back deck. They were certainly beautiful and they drove up property values, but there was something lacking –untested– in these feathery trees adorning housing developments.

The towering Douglas fir I saw on a hike high in the Cascades lacked their symmetrical grace.  It was bony and naked from where the shadows began up in the canopy down to where I stood on a cushion of dry needles. Its was pocked by beetles and blackened by memories of forest fires. Leaning eerily into the steep slope of the mountain, most of its branches jutted off to one side. It and sister trees grew out of a long, narrow ridge, the earthen remains of an ancient sequoia corpse, a “nurse log,” returning it’s nutrients to the next generation.

The suburban trees were likewise more sleek than the massive tulip poplar that stoically haunted my front yard in Missouri. A dark wound gaping from the massive trunk oozed bees. Late at night I imagined it home to demons.  One jagged branch careened over the neighbor’s house like an unfinished freeway off-ramp. Leprous bark crumbled in chunks.  It was a rough tree that had lived through rough times — tornadoes, droughts, ice storms, lightning strikes.

No one writes poetry about pretty suburban trees. Naked Douglas firs, scarred by forest fires, living off death, and homely tulip poplars possessed by demons, those are more romantic.

Today my wife and I celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary, the wood anniversary. We live high on a hill where the wind always blows. There is nothing smooth or lush about either of us. Rather than topple, we lean into the wind – or more often into each other.

JJ is strong because she has been abused, scarred, burned – by relationships, circumstances, tragedy. Her face is creased by wind and sun and sorrow. Her eyes sparkle with a joy that only someone who has experienced despair can know.

JJ and I both are among the 51 percent of Americans whose first marriage ended in divorce.

We both came out of that experience damaged,  dried up, our trust eaten away. We lost friends. I lost family. Some might say we nearly lost everything.

I’m not sure if it matters which tree  is JJ and which tree I am. I’m from the Midwest so I guess I’ll be the Tulip Poplar, the battered tree with the bark falling off. I’m bi-polar so a few bees buzzing around inside is an apt metaphor. Wind and ice and drought and lightning out of nowhere have made me patient.  I know soft rain and warmth outnumber storms. Children eventually gather around, and one day the exact right person comes along to see beauty.

JJ is lovely like the fir high up on the mountain, straining for light. She is damaged by memories, secretly alone at times even in a crowd. She leans into life, sheltering everyone around her. Haunted as she is by it, she still finds nourishment and transformation in tragedy.

There are many discussion about the state of marriage in our country. The statistic above is quoted often. Social change is blamed for stealing the institution’s sanctity.

Today, none of that matters to me. Not today. Today  is about wood. It’s about miles of roots that hold true when wind and rain and lightning blast from all sides, roots that find sustenance and water when there’s none to be found. And bark toughened by time, elements and those who would do harm. And heart, soft but enduring.

It’s about broken branches and nakedness and dark places inside.

It’s about poetry.

Our marriage is not easy. Finances, unemployment, addiction, sickness, fear.

Drought, tornadoes, forest fires, lightning, pestilence.

The problems have always been there. They will be tomorrow.

So will the trees.