Saturday, September 10, 2011

Falling Off of the Edge

Homelessness is a problem in any big city in any given economic climate. When times get tough, homelessness gets worse. It’s a fact. Numbers are not needed to prove it; one only has to spend a little time to see it.

Saint Louis is no different.

When we think of homeless people, how many times do drugs and alcohol pop into our minds as the cause of homelessness? I cannot recall the number of times I have heard the statement that some people ‘choose to be homeless.’ It is easy to think that, I suppose. After all, what might the average person do to keep from being homeless? Surely I would never allow that to happen, right?

And then there are those pesky runaways. “Troubled” kids – that just means kids that cause trouble, to their parents, to the schools to the police.

Did you know that the National Network for Youth puts the number of “disconnect, unaccompanied and/or homeless youth in our country” at 2.5 million? That’s a whole lot of mothers’ babies all alone in this world doing whatever they have to do to survive. That’s two million five hundred thousand children and youth whose chances of being productive citizens in the future lessen dramatically every day they are disconnected, unaccompanied and/or homeless.

What if we thought about homelessness differently? What about these “excuses” for homelessness:
An abused woman with children running from a violent partner/spouse…
A recently discharged veteran, disabled, not yet receiving benefits…
A family living too close to the economic edge, falls off due to a crisis such as injury or sickness…
A senior citizen living on a fixed income that is far too fixed and no support system in place…
Children abused and/or neglected by parent/step-parent…
Children sexually abused by family member or family friend.
Uninsured, under-employed, have to choose between medicine and rent…or food and rent…or any number of other things and rent…
Me losing my job and my partner losing her job in the near future, times are tough, we are both in our 50’s…

All these explanations sound a lot more reasonable than someone choosing to be homeless. I have never heard a child answer, “a homeless person” when asked what she or he wants to be when they grow up.

The only thing separating me and “them” is a small puff of wind.
Working upstairs at the Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Saint Louis, I had forgotten the number of people who walk through the first floor hallways on a daily basis to get a drink of water, use the facilities, or just to sit in the Nave seeking a modicum of shelter from the streets. Back on the first floor now, I am only there a couple of weekdays each week now but I am still amazed at the people who come in seeking help.
Many are looking for “the lady in the bookstore.” That lady would be Debbie, my partner. Word on the street is that she will help with incidentals like snack foods, toiletries and sometimes socks and such. We have a small “emergency” closet church where we store pop-top foods, crackers, fruit cups/snacks, toothpaste and brushes, deodorant, etc. Being in the Bookstore on the ground floor of the Cathedral, she is often the first person that sees or is seen by those seeking help.
There was a woman and her little girl that came seeking help not long ago. Their time was up at New Life Evangelical Center, a non-profit church center downtown that provides help for those who are homeless. The woman and her child had been there as long as the rules allowed so they were on the streets. She was trying to get into one of the shelters for women and children but had been told by them that there was no room. She wanted a suitcase, pillows and shoes for her little girl. A call went out for help and three people promptly responded with the requested items.
A couple of weeks ago, as I walked from one office to the next, I saw a young couple standing in the hallway. They had a little boy with them. They were hot and sweaty, tired and looking lost. I asked if I could help them. They said they had been told to come to the church to find “the lady in the bookstore.”
The couple was from Colorado. Out of a job, his grandmother in Saint Louis County had bought them bus tickets to bring them to St. Louis so he could find a job. She told them they could live with her for two weeks. They had been there three weeks and at the end of that day, they had to leave her house. Their little baby was with her for the day. Hoping to find a place to stay for the night, they still had to return to pick up the baby.
At a board meeting the other day, I heard an oft repeated statement:  there are plenty of beds for “the homeless” in Saint Louis. Well, that’s all good and fine if one is comforted by numbers. 200 homeless; 200 beds (small random number to show a point). Comforting, right?
No.
Because the fact is that just because the beds are there doesn’t mean that those who need them are allowed to sleep in them. There are rules and regulations deciding who can and who cannot use the different facilities.
Rules help keep community safe. But it is a fact: the street is not a safe place for women and children.
To stay in many of the shelters, one must have proof of identity. There is also the residency restriction. One must be able to prove they are a legal resident of Saint Louis to stay in a homeless shelter in Saint Louis. If a couple wants to stay together, it won’t be possible in most places. If a father wants to stay with his wife and children, it isn’t possible. If a woman and her children just lost their home but are not actually abused and running scared, it is far more difficult for them to find those elusive beds.
These are just a few of the details of why those beds are not filled at night but the nooks and crannies of the streets are.
This is just the beginning, I think, of things I have to write about this subject. We have a problem and somehow we have to figure out what needs to be done.
While talking to the people who THINK they understand the problem is an important part of understanding, talking to the people who are actually living within the problem, hearing the whys and hows of what brought them to the point and what they believe will help them – that is where we have to get serious. There has to be the recognition that those who are without a “home” to live in are no different than you or me. They are people who found themselves, suddenly or otherwise, without the basic need of shelter. We cannot superimpose our perceived understanding as a solution.
Just as with any alleged problem, the solution is often a state of mind. Even more often, the solution to the problem often involves simply removing the offending sight from the eyes of the offended.
Out of sight; out of mind. That type of solution has to eliminated. 

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