Homelessness Myth #2: “They’re All Bums!”

Also published on The Huffington Post.

Absolutes can be tricky because there is usually an exception that “proves” or breaks every rule.  We have often heard the expression, “Never say never!” We generally know in our hearts that in the world of human beings, no one is perfect, no rule remains unbroken and no expressions are absolute.

The same is true with homeless people. There are no absolutes. Just based on what we intuit about the world around us, we know that each homeless person is a unique person – just a housed person without the home.

Whether a person can be called a bum actually depends upon how, of course, we define the word, “bum.” However, anyone chooses to define that word, I think most of us would agree that children are not bums under any definition.

In my experience, I have found that approximately 25 percent of homeless people are children. Together, women and children make up close to 40 percent of homeless people and are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. They have not chosen homelessness as a life-style; rather, homelessness has been forced upon them.

Escaping battery is one reason why women become homeless. When women leave their batterers, they generally take their children with them. Battered women’s shelters are testaments to this experience. Not unlike homeless shelters generally, most of the battered women’s shelters are full.

Another reason women and children become homeless is the impact of a challenging economy upon single mothers. Since the first working mom sought employment, finding a job and arranging for childcare so she could go to work have been huge issues. In the past, however, some of these working moms had family that they could rely on to some extent for support.

Today, large distances separate many family members and extended family finances have dwindled due to a host of economic circumstances. Thus, poor mothers often find they are unable to get help from their already overstressed family support system.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 signed into law by President Obama on February 17, 2009, will hopefully help prevent more people from becoming homeless. On October 8th, LaDonna Pavetti, director of the Welfare Reform and Income Support Division of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support that the ARRA  “prevented millions of Americans from falling into poverty and has helped some states to forgo significant cuts that would have weakened the safety net for very poor families with children.”

Part of ARRA, the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) as administered through the States and their Continuums of Care may help homeless women and children become housed. Since applications for assistance are just now being made available to potential participants, the impact of the HPRP is yet to be felt.

The opinions that some housed people may have of homeless people may be understandable, but their opinions are uneducated. For example, some housed people may see homeless people sleeping in public during the day and conclude they are lazy.

In truth, many homeless people choose to sleep during the day because it is too dangerous for them to sleep at night because that is when they are most vulnerable.

Some time ago, I accompanied students from Crossroads High School in Santa Monica as they made a short film about homelessness in their city. I introduced them to my friend, “Charles,” who spoke to them very frankly about his experiences since he became homeless.

Charles shared that although he was over 6 feet tall and weighed over 230 pounds, he was afraid to sleep at night.

“Why?” asked the surprised students.

Charles was slightly embarrassed when he confessed that when he slept at night he was afraid someone would hurt him. Instead, he chose to sleep during the day and in well-trafficked areas because he felt that the constant flow of people would provide him with an additional measure of safety.

Charles asked the students if they had read the reports of some young people who had killed homeless people while they slept.

Bums or people protecting themselves? You decide.

Service Providers, Unite!

Also published on The Huffington Post.

It seems that every service provider has a solution to homelessness.  And guess what, it’s their own program!  That’s fine with me, except service providers generally do not play well with other service providers.  They generally don’t share their programs, they generally don’t share their ideas and they generally don’t share their praise of other programs.  It’s this sharing that, in my opinion, is necessary to arrive at working solutions to the issue of homelessness.

Who are service providers? Municipal governments generally consider service providers to be government agencies, nonprofit corporations and for-profit corporations that provide shelter, food, clothing and necessary items to people in need.  Sometimes these services are free and sometimes these services have a price tag for poor and homeless people.

Municipal governments do not generally consider the individuals and groups who just go out and directly serve those in need in public as service providers.  These individuals and groups are the Good Samaritans who are spoken of and encouraged by every religious and spiritual organization and/or by their own conscience.  I call them, non-government service providers (NGSP).

Unfortunately, municipal governments do not generally consider NGSPs to be “in the continuum of care” because NGSPs are independent of government control, funding and licensing. Municipal governments often foster a “we” and “they” mentality between the government and the NGSPs by passing constitutionally questionable laws, such as requiring a permit for legal NGSP efforts, in an effort to control or end the activities of the NGSPs.

What all service providers, including the NGSPs, do is keep very busy with their own programs.  Fundraising alone is a full time job.  Nevermind running the program and actually helping people in need.

Their time is full, more than filled with everything that they need to handle to get their program running.  There is no time left for communicating with or meeting with other service providers.  So, service providers end up being insulated in their own extremely busy worlds away from the possibly helpful experience of sharing with other similarly situated service providers.

What concerns me most about this business-imposed isolationism among service providers is that service providers tend to criticize solutions to homelessness proposed by service providers other than themselves.  It happens all of the time.

Recently, I was discussing possible solutions to homelessness with a noted service provider who actually runs two homeless programs.  She stated to me that she was against any program through which homeless people were segregated from society, as in a self-sufficient village.  She only favors solutions to homelessness that mirror her own program, that is helping homeless people get vouchers and funds so that they can rent apartments in the midst of the city.

Her solution to homelessness is wonderful. Of course, some homeless people can be helped through this program, but only as long as apartments, vouchers and funds are available.  This service provider admitted that she could not help all of the homeless people coming to her for assistance because of limited available apartments, insufficient number of vouchers for rent and rising rents in existing apartments.

Another service provider recently commented to the press that no one should give water and food to people living outside because homeless people who received these handouts were then not motivated to get services from service providers. What he meant was that once they had some water and food, homeless people would not be motivated to seek services from his program.

But, some of the services in this service provider’s program have five-week waiting periods.  What are homeless people supposed to eat and drink during the five weeks they are waiting for his program’s services?

Let’s end this bickering.  Any service provider doing something good for those in need is really doing something great!  Here are three things that may be helpful for service providers to consider.

1.  The charitable giving of food and water by NGSPs is a band-aid approach to ending homelessness.  However, when we have a cut, a band-aid is the appropriate method of protecting our cut from further damage, infection. Food and water are necessary to life.  The goal here is to keep people alive for the day, a noble goal to be sure.

2.  When NGSPs give food and water to homeless people, this generosity is usually limited to once or twice a year or, at best, once a week.  Does anyone actually believe that homeless people can live on sporadic acts of generosity?  It is not logical to expect homeless people to avoid any additional services just because they occasionally receive food and water from another source.  When in need, people seek out all available services.

3.  Why criticize other programs be they government, corporate or NGSP programs?  The issue of homelessness has many sub-issues, including emergency assistance to homeless people, short and long-term housing solutions and employment opportunities. No one program that I know of provides all of the services needed by homeless people.

The real solution to homelessness is to work together.  Cooperation in goodwill is love in action.  Let’s do it!

The Joy of Service

Also published on The Huffington Post.

I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.
– Rabindranath Tagore

“Service.”  The word alone can conjure up a daunting feeling of being responsible for doing something we might not like or want to do.  Perhaps, the thought of having to do “community service” is overwhelming.  Please read on, you may be surprised.

The word “service” has many uses.  Dictionary.com finds that “service” can be used as a noun, “an act of helpful activity;” it can be used as an adjective, “of service, useful;” it can be used as a verb, “to make fit for use;” and it’s even employed in idioms, “at someone’s service” and “be of service.”  And, of course, we use the word “service” to describe those people who defend this country in “military service.”

Where can we serve?  We can serve in our own family by simply sharing our love.  We can serve those in our own neighborhoods through acts of kindness and compassion.  We can serve individually or together at every level of our culture.  Obviously, all of us, regardless of age, can serve.

Is service helpful?  Service is always helpful.  Through service, by definition, we help.  However, scientific research studies also have shown that when we serve our immune systems can actually get stronger.  Who wouldn’t want a stronger immune system?

Further, when we serve, we exercise our better inclinations and attitudes.  We know that “practice makes perfect.”  So, as we serve, it becomes more natural for us to serve.  Through repetition, service becomes more familiar and easier to do.  In very short order, service can become a habit, a way of life.

Can you imagine what the world would look like if we all had the “service habit?”  Compassionate acts would be everywhere.  Rather than greed, we might exhibit understanding and kindness as the first response many of us have to life situations.

Perhaps most profoundly, whether we are conscious of this or not, every act of service has a spiritual quality.  It is through service that we acknowledge through action that we are brothers and sisters to one another and that we share a common home, planet Earth.

I believe that this spiritual quality is expressed within each of us as joy.   It is this joy that Rabindranath Tagore refers to in the above quote.  I call this “the joy response.”

Please test your “joy response” by taking the following steps:

1.  Reflect on your present mood.  Notice if you are happy, sad or bored.

2.  Do something to help another person or a cause.

3.  Reflect on your mood after your service.  I’m betting you will be feeling joy.  You may even be smiling.

If you have never felt “the joy response,” I can tell you that this automatic reaction within each of us is a pure expression of love.  Because we automatically give ourselves “the joy response,” we really don’t need to get a “Thank you” from those to whom we do service.  Through “the joy response,” we give ourselves our own thanks!

Perhaps, I can provide an example of “the joy response.”  Occasionally, a young person who is working with our organization, Children Helping Poor and Homeless People (www.chphp.com), has shared their feelings that arose when they shared food with a homeless person, but to their dismay, the homeless person did not say, “Thank you” for the gift of food.

“That’s an easy one to explain,” I say.

I ask the young person whether he or she lived in a home, if they slept in a bed and if they had a television.

“Yes, yes and yes,” they respond.

“So, let me understand,” I would say.  “You have a home, a bed and a television while the homeless person probably has none of these things.  And you expect the homeless person to thank you for the hamburger.”

“Hmm.  But wait,” I continue, “how did you feel when you gave the hamburger to the homeless person?”

Without exception, the young person always says, “I felt great!”

That’s the “joy response.”  That’s the “Thank you” that we give ourselves for an act of service.  You see, we’re always thanked for our service.

Battered Into Homelessness

Also published on The Huffington Post.

Domestic violence perpetrated upon women is a leading cause of homelessness for women and their children.  In fact, the National Network to End Domestic Violence in its current online article, “Housing: Issue Overview”, states “the interrelated nature of domestic violence and homelessness is undeniable.”

Please play the following video of legendary artist Edward D. Miracle’s stunning sculpture entitled, “Battered Woman Syndrome,” E.D. Miracle © 2008, all rights reserved.

In the NCH Fact Sheet #7, published in 2008, the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) described the circumstances, which I list numerically below, that lead many battered women and their children into homelessness:

    1. When a woman leaves an abusive relationship, she often has nowhere to go.  This is particularly true of women with few resources.
  • Lack of affordable housing and long waiting lists for assisted housing mean that many women and their children are forced to choose between abuse at home or life on the streets.
  • Moreover, shelters are frequently filled to capacity and must turn away battered women and their children.  An estimate 29% of requests for shelter by homeless families were denied in 2006 due to lack of resources (U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2006).

In “Housing: Issue Overview,” the NNEDV describes the all-to-common scenario facing battered women who seek to leave their abusers:

Victims of domestic violence struggle to find permanent housing after fleeing abusive relationships.  Many have left in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and now must entirely rebuild their lives. As long-term housing options become scarcer, battered women are staying longer in emergency domestic violence shelters.  As a result, shelters are frequently full and must turn families away.

The NCH Fact Sheet #7 sets forth the relationship between domestic violence and homelessness as found in state and local studies:

    • In Minnesota, one in every three homeless women was homeless due to domestic violence in 2003.  46% of homeless women said that they had previously stayed in abusive relationships because they had nowhere else to go. (American Civil Liberties Union, 2004)
  • In Missouri, 27% of the sheltered homeless population are victims of domestic violence. (American Civil Liberties Union, 2004)
  • In San Diego, a survey done by San Diego’s Regional Task Force on the Homeless found that 50% of homeless women are domestic violence victims. (American Civil Liberties Union, 2004)
  • A recent study in Massachusetts reports that 92% of homeless women had experienced severe physical or sexual assault at some point in their life.  63% were victims of violence by an intimate partner.  (NAEH Fact Checker, 2007)

Within the “2008 Hunger and Homelessness Survey” released by U.S. Conference of Mayors, twenty-two of the twenty-five cities participating in the study “reported that, on average, 15% of homeless persons were victims of domestic violence.”  The City of Trenton, New Jersey reported that 65% of people experiencing homelessness there were domestic violence victims, the highest percentage of any city reporting in this study (Appendix G-2).

I have to agree with the NNEDV’s conclusion in its “Housing: Issue Overview” that it “is not because homeless women are more likely to be victims of domestic violence, rather experiencing domestic violence or sexual assault often forces women and children into homelessness.”

Three Steps To Ending Homelessness

Also published on The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christine-schanes/three-steps-to-ending-hom_b_190878.html

It is possible to end homelessness.  How?  There are three steps to ending homelessness.  These steps can be approached individually or at the same time.

Step One: Open public toilets 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with showers and laundry facilities.

Having worked with people in the streets for over twenty years, the reason for public facilities seems obvious to me, but perhaps it is not obvious to everyone:  human dignity.

Housed people generally have access to toilets and showers, sometimes even bathtubs, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Bathing is a cleansing, refreshing, often even therapeutic experience.  Further, housed people either have their own laundry facilities or can afford the cleaning costs at a local laundromat. Wearing clean, fresh clothing is essential for good hygiene and can improve a person’s emotional state.

Giving homeless people access to public toilets and showers with laundry facilities shows respect for and helps with restoration of their human dignity.  Having lost nearly every worldly possession, homeless men, women and children are still human beings and have, just like housed people, their basic human needs.  A homeless person is often left searching for a public toilet and an available shower.  He or she may not have the funds to spend at a laundromat.

Of course, shelter programs have toilets and showers, and often laundry facilities, that are available to homeless people in their program.  There may also be a day drop-in center in some cities where a homeless person can use the bathroom, get a shower and sometimes even do his or her laundry.  And, many of our public beaches have public toilets and sometimes cold-water showers that are available during the day and that usually close at dusk.

However, are there any public facilities available to homeless people at night?  Laundromats? Showers?  Are there even public toilets?

Is it logical to complain about public urination and public defecation when there are no public toilets available?

Step Two: Support transitional housing with social services where individuals, couples and families can live.

Most homeless shelters are temporary facilities where people can live for twenty to thirty days.  Only a few shelters in every city permit people to stay more than one year.  The concept behind temporary shelters is that these shelters are just that – temporary places where a person or family can live in a stable, supportive environment during a time of crisis.  Often these shelters help the residents connect with government programs in their area.

The concept of transitional housing with social services for the residents has been adopted by nonprofits in some cities in the United States.  Transitional housing is usually available for a term of one year or more so that the people involved have a substantial period of time within which to make the transition from the crisis that they were in to the new life that they are making for themselves.

Ideally, the social services provided to residents of transitional housing would include job finding, apartment finding, psychological support, as well as dental and medical referrals.

Step Three: Turn a closed military base into a self-sufficient village where homeless men, women and children could reside.

Finding affordable housing is the ultimate challenge facing a homeless person. However, using a closed military base as the setting for a self-sufficient village created with the assistance of nonprofit organizations would solve this challenge for homeless people.

In this self-sufficient village, there could be buildings with apartments for individuals, couples and families; an orphanage for the care of “unaccompanied youth;” buildings for the treatment of people with single medical diagnosis and multiple medical diagnoses; cottage industries; and organic farming.  The children, and adults if they so chose, could study in existing schools in their area.

At first, this self-sufficient village could be led by a community council composed of the representatives of the organizing nonprofits who would train the residents to replace themselves on the council.  The residents could then vote to fill the seats of the community council with their own representatives.

“Not in my backyard” is a primary objection made by housed people to having any homeless support center created in their neighborhood.  This objection is overcome by using a closed military base to provide a place that would actually welcome homeless people and where homeless people would enjoy residing.

I look forward to your comments.

Thank you, Christine

Food For Thought: The Charitable Giving Of Food

Also seen on The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christine-schanes/food-for-thought-the-char_b_178426.html

The charitable giving of food is giving food to a person without charging that person any money for the food.  It is true compassion and can be life saving.

When we want to serve food to someone living outside, we consider a few things.

1.  We “serve” food to homeless people, we “feed” animals. Many years ago, Michael, a homeless man, brought this point to my attention.  He explained how it felt to homeless people when they heard that the people serving them were “a feeding program.”  “That makes it sound like we’re animals in the zoo,” he said.  “Could you please call your program something else?” he asked.

2.  Every person we serve is our “guest.” This idea came from Koo Koo Roos who used to say, and I hope they still do, to their customers, “Next guest, please.”  The concept of serving a guest helps us remember that we treat each person we serve with respect and kindness.  And it is our goal to have enough of what we’re serving so that every guest gets the same item.

3.  We serve everyone who asks us for food, whether we truly believe they are hungry or not. 
In rare circumstances someone who appears not to be homeless or in need, asks for food.  We serve them just the same.  Why?  Because we understand that something may be missing in that person that perhaps the food that we are sharing can fill, at least for a time.

4.  We can serve canned and packaged food in Los Angeles County, CA, anywhere and any time. In Los Angeles, there are no health rules and regulations dealing with the distribution of canned and packaged food.  Please check to determine if there are any applicable rules and regulations about this in your locale.

5.  Regarding canned and packaged food: we have to remember to follow the manufacturer’s recommended temperature and be sure that their containers are properly maintained with their original seal and without damage so that there is no contamination or spoiling of the contents.

6.  When serving prepared foods, we follow the relevant health regulations put forth by the Los Angeles County Department of Health.  Similar regulations may exist in every county in the United States.  Again, check the rules and regulations about this in your locale.

7. When serving canned, packaged or prepared foods, we must be aware of any applicable laws/ordinances in our area regarding the charitable distribution of food.

Since the early 1990’s, some cities in the United States have passed laws/ordinances that dictate the conditions, including requiring permits, under which food can be distributed in that city.

On November 15, 2007, in their report, “Feeding Intolerance: Prohibitions on Sharing Food with People Experiencing Homelessness,” the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless, found that “many cities have adopted a new tactic – one that targets…individual citizens and groups who attempt to share food with them.”  For the full report, please visit: http://www.nlchp.org/content/pubs/Feeding_Intolerance.07.pdf

In my next article, I hope to address some of the myths associated with the charitable giving of food.

Please let me know what you think about the charitable giving of food.  I look forward to your comments.  Thanks!

How To Serve A Homeless Person: Guide To Gift Bags

Also seen on The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christine-schanes/how-to-serve-a-homeless-p_b_173248.html

We can help a homeless person by serving him/her food, a blanket and/or necessary items.  It’s a pretty simple and wonderful thing to do.

In this article, I would like to propose a way to share items with homeless people. This distribution method of serving an unhoused person has worked for Children Helping Poor and Homeless People volunteers for over twenty-two years. I will discuss “the charitable giving of food” in detail in a later article.

Let’s start from the beginning – we’d like to share something with a homeless person/people, but what should we share and how can we do share it?

First, we ask ourselves, what would we like to share with those in need.  Not sure?  On our website, www.chphp.com, there is a “Can You Help?” button which, once clicked on, will reveal a number of suggestions of how to help.

One of our favorite projects is to assemble one or more Gift Bags, also known as, Survival Kits or Toiletry Bags.  The goal of this project is to fill a bag(s) with new hotel/motel size toiletries and then give them to homeless people.

Although any bag or container can be used, we suggest using gallon zip lock bags for a number of reasons: they are big enough to fit a lot of items; a homeless person can reuse the bag; and because the top of the bag can be securely closed, the car/transportation vehicle is safe from spillage.

Having selected Gift Bags as our project, we can then think about the toiletry items we want to include in each Gift Bag.  This is a very important part of this project because we are raising our own awareness.  We can let our minds wonder and imagine what personal items a homeless person could use.  We might even ask ourselves what personal items we would want if we were homeless.

For more ideas of personal items to include in the Gift Bag, we can refer to a list of just some of these items on our website, www.chphp.com and click on the ” “Can You Help?” button.

We can then make a list of these toiletry items and share this list with our extended family, classroom, school and others to raise awareness and to generate more personal items.  We can also purchase toiletries at reasonable prices at discount stores such as The 99 Cent Store or Big Lots.

After our collection is complete, we can sort these wonderful toiletries into piles of similar items, such as a pile of combs, a pile of toothbrushes and a pile of toothpaste.

Then, we put one or several of each item into each bag.  This assembly process is great fun and can be done by young people and adults alike.

After our Gift Bags are assembled, we can bring them to homeless people we’ve seen in any area, place or park.  For example, in Los Angeles County, we frequently distribute to people in need on the Santa Monica Promenade or at Venice Beach.

We follow several guidelines when we share/distribute anything to anyone:

1.  We always serve in a group with two or more adults.  We are a team.  We always stay together.

2.  We always serve others in a well-lit area.

3. We always use our common sense.  For example, we don’t like to be awakened when we are sleeping, so we don’t wake a homeless person up to serve him/her anything.  We can put the item(s) nearby without disturbing the sleeping person.

4.  The homeless children, women and men are our guests.  How do we treat a guest?  With kindness and respect.

5.  We use special words when serving another person.  We say, “Excuse me, Sir or Madam, do you know anyone who could use this ____________ ?  Fill in the blank, which in this case, is a Gift Bag filled with toiletries.

We have found that the person we are asking will usually respond in one of three ways,

1. 1% of the time he/she will say,  “No, I don’t.”
Our response: “Thank you, have a nice day!”

2. 1% of the time he/she will say, “Yes, there is a person who could use it right over there.”
Our response:   “Thank you, have a nice day!”

3. 98% of the time he/she will say,  “Yes, I could!”
Our response:   “Wow, that’s great!  Here you are.  Have a nice day!”

That’s it.

Creating Gift Bags is a lot of fun, but I can assure you that the distribution, this sharing, is the very best part.

I hope that you will consider direct service.  It’s good for all of us.