Homelessness Myth #5: Sleep-Walking Will End Homelessness

Also published on The Huffington Post.

Some of us ignore the issues of homelessness.  When we walk past homeless people, we may even pretend that these people do not exist.  I call the act of ignoring homeless people who are right in front of our eyes, “sleep-waking past homeless people.”

Of course, sleeping is a natural function for all human beings.  Mark Stibich, PhD. wrote in About.com Guide, updated on May 8, 2009, that sleep is important for people because:

1.  Sleep keeps your heart healthy; 2.  Sleep may prevent cancer; 3.  Sleep reduces stress; 4.  Sleep reduces inflammation; 5.  Sleep makes you more alert; 6.  Sleep bolsters your memory; 7.  Sleep may help us lose weight; 8.  Naps make you smarter; 9.  Sleep may reduce your risk for depression; and 10. Sleep helps the body make repairs.

From reading this lengthy list of benefits, it is obvious that sleep is very helpful to our well-being.

However, one thing that sleeping will not do is help to end homelessness.  Since the 1970’s, homelessness has increased and homeless people have become a familiar sight.  Often, housed people turn a blind eye to the plight of homeless people.  But why?

In my experience, some housed people ignore homeless people for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps the most common reason is that these housed people are afraid of becoming homeless themselves.  This fear is similar to the fear of contracting a disease that some of us experience when we are around a person we know has a disease.

By merely acknowledging the existence of a homeless person, some housed people are reminded of the fragility of their own economic existence.  They begin to think that their job and/or savings could go away and they remind themselves that they are only a paycheck or two away from becoming homeless.  This fear is based upon today’s economic reality.

Further, homeless people are often ignored because some of us housed people have become so familiar with what we deem to be their unsightly images, the “blight of homelessness,” that we just want homeless people to go away.  We are not surprised to see homeless women and men. Rather, we have come to almost expect to see homeless people standing on the corner or sitting in the park. The expression, “familiarity breeds contempt” may hold true in this case, particularly with regard to homeless adults.

Perhaps, some of us are surprised to see children we think are being unsheltered with their parent or parents. Seeing children who are unsheltered is not a familiar sight because they are usually either in school and/or being hidden by their parent(s).

Homeless parents sometimes hide their child to avert the perceived threat that their child will be taken away from them by law enforcement authorities. I say “perceived threat” because homelessness is not in itself enough grounds for the police to take away children from their homeless families. However, if a child is in danger because of being homeless or if their parent(s) is suspected of being an unfit parent, for example, the police have a positive duty to protect the child and remove the child.

Finally, some housed people may be afraid of some homeless people because these homeless people are strangers. As children, we are taught to be afraid of strangers with instructions such as, “Never talk to strangers!”  This fear of strangers is meant to protect children from danger.

However, adults have a greater ability than children to understand life situations and the new people they encounter.  While fear of the unknown is a common fear, we adults can change unknown strangers into acquaintances through the simple technique of introducing ourselves to people when we meet them.

By “sleep-walking past homeless people,” we will never solve homelessness. We cannot end homelessness by ignoring the problem.

We need to wake up!

Only by being aware of something, can we affect it.  Only by becoming aware of the issues of homelessness, will we be able to solve them.  Awareness of the issues of homelessness comes through opening our eyes and truly seeing homeless men, women and children.

Once we are awake and aware of the plight of homeless people, we can educate ourselves by directly serving those in need, by assisting people and programs already in place to help others and by attending workshops and seminars on the topic of homelessness.  Through our own education, we can understand what we can do to help those in need.

Finally, through compassion, which is factually love in action, we can resolve the issues of homelessness.

I suggest the following steps to cure “sleep-walking past homeless people:”  Awareness, Education, Understanding and Compassion.


Homelessness Myth #4: There’s Room In The Inn

Also published on The Huffington Post.

On December 8th, the San Diego Union Tribune reported that on the previous day, the County of San Diego, California experienced one of “the most powerful winter storms in several years…bringing damaging winds, record-setting rainfall and several inches of snow to the mountains.”

My homeless friend Maurice supplied me with the following video of the situation of homeless people in downtown San Diego and the efforts of Alpha Project president, Bob McElroy, to help homeless people cope with the challenging weather.  This video, as you will see, was filmed just outside the Emergency Winter Shelter, run by Alpha Project, which was filled to capacity.

Some background from the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless 2009 Point In Time Count:

1.  In the County of San Diego, there are a total of 7,892 homeless people of whom:

  • 4,014 homeless people are living on the streets
  • 965 homeless people are living in emergency shelters
  • 2,913 homeless people are living in transitional housing

2.  In the City of San Diego, there are a total of 4,338 homeless people of whom:

  • 1,868 homeless people are living on the streets
  • 656 homeless people are living in emergency shelters
  • 1,814 homeless people are living in transitional housing

Homelessness Myth #3: Unsheltered People Only Count At Night

Also published on The Huffington Post.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Renewal (HUD) requires that every two years during the last seven days of January, Continuum of Care (CoC) systems (those agencies that HUD funds on a competitive basis) count the number of homeless people within their geographical areas.

HUD guidelines suggest that the best practice for counting homeless people is to count unsheltered homeless people on the same night as counting people staying in shelters or when the shelters are closed.  Thus, while the counts of homeless people living in shelters take place during the day, the counts for unsheltered homeless people generally take place from midnight until 4:00 a.m., or from very early in the morning, often beginning before 4:00 a.m.

In 2007, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), the lead agency for Los Angeles CoC, counted 68,608 homeless people residing within the Los Angeles CoC.  Not included within the Los Angeles CoC count were the cities of Glendale, Long Beach and Pasadena, which counted a total of 5,094 homeless people in their cities.  Thus, in 2007, the total count of homeless people in Los Angeles County was 73,702.

On October 28 of this year, LAHSA released its January 27-29, 2009 count of homeless people that found that 42,694 homeless people reside within the Los Angeles CoC. Again, not included within the Los Angeles CoC count were the cities of Glendale, Long Beach and Pasadena, which counted a total of 5,359 homeless people in their cities.  Thus, in 2009, the homeless population in Los Angeles County was counted as 48,053.

While 48,053 homeless people is an extremely large number, representing misery for thousands of men, women and children, this number is surprising to some service providers because it represents an unexpected 38% decrease in the number of homeless people counted in 2007.

In its press release, “New Census Reveals Decline in Greater Los Angeles Homelessness,” LAHSA attributes this 38% decrease in the number of homeless people counted in Los Angeles County in 2009 to “progress in the City’s and County’s efforts at reducing homelessness.”

Of particular interest are the statistics that LAHSA quotes in its press release stating that:

[t]he decline in the numbers for Los Angeles appears consistent with similar national decreases [in the number of homeless people counted] seen in areas like: 

New York: 30% decrease
Indianapolis 22% decrease
Riverside County 22% decrease


I propose that counting all homeless people, whether sheltered or unsheltered, during the day would yield a more accurate number of the people who are homeless.

1. Finding unsheltered homeless people at night is problematic. In some cities, there is police activity to break up illegal public camping.  However, on those nights at the end of January every two years, enumerators look forward to finding encampments so that they can find homeless people to count.

It would appear that the police and the enumerators are working at cross-purposes.

2. Would you like it if a team of enumerators came to your home in the middle of the night?  Some homeless people know about the count process and may not want to be disturbed so perhaps they find more out-of-the-way places to stay on census nights.

3. Some unsheltered homeless people stay awake at night.  Why?  Because sleeping at night “outside” puts homeless people in a very vulnerable state.  They often sit in well-lit areas or on buses, or they walk.

The unsheltered homeless people who do try to sleep at night often look for quiet, private places so they are protected from prying eyes, possible attacks and the elements.

4. I suggest that the enumerators bring non-perishable canned and packaged food with can openers to these hungry, poor people.  This act of charity could make the counting experience something that homeless people might look forward to and for which they would make themselves more available.

5. Unsheltered homeless people can be more easily found during the day in public places, in food lines and at service providers’ locations.  Why not utilize the organizers and volunteers at these locations to help introduce the enumerators to their guests?

Finding unsheltered working homeless people can be accomplished by talking to the organizers, volunteers, service providers or friends who know these homeless people.

6. Concerned about double counting homeless people? Homeless people are knowable.  Prior to the official counting dates, a team could just go out, meet homeless people and bring much-needed canned or packaged food.  By knowing in advance many of the people they are counting, enumerators would know to avoid counting the same person twice.

Further, in the case of meeting a homeless person who enumerators have not previously met, the enumerators could simply ask the homeless person if he/she has been counted already.  Once a trust or friendship has been established between any enumerator and any homeless person, this information will be more readily forth coming.

7. It would be helpful if each team of enumerators were accompanied by a trained mental health professional.  Stress is a challenge for all of us and certainly homeless people experience a great deal of stress.  Thus, by their mere calming presence, these mental health professionals would be providing a valuable service.

It is important for many reasons, including justifying the funding of homelessness services, that homeless people be counted.  However, we must be as creative in our thinking about the ways to count them as homeless people are creative in the ways that they survive on the streets.

As fellow human beings, homeless people are entitled to our respect, need our help and deserve our compassion.

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.

Homelessness Myth #1: “Get a Job!”

Also published on The Huffington Post.

This post begins a series of articles about the myths surrounding homelessness. Myths are just widely held thoughts or beliefs that are not generally true. Possibly one of the most widely expressed myths is that homeless people would not be homeless except for the fact they don’t want to get a job.

First, many homeless people are employed while some even have two jobs. Usually, these people sleep under some kind of shelter. They may be living in a homeless shelter or transitional housing situation, on someone else’s couch or in someone’s garage. Since the foreclosure crisis, many families have formed “tent cities” from which they work.

Second, in order to get a job, people must be clean and they must wear clean clothing.   Even at McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants employees are required to be clean. County, state and federal rules and regulations provide the standards by which fast-food restaurants must abide for the health and safety of their patrons.

Proper sanitation facilities are essential so that people and their clothing can be clean and meet the most basic qualification for a job–cleanliness. Without access to toilets, showers and laundry facilities, how are people to keep themselves and their clothing clean?

There are few public toilets, fewer public showers and even fewer public laundry facilities available to homeless people. Toilets and showers are available to students of community colleges, so some homeless people try to enroll in classes. Places like the YMCA have public toilets and showers, but day or membership fees are required that most homeless people cannot afford.

Some years ago, most of the public toilets available to homeless people were in fast-food restaurants or at gasoline service stations.

As the number of homeless people increased, the owners of fast-food restaurants began to lock their restroom doors and charge 10 or 25 cents per use. Of course, tokens to the restrooms were made available to restaurant patrons at the counter.

The restrooms at gasoline service stations were also closed to the public, with access to their toilets restricted through keys available only upon request by patrons. Today, a number of service stations have permanently closed their restrooms to the public by displaying “Out of Service” or “Out of Order” signs on their doors.

To be fair to the owners of fast-food restaurants and gasoline service stations, homeless people sometimes overuse restroom facilities by “bathing” in the sinks, which could potentially damage the plumbing. Other times, some homeless people may spend too long in the restrooms, thereby depriving other patrons the use of the facilities within a reasonable period of time. Further, if people have not had access to a shower or laundry facilities for a time, an odor can be detrimental to business.

How can homeless people clean themselves and their clothing? One answer to this question was the concept of “Housing First,” first popularized by Tanya Tull, founder of Para Los Ninos and Beyond Shelter.  This concept, which proposes housing creation for homeless people must come before or at least in tandem with job creation, has now been popularly accepted.

Unfortunately, sufficient housing for homeless people has been slow in developing and most, if not all of the shelters are full with long waiting lists for future available living space.

Offering public toilets and public showers equipped with available laundry facilities is another answer. Because there is an entire industry involved in the design, construction and rental of portable lavatories and showers, municipalities could quickly make these available to homeless people. Perhaps these public restrooms and showers could be situated near city-owned or operated laundry facilities.

Of course, municipalities could just maintain their existing public toilets and showers on a twenty-four hour a day basis, seven days a week, for their homeless residents.

Cities could also contract with existing homeless shelters to provide public toilets, showers and even laundry facilities to non-resident homeless people.

Third, not every person–housed or homeless–is capable of working. For example, in my experience, 35% of homeless people have problems with mental illness. Some of this mental illness is mild and some is totally debilitating.

To include housed or unhoused mentally ill people within the workforce requires mental health assistance. Certainly, there are mental health programs available for people regardless of their housing situation. However, unhoused people have the additional challenge of finding and pursuing mental health assistance while they have no permanent residence. I think most of us can agree this challenge could be overwhelming for many homeless people.

“Get a job!” is an easy expression to say. However, for some homeless people, getting a job is an impossible dream.

Remembering Mama Lee

Also published on The Huffington Post.

I never knew when Mama Lee was born and I don’t remember the exact day in 1995 when she died, but I knew and loved Mama Lee during the ten years she was a homeless Vietnam veteran living on the streets of Santa Monica, California.  Born in Texas, Mama Lee was a full-blooded Comanche Indian whose married name was Yvonne Starsky.  Yvonne served as a military nurse in Vietnam during the 1960s when our government claimed that we had no women in combat’s way.

It was near the end of her second tour of duty in Vietnam when Yvonne stepped on a “bouncing Betty,” a small landmine that was meant to maim, not to kill.  Indeed, the bomb destroyed the inside of both of Yvonne’s legs.  Upon her return to the States, Yvonne took “Mama Lee” as her street name and used vodka as her pain medication.

Her use of vodka as a painkiller caused Mama Lee not to be acceptable as a resident of any homeless shelter.  So, for ten years, Mama Lee spent many days sitting on a bench in front of Santa Monica City Hall and slept in the doorway of the Santa Monica Culinary Union, then at the corner of Fifth and Colorado, in Santa Monica, California.  During the harshest weather, the police would occasionally take Mama Lee to jail for public drunkenness in an effort to protect her health.

It was only during the last two months of Mama Lee’s life that she was permitted to reside in a homeless shelter.  After Mama Lee learned that she needed a heart operation and she was able to secure a doctor’s prescription for vodka as her pain medicine, the homeless shelter agreed to house her.  Unfortunately, Mama Lee died in the homeless shelter before she was able to have her heart operation.

Mama Lee shared the little resources she had with the homeless people she knew.  Recognizing the common bonds among all people, Mama Lee said that the worst treatment a homeless person could receive is to be ignored by people walking by.  She spoke with love and about love to everyone who took the time to speak to her.  Everyone, housed and unhoused, who knew Mama Lee, cared for her.

Well, perhaps not everyone loved her.  One night as she slept in the doorway of the Culinary Union, Mama Lee was robbed.  Upon learning the identity of the robber, Mama Lee said that he needn’t have robbed her because she would have given him the money if he had asked.  I know that to be true.

Although her money was never returned, the robber did eventually apologize to Mama Lee.  For her part, Mama Lee did not hold a grudge against her robber.  The news of her robbery spread among homeless and housed people.  Mama Lee was never robbed again.

Mama Lee, frail and short, appeared under 5 feet tall as she hunched over her ever-present walker.  Because of her diminutive stature, she had to look up to most of the people to whom she spoke.  To me, Mama Lee towered over all.

Despite the constant need and subsequent use of her pain killer, vodka, Mama Lee was acutely aware of her life as a homeless person.  She knew that she was homeless and she never complained about being homeless.  In fact, Mama Lee often consoled other homeless people when they were sad and depressed about their condition.

This was the life of a woman I respected and loved.  My homeless friend, Vietnam veteran, Mama Lee.

I look forward to your comments.

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.”

Homelessness By The Numbers

Also published on The Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christine-schanes/homelessness-by-the-numbe_b_184332.html

Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen a person who you thought was homeless.  I can see that all hands are up!

I’ll be 61 years old this week and when I was young, the situation was not as it is now.  In my youth, the vast majority of people who were homeless were men. There were very few women and even less children who were homeless.


In the old days, we called those homeless men words like, “hobos” or worse.  We envisioned them “riding the rails,” jumping on and off railroad freight cars and living a life that they chose, free of cares and woes.  At that time, the homeless life was romanticized and movies were made, such as “Emperor of the North” staring Lee Marvin, which depicted homeless men enjoying life to the fullest without any reflection on their possible responsibilities to society.


Today, this is not the picture of homelessness.  In my experience, I have found:


• 40% of the people who are homeless are women and children.  There are no happy movies about their lifestyles, in fact, barely anyone is talking about their plight.  And, certainly, these women and children have not chosen to be homeless.  As if things could not get worse, the number of women and children who are becoming homeless is increasing.


• 25% of today’s homeless people are people who have served in war, generally the Vietnam War.  I thought this number would be decreasing, but with the Iraqi War veterans returning with little or no care for their mental and physical health, it’s going to remain at the 25% level for quite some time.  The Department of Defense has found that 17% of returning Iraqi War veterans are returning with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  PTSD (formerly called “battle fatigue”) is a condition that may exist for its victims from 30 to 40 years.


• 35% of the people I’ve found to be homeless today are men who have had a devastating negative experience of some kind.


Where has the free lifestyle of homelessness gone?  I suggest that view that there was ever a free lifestyle that people chose to live by being homeless was a myth.  It never happened.  But, the myth provided a good storyline for movies.


What happened in sixty years?  Who are homeless people?  Why are they living outside?  Why don’t they have homes?  Oh my God, what happened?


In 2007, the National Alliance to End Homelessness released their report, “Homelessness Counts” citing:


• 672,000 people were homeless each night in the United States (population over 300 million).


• 3.5 million people are homeless throughout the year in the United States.

• Nearly 160,000 people are homeless in the State of California (total population 36 million).


In their report, “2007 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count”, the Los Angeles Housing Services Authority (LAHSA) found that in Los Angeles County (population over 10 million), California there are:


• Over 10,000 children and teens who are homeless every night.


• Nearly 74,000 homeless men, women and children each night in the County.


• Over 141,000 people experienced homelessness in Los Angeles over the course of 2006.


In “2006 Short-Term Housing Directory of Los Angeles County,” Shelter Partnership determined that there are just over 17,000 shelter beds in all of the homeless shelters for the 74,000 people who are homeless every night.  Obviously, people are living “outside” because there is no room in the “inn.”


What are the causes of homelessness?


The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) published a number of causes for homelessness in their fact sheet in June of 2008:


• Increasing poverty caused by eroding employment opportunities and declining public assistance.


The NCH noted that “[h]omelessness and poverty are inextricably linked” because when resources are limited, people often lose their housing.  It adds, “Being poor means being an illness, an accident or a paycheck away from living on the streets.”


• Lack of affordable housing.


• Lack of affordable health care.


• Domestic violence.


• Mental illness.


• Addiction disorders.


In 2000, The National Alliance to End Homelessness published, “A Plan, Not A Dream:  How to End Homelessness” which gives a very brief explanation of how homelessness developed: “While the seeds of homelessness were planted in the 1960s and 1970s with deinstitutionalization of mentally ill people and loss of affordable housing stock, widespread homelessness did not emerge until the 1980s.”


It lists several factors that affected the increase in homelessness:

• Lack of affordable housing.

• Income from employment and benefits not keeping pace with costs of available housing.

• Social trends, including illegal drugs, single parent households and “thinning support networks.”


What is being done about ending homelessness?


On March 24, 2009, President Obama stated in his news conference that homelessness is unacceptable: “Part of a change in attitudes that I want to see here in Washington and all across the country is a belief that it is not acceptable for children and families to be without a roof over their heads in a country as wealthy as ours.”


The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) commented on their website, nlchp.com, in “News,” dated March 25, 2009, that “Homeless is indeed unacceptable.  But the President’s clear statement of this obvious fact is remarkable.”


In “News,” NLCHP founder and executive director, Maria Foscarinis, stated, “This is the first time in recent memory that a president has made such a clear and unequivocal statement [about homelessness]”


The NLCHP, through “News,” further reminds us that in the early 1980’s President Ronald Reagan called homelessness “a lifestyle choice,” while “President George W. Bush made a commitment to end ‘chronic homelessness,’ – the most narrowly defined category – in ten years.”


In President Obama’s press conference on March 24th, Kevin Chappel commented “[A] recent report found that as a result of the economic downturn, 1 in 50 children are now homeless in America.  With shelters at full capacity, tent cities are sprouting up across the country.”


He asked the President, “In passing the stimulus package, you said that help was on the way.  But what would you say to these families, especially the children, who are sleeping under bridges and in tents across the country?”


President Obama replied, “Well, the first thing I’d say is that I’m heartbroken that any child in America is homeless.  And the most important thing that I can do on their behalf is to make sure their parents have a job.  And that’s why the recovery package said, as a first priority, how are we going to save or create 3.5 million jobs?”


In fact, the stimulus package of which President Obama speaks is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  The funding for this Act is over 800 billion dollars of which 1.5 billion dollars is to be devoted to homelessness prevention and rehousing activities.


I look forward to your comments. Thanks, 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!