Johanna Argoud… In Her Own Words

Also published on The Huffington Post.

CS:  On July 14, 2011, your partner, Larry Dean Milligan, champion of homeless people, passed.  You seem content despite your loss.

JA:  Yes, you could say that. I feel that his life is such a gift to me. And despite the physical separation from Lar, I don’t have the feeling of being without him, unless I choose to. I can always have that joy of being with Lar, a feeling of being even closer than in our physical life together, if I so choose.

CS:  Can you share something about your life?

JA:  Of course. I am sharing this because Lar and I are part of the oneness that includes the reader and all of humanity.

On April 26, 1932, I was born in Sharpsville, PA. When I was three years old, my parents and I moved to Germany. I had a wonderful childhood in the small town of Stockach. My friends and I  would go into the forest to pick berries. We would make visits to the Catholic Church, roller skate in the streets and toboggan in the snow.

I was brought up Catholic and enjoyed reading the stories of the saints, especially the martyrs.  I admired their courage and that they gave their lives for God. I asked myself whether I would have the courage to give my life for God.

In the Spring of 1953, I married my husband, George Argoud, in San Diego, California. Together, we had five children. I worked so my husband could go to medical school in Switzerland. In one of my jobs, I worked as a secretary for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. After my husband graduated, we came back to the United States where he practiced medicine.

When George and I divorced in 1982, I felt that I had fallen into a deep hole. I just couldn’t get out.  I thought my life was falling apart. My marriage… five kids. I asked, “What is the purpose of life?  Who am I? Where Did I come from?”

I found refuge in meditation. I had a room built in the back of my home to be a meditation place and my meditation group met there. One day my meditation group discussed doing something to help homeless people in San Diego.

I just felt that was for me. So, I put a small ad in the San Diego paper that read, “San Diegans Help the Homeless” with my telephone number.

There was just one call as a result of my ad. The caller said that if I wanted to do anything to help homeless people that I should call Larry Milligan and he gave me Lar’s number.
I called the number, spoke to Lar and agreed to meet him the next day at the local bookstore.  I told Lar that I could only be interested in helping homeless people if we regarded them with the greatest respect because as Jesus said, “What you do the least of them, you do to me.”

Before we parted, Lar said to me, “I’m ready for a relationship.”

I said, “Only a spiritual one.”

He didn’t say anything. It didn’t seem to stop him.

So I began going to the weekly meetings where Lar and homeless people met. I could see that Lar was a leader who asked everyone to participate in the meeting equally. However, he did not put himself on a pedestal — that impressed me.

For over 10 years, Lar and I served food twice a week to homeless people in Balboa Park and also at the Lutheran Church. Later on other people joined us in this effort. Lar conducted hunger strikes and we had peaceful demonstrations to bring attention to the issues of homelessness.

One of our major concerns was the criminalization of the act of sleeping in public because there was not enough room in the shelters for every homeless person in San Diego. As a result of our efforts, the case of Spencer v. City of San Diego was filed in 2004. When the case settled in 2007, homeless people could sleep on public property at night without being subject to fine or arrest.

[In November 2010, the settlement agreement in Spencer v. City of San Diego was modified so that a homeless person can be fined or arrested if a police officer offers his or her an available shelter bed within five miles and he or she chooses to decline the bed.]

Because of our activities to help homeless people, Lar and I had numerous encounters and a wide variety of relationships with individuals and groups at the national and local levels, including City authorities, the police and the press.

On September 8, 2009, Lar was the recipient of a lung transplant. For the next three and a half weeks, Lar was in a coma. While I was grateful that he was alive, I took refuge in finding that space where I could feel at one with him.

When Lar awoke from his coma, he told me that no matter how much he loved me, he hadn’t wanted to come back from that place that was so peaceful and absolutely beyond description.

He said, “I hope you’re not angry with me.”

I told him, “Of course not, no one would want to come back from there.”

About two years after his surgery, Lar became seriously ill with pneumonia. One day he said to me, “I want to be with you in eternity.”

I said, “I will always be with you.”

I experienced an indescribable feeling of communion.

When Lar passed, somehow I had the sense to take refuge in that place where we had been as one in our meditation. And somehow his passing was not real to me because in that space he was one with me.

Now when thoughts come to me about him, I come to a place we enjoyed together. When I read his poetry or I listen to the songs he loved, I never fail to take refuge to be with him in that space.  I marvel and it never ceases to amaze me that I am so much a part of him and he a part of me in that oneness. All the years of meditation had given me that space.

In 2005, Lar wrote Love Poem to Joanna to me. I share part of it with you now.

I’m just right here. In thoughts of life Never to be changed. Thinking of the times we gave Serving each other. No, love can never be rearranged And someday death will sweetly come.

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Homelessness Myth #15: Just Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps

Also published on The Huffington Post

“Why don’t homeless people just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?”  What I believe some housed people mean by this question is that homeless people should be able to get themselves out of homelessness by themselves, through their own efforts.  Of all the myths about homelessness, I feel that this myth indicates the least understanding about the situation in which homeless people find themselves.

Homelessness is a very complex issue.  Actually, homelessness is the result of many factors that contribute to people becoming and staying homeless.  Among these factors are lack of affordable housing, insufficient income, lack of jobs, mental and physical impairments, addictions, abuse, the foreclosure crisis, municipal ordinances and community attitudes.

Lack of affordable housing is the most obvious, yet the most challenging factor, in my opinion, in overcoming homelessness.  There are not enough emergency shelters, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing or affordable housing in any major city to house the number of homeless people living in that city.

In the event that a homeless person receives some kind of federal or state support, these benefits are generally not sufficient to cover the cost of housing, food and necessities, such as medical care and medicine, in any major city.

But how about homeless people getting jobs that will allow them to pay for housing?  Some homeless people do work, but cannot make and then save enough money for first and last month’s rent, plus a security deposit, so that they can move into an apartment.

And then there is the credit check done by some potential landlords through which they eliminate people who have poor credit scores as potential tenants.  Many homeless people, including most foreclosure victims, have poor credit scores and thus do not qualify for some housing.

Nearly everyone recognizes that there is a high unemployment rate in the United States.  There are just not enough jobs to go around.  Unemployed homeless people have the same challenges as housed people as they seek employment.  However, homeless people often don’t have the supportive environment and means, such as a home, clean clothes, job skills and transportation, essential to making a good impression for job interviews and securing jobs.

I asked several eminent professionals and unhoused people about their thoughts on the statement, “Homeless people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.”  I am very grateful to them for their comments that follow.

Ken Peters, Peer Liaison for San Diego County through Recovery Innovations of California: “I do feel the idea that homeless people with mental illness need only ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ is ridiculous. Most of this community is so worn down by life they have little hope things can be any better.  Many have been abandoned by friends and family and feel no one cares.”

Stephen Carroll, M.S.W., Homeless/Transition Age Services Division Director, San Diego Youth Services:  “Regarding ‘bootstraps,’ my thought is that ‘to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps’ implies that we are responsible first and foremost for the changes that we want to make or need to make in our lives.

But like most, if not all, of us, when we find ourselves literally pulling up our bootstraps, we need someone or something to lean on to help support us until we have succeeded.  One is an American value, the other a human value.  And in my opinion, each is complimentary of the other.”

Roger, 26 years old, unhoused: “My belief is that we have to work as a team to do anything.  We have to come together as a unit and [that way we’ll] get 10 times as much done as we can by ourselves.”

Clayton, 25 years old, unhoused: “You should always be ready to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps because you can only count on yourself.  But, working as a team and taking guidance from elders are always a plus.”

Sean, 19 years old, unhoused: “People need places to go where you can get a place to stay, where they can get a job.”

Brooke, 21 years old, unhoused: “Do good deeds and you get good deeds.”

Darcy, 21 years old, unhoused: “I think it’s a community effort.  We can help ourselves and yet, we need to work together.”

Glorious, 23 years old, unhoused: “We have a lack of common spaces.  Our world needs that right now.  We’re interdependent.  To learn anything, we need teachers.  Our experiences are shared.”

Keoni, 28 years old, unhoused: “I’ve been on the road since I was 16 years old.  I know how to get myself up.  But I have to meet ‘locals’ [housed people] to get a job and a house.”

People who have no homes have fallen upon hard times.  They may experience a crisis state that envelops them and can feel overwhelming.  They may need a respite, a time to gather their thoughts, reflect and make plans for the future.  Perhaps counseling would help.  Certainly, being outdoors day and night during a time of crisis is not conducive to recovery from the crisis.

In my opinion, we all need to help one another.  Homeless people may need help to get out of homelessness.  Through understanding and compassion, we can help our neighbors be they housed or unhoused.

Homeless People in San Diego Compete in Triathlon (VIDEO)

Also published on The Huffington Post

On Sunday June 27, 1,400 people participated in the 28th annual San Diego International Triathlon consisting of a 1K swim, a 30K bike ride and a 10K run.  The event raised $50,000 for the homeless programs of St. Vincent de Paul Village.

Six participants, racing in two teams of three people, were the first homeless women and men from St. Vincent de Paul Village to join in this event.  I asked these six amazing participants why homeless people would run in a triathlon.  I thank them for sharing their stories.

Team #1 Biker
Colette, 56 years old, born in Los Angeles, CA

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“I am a former police officer and I came to St. Vinnie’s seeking asylum.  My homelessness was not a choice — it was due to circumstances beyond my control.

Although I have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I completed short and long term programs at St. Vinnie’s.  I am not homeless anymore.  I have my own apartment.  Now it’s a question of survival.

I rode the 18+ miles on a mountain bike.  [Laughing] I was the only rider on a mountain bike.  Everyone else had a real nice 10-speed, aluminum, made for racing bike.  But I love exercise.”

Why bike in the triathlon?

“Exercise is one of the most therapeutic things for me.  Although I began jogging in 1983, I have a stress fracture in my right foot, so I rode the bike. Participating in the triathlon was my way of saying thanks to St. Vinnie’s and Father Joe for helping me.”

Team #1 Walker
Charles, 57 years old, born and raised in San Diego, CA

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“Although I had walked in a couple of 5Ks, this was my first triathlon.  I prepared for this race by walking one and a half months.  Before that, I had had kidney surgery.  The race gave me something to look forward to.

I would eventually like to get a job.  But depending upon what the doctors say, I may not be able to…”

Why walk in the triathlon? 

“Besides praying and reading my Bible, the triathlon helped give me hope. The triathlon, and walking to prepare for it, helped fight my depression and anxiety.  There is nothing more beautiful, nothing more wonderful than a park setting, even though it’s in the city, I find peace in my walk.”

Team #1 Swimmer
Malcolm, 49 years old, born and raised in San Diego, CA

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“Before I ran in the San Diego International Triathlon, I had no previous triathlon experience.  I became homeless six years ago due to drugs and alcohol abuse.  My future plans?  I want to finish my classes at the Village.”

Why swim in the triathlon? 

“I have a background in water polo from high school.  There was a poster displayed in the men’s dorm about the triathlon.  I said to myself, ‘I can do this.’  I did not know which leg of the triathlon I would do until the day before the triathlon, so I practiced all three parts — swimming, biking and running.”

Team #2 Biker
Amos, 19 years old, born in Jamaica and raised in Haiti

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“I came to the United States in 2005 to go to school, get a paying job and help my people back there in Haiti.  My goal is to attend United Education Institute (UEI) in Chula Vista and learn criminal justice.  I plan to become a police officer.”

Why bike in the triathlon? 

“I heard that many people had problems because of their age.  So, I thought biking in the triathlon was a way to show that age doesn’t matter.  It just matters that you finish.  The same attitude applies to life.  You can’t give up.  You have to finish.  And I had fun doing it!”

Team #2 Runner
Jan, 24 years old

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“I became homeless in 2008 as a result of domestic violence.  Running is good exercise and a stress reliever.  Running relieves what I went through and will help me get back to school and become a nurse.”

Why run in the triathlon? 

“Except for my son, running makes me the happiest.  ‘Forrest Gump’ is my favorite movie and an inspiration for me.  I wish all St. Vincent de Paul residents could participate in the triathlon so that they improve physically and emotionally.”

Team #2 Swimmer
Nikita, 62 years old, born in Bulgaria

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“In 1999, I came to the United States. I became homeless in 2007 when I left my apartment in LaMesa, CA because it was being remodeled.  After the remodel was completed, I was told that I could not go back to my apartment.

From the time I was a young girl in Bulgaria, I enjoyed sports.  As a student at the university, I studied Preventive Care Medicine.  As a math teacher and then later as a vice principal in a high school, I kept my love of swimming. In the future, I would like to work for Father Joe at St. Vincent de Paul Village.”

Why swim in the triathlon?

“Because they put an advertisement up.  I like adventures.  I thought, ‘I can do this.’  Every opportunity I can to do sports, I do.  Every day, I go to 24 Hour Fitness Center and swim.”

I asked triathlete Nicholas Coniaris, MS, CRC, the program manager at the Education Center/Health and Wellness Program for St. Vincent de Paul Village why he encouraged and coached these athletes.

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Nick responded, “At Father Joe’s Villages we strive to heal and rehabilitate the whole person, and that includes their bodies, minds and spirits. Yoga, tai chi, meditation, music group, walking and triathlon are all opportunities that we provide for our residents to start creating energy, pride and good health for themselves.”  Please visit www.svdpv.org for further information about Father Joe’s Villages.

The event creator and coordinator, Rick Kozlowski, was excited about the participation of these athletes: “This past race, something happened that we had talked about for 28 years — this year I got to see St. Vincent de Paul residents do what I had created all these years.  I hope that homeless athletes will participate in future San Diego International Triathlons!”

Please watch the following YouTube video of these athletes in action.

WATCH:

Homelessness Myth #14: They Choose to Be Homeless

Also published on The Huffington Post

No one truly chooses to be homeless.

Certainly, the nearly 50 percent of homeless people who are women and children don’t choose homelessness over being housed.

Further, the 25 percent to 40 percent of homeless people who are reportedly veterans would presumably prefer to re-establish the lives that they had before their military service rather than choose to become homeless.

Finally, we know that 35 percent to 45 percent of all homeless people suffer from some kind of mental illness.  If some homeless people are mentally ill, do they really have the mental capacity and ability to choose being housed over being homeless?

This morning my homeless friend, Jerry, asked me what I was up to today.  When I told him that I intended to write an article about the myth that homeless people actually choose homelessness over being housed, he said, rather matter-of-factly, “I choose to be homeless.”

“Really,” I replied.  Then I did something which upon reflection, I wish that I had not done. I asked Jerry to think about the life of the young person we saw getting out of his vehicle.

Motioning toward the young person, I said to Jerry, “If right now I were to give you the choice to exchange your lifestyle for his lifestyle with an apartment, refrigerator, bathroom, TV and car, would you do it?”

Jerry was silent.  He didn’t respond.  He just kept looking down.

I knew I had touched a nerve and possibly brought to his mind a lifestyle that is not an option for Jerry, not a choice for him.  At this moment, there is no way that Jerry can have a housed lifestyle and he knows it.

Why?

Because there is no room in the homeless shelters for the numbers of people who need a bed.

Because most, if not all, homeless shelters require that their clients be clean and sober before they can be admitted to their program.

Because there are limited, if any, programs to help a homeless person get clean and sober while they are on the street.  There are insufficient rehabilitative programs of any kind for the numbers of homeless people living on the street or in shelters.

Not long ago, a homeless friend, Nicky, said to me, “I choose to be homeless.”

“Really,” I said.  “Do you choose living in the cold, the trash food, the lack of a real bed or apartment?”

“No, those are the bad things about being homeless.  I don’t choose those.”

“You do realize that if you choose to be homeless that these things are a natural consequence of your choice?”

“Yes, but those are not the things that I choose,” he said.

In my opinion, one choice from two or more options is only a true choice when the consequences of the choices are equal or nearly equal.  The choice between living in a home or living on the streets is an unequal choice because of their unequal consequences.

Homeless people living on the street have no bathroom facilities, limited clean food, and unconventional sleeping conditions.  Often, the unsheltered homeless people eat “trash food” to stave off their hunger.  Clothing appropriate for the weather is sometimes a luxury.  Warm blankets, unsheltered people’s basic necessity, spread on the ground or on cement, even over cardboard, are no substitute for a real bed inside an apartment or shelter.

And we have not even discussed the safety issue.  When we housed people are indoors we lock the doors against possible intruders.

How can homeless people protect themselves from someone, housed or unhoused, who wishes them harm?  Often, homeless people stay awake in the night, sleep in well-lit areas or sleep in hidden places so as to keep themselves safe.  But, there are no locks outside.  There are not even doors which can be locked.

The answer: provide services for homeless people where they are.  For example, create programs that are for unsheltered people who have not yet kicked drug or alcohol addictions.  Have programs for people who live outside but who have mental illnesses.  Meet the people where they are mentally and physically.

Why wait and demand that homeless people become clean and sober on their own so that they can get into a shelter, when they will come to find out that there is no available bed in any shelter?

Help unsheltered homeless people become clean and sober through services and shelter programs designed for people recovering from additions.

I’m sorry that I raised the thought of a housed lifestyle for my friend, Jerry.  I raised unreasonable expectations for my friend and for what purpose — just to make a point?  I won’t do that again to Jerry or any other unhoused person.

Homelessness

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.

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

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