Friday, July 27, 2012

People and Poverty, Homeless and Hunger

Picture by Thomas Hawk
I’ve had this on my mind for some time now, and something I read today written by a dear friend sort of crystalized it in my mind. Naturally, my first thought is to write about it. (Actually, my first thought is to do something. I’m just being flippant. I will describe what I do.)

A recent local newspaper headline: “City’s 2012 Numbers Up 39%.” That is the homeless population; Longmont’s homeless population grew 39 percent year to year in the most recent count.

The Metro Denver Homeless Initiative released city data last week showing that 883 homeless spent January 23, the date of the census count, in Longmont. That is compared to 636 the previous year. The annual point-in-time surveys are held in Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, and Jefferson County. The county-wide data was released a few months back and showed the total homeless count for our county (Boulder) at 1,970 which is an 11 percent increase. In fact, the city of Boulder has seen a decline in homeless, and now Longmont has a larger population of people on the street than our bigger neighbor at the other end of the diagonal highway.

I was involved in the count this year. I’m a former statistical analyst with IBM, and my input and review was requested. I did not design the survey, but I was involved in its review and verification. I was very glad to see that the methodology was the same as in 2011. That is important because if you keep changing the measurement tool, then the results are not consistent. For the last several years, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative changed the counting process every year. This time they kept it constant, much to my approval.

Some statistical results: in Longmont, 75 percent of respondents were adults between 25 and 64 years old. About 59 percent were white and 33 percent were Latino. More than half reported they had been homeless for more than a month but less than a year. About half had received some money from working in the last month, and 59 percent received some government benefits.

Sixty-eight percent reported either staying temporarily with friends and family or living in transitional housing. Only about 4 percent had spent the night sleeping in the streets. (Remember, this is January.) A lost job or unable to find work is still the top reason people listed for their homelessness, followed by high cost of housing.

Sadly the number of homeless children is way up from previous years. There was some good news in the chronically homeless population declined 1 percent and about 20 percent reported being homeless for less than a year. Last year, that number was 29 percent.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, overall, 16% of Longmont residents live in poverty. Contrast that with the very high average salaries in this high technology driven city and the high number of college degrees, even Ph. D.’s, in this city compared to most of the rest of the nation. (Thirty-seven percent of Longmonters have a Bachelor's degree or higher compared with the national average of 27%.) Things are good for most in our fair town, but it is a short jump from working to poverty to homelessness when the economy declines.

When my long-term friend (no one wants to say “old”) wrote today about the tragedy in Aurora – the shooting, she said she saw a quote on a poster:
"I looked around and wondered why somebody didn't do something ... Then I realized I AM THAT SOMEBODY!" Author Unknown
In other words, “don’t just stand there – do something.” This means YOU!

One of the great delights I’ve enjoyed in retirement is the extra time to do something. I’ve gotten involved in several worthy causes. Every Thursday (when I’m in town) I drive a large truck picking up donations for Habitat’s Restore. It is hard and hot work, but I love to drive and meet people, and I get that feeling I’m helping out. The exercise is good too, and I enjoy the people I meet. More than taking donations for a worthy cause, we are often helping older people and people of limited means clear out their homes and dispose of things they don’t need any more. We also haul away a lot of junk and trash … not exactly our mission, but it helps too.

I also work with a homeless outreach, and we provide meals and clothing every day of the week. We are also there to provide transportation to shelters in the winter and to drop-in centers for laundry, showers, phone calls, computers, and just some time watching TV. I’m always floored by the graciousness and gratitude of those we help.

Every night at 7:00 PM we’re at the Justice Center giving out free meals … no questions (other than some demographics) asked. The meals are prepared by a group we call the “Soup Angels.” Sixty sack meals every night – soup in the winter – sandwiches in the summer. That, plus water and clothing. Recently there has been quite an increase in the need. In the past we’ve given out 40 or so meals and then taken food to a local motel, the Wal-mart parking lot, and to others who call with requests, and finally delivering the last of the remaining meals to a local hotel. I don’t know if it is the nice summer weather or a real change in the number of hungry, but the demand for food is way up. A week ago on Monday, we gave out every single meal at the first stop. We went back to our main center and stocked up on what we call “non perishable meals.” That’s tuna or Vienna sausages with crackers and granola bars.

When we stopped at the local motel where many people down and out stay – some with government vouchers – a little girl asked for a meal. She was about 8 years old and playing in the playground. I asked her where she lived and she indicated a nearby house trailer. I asked why she needed the meal and she said she had people staying at their house and there wasn’t enough food. We don’t usually ask so many questions, but we also have to verify the need. So I gave her a meal. Later the motel manager told me her story was not true. She had conned me.

I don’t really care, and that’s why we don’t usually ask questions. It is not our goal to judge, just fill a need. What is the harm of giving food to those that don’t really need it? But, later that night, we got a call from a local church. They had a homeless man there, and he had slept through the seven o’clock time, and now he was awake and hungry. We were all out of food at that point, and that little girl’s trick had literally taken the food out of this man’s mouth.

It is a complex problem. We try not to judge, but just provide a resource. During the day there are both government and charity organizations open for the homeless to use. After five PM, we’re it. We are the evening resource, and we get calls from the local police dispatch and many other organizations.

The following Sunday I was on the street again and this time I was approached by a well-known client of mine while handing out food. I’ll call him “J.” He’s a big guy, about 6 foot 3 and in his late twenties or early thirties. He asked if he could have a second meal since he was very hungry. I couldn’t give it to him for the same reason I questioned the little girl. However, I always carry some McDonalds coupons. I won’t give people on the street money since I don’t know what they will do with money, but I will give them food. I can’t give him the coupons in front of everyone else. That wouldn’t be fair, but I know he’s a big guy, and I would hate for him to be hungry. He headed up the stairs from the Justice Center parking lot, and that gave me a chance to follow him and give him the coupons in private. Twenty dollars at McDonalds can go a long ways if you are careful. He was very gracious and we hugged. After all, SOMEBODY had to do something.

I know an organization that gives out food at Thanksgiving. I think they also provide a meal at Christmas. That’s wonderful. Every little bit helps. But there are 365 days in a year, and people are not just hungry at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Think about that next time you sit down to a big meal at home or a restaurant. Think how close we all are to hunger. Let the power go out or the roads be blocked and the grocery store shelves would be empty in a day or two. We’ve moved a long way away from the source of our food, and many are not prepared for emergencies.

There is a long list of the causes of homelessness and some are due to lack of personal responsibility. Plus, giving help can sometimes become enabling. There are tough decisions to be made. The goal of the organization that I work with on the street is not to be judges or even worry if we are enabling some behavior such as alcoholism or drug use. Even a drunk or a person who is high needs to eat and have a place to sleep. Those other organizations work on getting people the proper care, both medical and psychological, counseling, rehab, etc., as well as work and other needs. We just don’t want anyone dying on the streets because SOMEBODY didn’t do something.

That wise and caring friend of mine summed it up in four short phrases from the inspirational video she linked:
Live Simply
Speak Kindly
Care Deeply
Love Generously
I could not have said it better myself. And you know I’d use a lot more words. Come to think of it, I did! You are SOMEBODY … please do something.

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