Sunday, October 12, 2008

How homelessness affects me... & what I do about it

Homelessness has never been one of my top "issues" or "causes." There are lots of other social or environmental concerns that seem more pressing to me, or get my attention more. These are things like the poor health care system we have in this country, in which folks like my good friend "C" can't get health insurance because of his diabetes-- the exact reason he NEEDS health insurance.... or the lack of adequate streamside protection measures, so that folks with big money can come and build their McMansion right in the river corridor, remove all riparian vegetation that helps stabilize the soil and filter out pollutants and provide habitat for numerous wildlife species, and fertilize their finely manicured lawn right up to the water's edge.... or the fact that Montana still allows the trapping of wolverines, although there are estimated to be fewer than 500 individuals in the whole country, and no other states allow trapping...

These are all issues that I'm faced with on a personal and/or professional level on a near-daily basis. These are the causes that get my attention... and my limited lack of extra cash when I have it to donate to charities or campaigns.

So when Robyn started talking with me about her TriToEndHomelessness campaign-- an effort to raise awareness about homelessness and generate funds for the Genesis Home shelter in her hometown of Durham, NC-- I thought it was a nice sounding cause, but didn't really relate at a personal level, except in the fact that my friendship with Robyn has spanned nearly two decades, and I respect that anything she does is worth supporting..

But over the last two years-- and the past two months, in particular-- I've started thinking more about the issues of homelessness, and realizing that it DOES affect me.

Through reading Robyn's blog, I've learned more about the diversity of homeless people. My uninformed stereotype has always been that homeless folks are bums who are too lazy to get jobs and take care of themselves. And you know, for some, that might be the case. But definitely not for all homeless people. I've learned about single moms who have had major medical issues that have led to them losing any savings... then losing their job... then losing their house... and thus being forced to live out of their car, bathe their kids in the gas station bathroom before school. Those moms aren't homeless by choice. And a similar scenario isn't all that far-fetched for many that I know. I'm fortunate enough now to have decent health coverage through my job, and a family who I know would do all they could to help me out if times got tough. But not everyone has those things... and it's not likely their fault.

I've opened my mind to the fact that not everyone who's homeless is a "junkie" or a "bum." Some are, for sure. But many have gotten to where they are because of a series of bad luck or poor choices. Who am I to judge?

And yet, I do. I judge them for making bad decisions. And I judge myself for wanting to turn my head to the issue.

Homelessness is not a "pretty" issue. Not like "save the whales" or "protect the panda." But, as I've learned throughout my career as a wildlife biologist, saving cute animals isn't really a pretty job, either. The issues are complex, multi-layered. They have much to do with politics, with money, with competing social values. Dealing with homelessness is the same way-- complex. Homelessness doesn't just happen. It's the result of many socio-economic falterings. It's the culmination of many problems: poor health care, lack of affordable housing, cracks in the education system, abundance of substance abuse...

But regardless of how much I can rationalize that homelessness is a cause worth supporting, there's still something deep within me that doesn't want to.

So I've been trying to figure out WHY do I have such negative feelings towards homelessness as a cause.

To do that, I've been thinking about how homelessness affects me. Here are some examples from the last few months:

One morning I rode my bike into town, and as I was just a few blocks from work, I saw a homeless man fall down face-first onto the sidewalk and go into convulsions. His friend flagged down a passing car, and the driver used his cell phone to call 911. I stood there, straddling my bike, paralyzed with the lack of knowledge of what to do, and watched as the two men tried to stabilize their friend and pad him from further hurting himself on the concrete. I didn't know what to do. Other homeless folks started coming to the scene, consoling each other, and helping to flag down the ambulance when it arrived. But I did nothing. I felt helpless to help the homeless man.

In the mornings I love to run on the Kim Williams trail along the river. There are two parks along my route that have bathrooms. And running in the morning usually makes me have to use the bathroom. But, the City locks these bathrooms at night, to prevent homeless folks from taking up residence there. And they don't open the bathrooms until after I'm done running, usually. So, I have to either change my route to include a place with an open bathroom, or (what happens more often) use the bushes. When I'm squatting over my freshly dug hole, I'm often perturbed that homeless folks indirectly inconvenience me.

For the past many years, I've lived and/or worked in more rural areas, where you just didn't ever see homeless people. Now that I work downtown in one of the larger cities in the state, I'm faced with homelessness on a more regular basis. In fact, it's so regular that I've shifted some of my habits to deal with it. There's quite the culture of homeless folks who panhandle on the streets downtown. They often sit on a wall in front of the courthouse, or on a bench near a particular street corner, and ask for money as people pass. I don't like being asked for money. It makes me mad. "I've been at work all day earning my money," I think, "while you've been sitting here bumming it. Hell no, I'm not giving you any spare change." That's what goes through my mind. What comes out my mouth is usually, "No, sorry," as I avert my eyes and walk quickly by. I've started looking ahead as I walk downtown... if I see panhandlers along one side of the street, I'll cross to the other. Avoidance like this is the only way to not get asked. Walking along talking on the cell phone or having conversation with a friends is apparently not a detractant, as panhandlers will interrupt my conversation to ask for money. These people anger me-- they break my rules of common courtesy and respect. And that makes me uncomfortable.

So to sum up, Homelessness makes me feel:

No wonder I don't like thinking about the issue. No wonder it's not on my list of "causes that I care about." It's NOT warm and fuzzy. I DON'T like it.

So I should ignore it, right?

Ugh, wrong. That's not the right answer. Or at least not the answer for a socially conscious, well-educated, responsible citizen. Not the right answer for someone who believes that problems are to be addressed head-on, not to be pushed to the side for later.

So what do I do? Do I give a few dollars to the folks that ask for it? No, that definitely doesn't help the cause.

I can make financial contributions to organizations that are helping to end homelessness-- either for one person or one family at a time, by helping them get back on their feet and learn to manage their lives, or by working within the political realm to change some of the policies and programs that make it more difficult for people to provide for themselves. This morning I've donated to both the local Poverello Center here in Missoula, and the Genesis Home in Durham, NC.

And I can help spread the word. I can talk to my friends about some of the root issues regarding homelessness. I can talk out my feelings and my stereotypes, and try to become a less judgemental, more tolerant person. And I can write about the cause on my blog, and refer folks to Robyn's blog for much more information.

And I can give thanks to the people in my life who have supported me, making it possible for me to provide myself with a good life in which I have the time to run, to think about larger causes, to donate money to help those who aren't so fortunate.

And I can vote. I can research the candidates who are running at local, state, and national levels, and I can cast my ballot for those who will work on mending some of the problems that lead many Americans into a life of poverty and/or homelessness.

What can you do?


Anonymous said...

Hi there "Walker Runs",
I very much enjoy your blog.
I am writing to share with you that your post on homelessness was a smart, reasoned, and extremely insightful look into a very complicated socio-economic issue.
It sounds like you work downtown, so if you would ever like a tour of our facility, or to have lunch in our soup kitchen, I will personally meet with you.
Creating awareness and keeping the conversation relevant with the diverse nuances of the people we serve is such an important component of my position and I am thrilled to see your astute analysis on this fine blog.
Best wishes to you always,
Ellie Hill
Executive Director
Poverello Center, Inc.
Missoula, Montana

Robyn said...

Thanks, as always, for your support my dear friend!

If I've learned anything from endurance sports, it may very well be that being uncomfortable is not enough of a reason to stop -- moving, caring, acting. Thanks so much for acknowledging your own discomfort with this issues and doing someting anyway.

And, for more on rural homelessness, check out:

Anonymous said...

I think its great that you took the time to stop and think about the causes behind your aversion to homelessness. I think if we all helped set up a system that gave the bare essentials (basic health care, food and a bed) we would be far less inconvenienced and far less frustrated not having to confront this issue all the time. But definately a complex issue, and thanks for sharing your thoughts!