Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Part 3: Zeroing in, homeless prescription (Week 10)

From Life 2.0

One day back in the dark ages, our 7th grade choir teacher Mr. Verbout put a dot on the blackboard and asked the class, "what do you see?" Most of us dummies said "a dot," but somebody (who probably went on to Harvard) said "a blackboard with a dot." "Right!" said Mr. Verbout.  "Most people see the dot instead of the board.  Trouble makers are the dot.  They get all the attention.  I see you.  All of you."  

I can't remember his prescription for trouble makers, but I remember the dot. 

Think of a homeless meth addict shouting obscenities on a street corner.  He's a dot.  The rest of the people who are homeless are the blackboard.

Most homeless people, about 80%, can't wait to get off the streets. A night in a shelter is not something most people find enjoyable.  This group is pretty much invisible, except to volunteers and social service workers, keeping their heads down, trying to avoid thieves and police and predators, hanging on to a veneer of normalcy. They are busy trying to get back into the mainstream.  Most of them make it.  

Another 10% don't function as well and need more help, but also dream of regular lives with enough money for food and a place to live and a job.  

That leaves the last 10%, who are pretty much chronically in trouble.  They often live on the streets for years, struggle with mental illness and drug addiction, have health and legal problems. They are visible, used to panhandling, not worried about appearances. When people throw up their hands and say things like "the poor will always be with us," I suspect they are picturing this 10%. 

Source: KVAL special on homelessness
Focusing on this small, troubling cluster warps discussions about what to do.  Separate the permanently distressed from the temporarily in trouble, however, and it's a little easier to imagine solutions.

For the vast majority of homeless, a basket of traditional community services works well.  This usually means a partnership between private donors, volunteers, faith communities and service agencies, who work together to provide vouchers, food, job and housing referrals, assistance with public benefits, drug and alcohol treatment, child care, safe places to sleep and shower, legal advice for mortgage troubles.  

For the more intractable, traditional measures don't work.  

What to do?  First accept and plan on spending money, either directly through donations and taxes, or indirectly for  (1) unpaid medical bills, since the chronically homeless have a lot of health problems, and (2) jail beds, since most of them spend time there, as well as the services provided to all homeless.  Many cities throw up their hands and let this rag-tag group bump along, treat them in emergency rooms, rotate them in and out of jail, step around them in the city parks and doorways, and pay enormously in social and monetary costs.

Some cities are trying novel approaches.  The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless for instance aims more or less for permanent dependence on social services rather than self-sufficiency.   I kind of like this idea.   

I know, I know, it sounds terrible and counter-intuitive, but put it this way:  take a guy with an addiction to meth, no teeth, cirrhosis and Hepatitis C. who has done three jail stints.  If you get him into rehab and then in a relationship with a social worker he sees every couple of days in a supervised living situation, with regular food and health care, maybe hospice if that's what he needs, wouldn't that be a success?  Even if he was there for ten years?  

Housing for formerly homeless, Colorado Coalition for the Homeless
Yes, it's expensive.  So is jail and a three week hospitalization for pneumonia.  Yes, it won't work for everyone, but again, the overall numbers aren't very high.  If we got, say 90% of the worst cases into free care, that would that be good news. Best of all, we could steer this group, both physically and in the minds of the public, away from the larger group who are temporarily in trouble.    

I think our town is headed in this direction, but we have a ways to go.

In the long run, the food kitchen where I volunteered is probably in trouble. This is very sad because it is a wonderful facility. There is a push, however, to revive downtown and as more money gets invested in downtown businesses, there will be a parallel push to move street people out.  Right now there is no way to separate the mentally ill from people who just need a meal, so the kitchen will continue to be a gathering place for troubled folks, and it is going to make people who shop and visit downtown uncomfortable and antsy for a cleanup.  Time to start planning a move.  Businesses who would like to see the kitchen relocated should participate in the planning and chip in on the fundraising. 

So, the long and short of it:  food kitchens are a good thing.  Volunteer in one if you can, or send money.  If you get involved in a discussion with someone who swears up and down that helping the homeless is a waste of time and money, assure them it's not.  It's an investment in our community.  If you see a guy on the corner asking for money who looks like he's just going to spend it down the street at a bar, you might unfortunately be right; then again, you might not.  If you volunteer at the food kitchen though, you might get to know him and find out for sure. 

Street corner panhandling
For more reading on dealing with the hardest cases of homeless people, see Malcolm Gladwell's 2006 New Yorker Article, "Million-Dollar Murray."  

Week 10 of commuting by bicycle:  Total commutes 23 (three in the bank).

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