Thursday, March 10, 2011

Homelessness ... A Better Understanding

On March 8th the Saratoga County Housing Alliance invited a panel of homeless persons to speak to our group so we could better understand what it’s like to struggle with homelessness and how we can improve services to homeless persons. We had four people, two men and two women,  ranging in age from 20’s-50’s who spoke candidly about how their lives took an unforeseen path that led to being homeless and how they are working now to rebuild stability in their lives. Comedians joke that public speaking ranks #1 in people’s fears… death is #2. For most of us, getting up and speaking in front of a group is anxiety producing. Speaking candidly in front of a group of strangers about your personal struggles, your mistakes, your dreams, about being homeless… that takes courage. I honor the integrity and the bravery of these four people and thank them for helping me to understand how providers can better assist homeless persons.

Each person spoke about their life before becoming homeless. Three had attended college. Only one had experienced homelessness as a child; he spoke about his family living out of a car during his youth, “We had the toothpaste in the car, our clothes, our food, we just lived out of that car… it was different… my father struggled with mental illness.” Another spoke about a supportive family and ‘normal’ home life, college cut short as alcohol and drug addiction led to a downward spiral ending in incarceration… and her long journey to break free from the addiction and begin again. Another spoke of a military career cut short as mental illness evidenced itself… his journey to get the treatment needed and learn to live with a mental illness. He smiled cautiously as he spoke about his goals to go back to school and work- knowing that he needs to pace these goals as stress can exacerbate the mental health symptoms. Another spoke of unhealthy choices, an abusive relationship, chemical dependency. All spoke about how when they were at their lowest point two things happened:
1)      They realized they needed to change their behaviors in order to improve their lives, and
2)      They desperately wanted help, but didn’t know where to turn in this county for assistance.
I was touched as one gentleman spoke with grace and compassion about relying on the soup kitchen for nourishing meals and how he sees small children at the soup kitchen and is troubled so much by the injustice that some children have food and some are hungry. All spoke about gratitude for the support and shelter provided by our local service providers and about gratitude when they have enough food to eat (and we all chuckled as over and over former residents of Shelters of Saratoga talked about the great meals there.)

One gentleman talked about a suicide attempt 2 years ago and how now he is so grateful that he received medical care at Saratoga Hospital that saved his life… that today he is glad to be alive. Each person acknowledged they’d made some bad decisions, choices that contributed to their problems (drug use, not taking needed medications, abusive relationships) and their struggles to overcome the consequences of these choices.  Some acknowledged that they’d been kicked out of programs for not complying with the rules,  “...and when I was kicked out, that’s when  I realized just how much I needed help… and I wished they’d give me one more chance, but it was too late.” I found myself looking back on my life and feeling lucky that some choices I’d made didn’t have lasting consequences, “Whew, I just squeaked by on that one!” More than anything I left thinking that while we have many services to assist people in need, when they’re really most in need… when they’ve hit bottom,  they often don’t know where to go to get help. Sometimes our social problems are so big I don’t know where to start… but awareness of services, this is one that seems fixable. The purpose of the panel discussion was to guide the Housing Alliance in developing programs to help the homeless and, more importantly,  to END homelessness. I’m looking forward to our next meeting to see what ideas this panel discussion generated for other members.

If you are interested in joining us to make sure that
no man, woman or child in our community lives without food or shelter,
the Saratoga County Housing Alliance meets
 the second Tuesday of the month
at 10:00 a.m.
at the Saratoga Springs Public Library.
Feel free to attend our next meeting.

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