Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Let's Leave the Cardboard Boxes for Make Believe Play Houses

For the past few months my husband and sons and I have undertaken a major renovation project; and we don't take on half-hearted projects. No faint-hearted ‘repainting and hanging new curtains’ renovation for us... we've ripped out plaster walls, kitchen cabinets, 60 year old cast iron bathtubs (which we discovered were installed then the walls built in around them--that's another story!),  sinks, steel wall tiles, flooring, toilets… basically gutted everything and started from scratch. In the early stages, I'm always motivated by the thrill of getting past the mess to the final project (bedsides I’m a virtuoso with a splitting mall, crowbar, or any other demolition tool). However, experience has taught me that every job takes three times longer than projected… and toward the end I get impatient (and generally start planning-- or beginning-- the NEXT project). We’re finally nearing that end, with all new cupboards, appliances, bathroom fixtures, and a shiny washer/dryer combo.

After an intense week installing all these new purchases, I had a whole room filled floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes. In an effort to be frugal, I decided to cut up all the cardboard into small pieces to use starting fires in our woodstove.  Who knew this would take most of an afternoon? After about 45 minutes cutting cardboard rectangles, I was decidedly grumpy and questioning why we have cardboard boxes at all. So trying to reframe my curmudgeonly outlook I started brainstorming the positive uses of cardboard boxes. After about 25 creative ideas my exercise stopped suddenly when I thought about how many people in and the world… and yes, even in the U.S., are forced to find refuge living in cardboard boxes. Humility and gratitude for the abundance in my life staunched any further grumblings. The day I was doing this was in February; it was cold, icy, windy and had been cold, icy and windy for an eternity already (2 months). I imagined living with cardboard walls, floors and ceilings- and realized how lucky I am.

I’ve got a full house-- 2 grown kids, 2 cats, 3 fish, a hamster and a galumphing 60 pound Golden Retriever puppy… lots of activity ...and mud. Sometimes I almost dread going home to the endless housework, repairs, snow shoveling in winter and lawn mowing in summer … oh and of course, there’s the dishes and vacuuming I didn’t get to this morning- a seemingly infinite ‘to do’ list of  life’s little worries... but I don’t daily worry about where my family will sleep tonight or if we’ll have food. I don’t worry about homelessness… but many in our community do. The Saratoga County Housing Alliance conducts a count of homeless persons each year. On just one single day in January last year they counted 289 single individuals and 89 families (with a total of 196 people in those families) who were homeless on that day in Saratoga County.  

The Saratoga County Affordable Housing Workgroup with assistance from CARES Inc. and the Capital District Regional Planning Commission recently completed Working Together for Affordable Housing Plan, a ten year plan to address affordable housing for all community members. Extrapolating annual numbers from available data they state “850 households is a more likely estimate of the homeless in the County.” We often envision homeless persons as we’ve seen them so often in the media--single men pushing shopping carts (maybe with a bottle in a paper bag) living on the streets in major cities. In Saratoga County, homeless persons often work, but aren’t able to make ends meet… often are families, and rarely live on the street all year (you can’t in the winter), but instead struggle each week to find somewhere to live for “just a couple of days’. Unlike the big cities, homeless in upstate New York is hidden and unrecognized. The Affordable Housing Plan cites a typical example of homelessness in our county:

“ …a young, working single father  was living in his home in Corinth which he owned with his partner and young daughter. When his partner moved out of the home, he had difficulty making the mortgage payments. Eventually his home went into foreclosure, but he was able to receive family help paying the mortgage. Soon after this short financial reprieve, the company he worked for closed, leaving him without a job for one month. His mortgage went back into foreclosure and he eventually lost his house. He had great difficulty finding an affordable place to move to that would keep his daughter near daycare and pre-school and close to his new job. He found a small house to rent but the rent was almost as much as his previous mortgage. He is now struggling with making his rent and affording the cost of fuel for the home. He is no longer eligible to get a mortgage on another home since he went into foreclosure. As a single parent, a large amount of his income is spent on child care costs. In order to make ends meet, his extended family is helping him with fuel oil costs.”

On one single day  we counted 485 homeless people in a community as stable as Saratoga County. Most people can’t imagine this... and can't imagine what it's like to be homeless.

Tomorrow’s blog:
A conversation with four people who are/were recently homeless.

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