Homelessness is a range of situations. Some very successful, good friends, who live very comfortably on their sailboat, recently found that the U.S. Census considers them homeless because they do not own or rent a house/condo/apartment (We’ve had a few jokes over that!). People who are forced out of their upside-down mortgages and into smaller homes or rentals by foreclosure are said to be homeless. I occasionally deal with 18-year-olds who’ve left the family home and are living with friends rather than submit to their parents’ rules—they, too, say they’re homeless. None of these are the homeless I want to tell you about.
First, close your eyes and work through this scenario with me:
You’ve lost your job. Who do you call? What do you do?
You’ve lost your home. Who do you call? What do you do?
You’re hungry. Who do you call? What do you do?
OK, that’s enough to get you thinking. If you’re like most people, within a few seconds you’ve made a mental list of people you KNOW will be willing to help, and a list of actions to take. For most of us, we’d immediately have the help we need. And we’d manage. Maybe we’d juggle a couple low-paying jobs while we moved in with relatives, or one of dozens of other scenarios.
Now, think again. What would it take to alienate all the people on your “who do you call” list to the point that you truly couldn’t expect help from them? I’ll tell you: chronic drug or alcohol abuse, mental illness, depression, etc.
We see a number of truly homeless folks at the emergency food pantry where I volunteer. Some of them are living in tents in the woods of Aberdeen and Havre de Grace. Occasionally, they’re run off private property and have to relocate, but some of these campsites have been in place for years. A number of these tent-dwellers are military veterans, who still wear their military-related sweatshirts, ball caps, etc. with great pride. A few others are, as one described himself, “crazy as a bedbug.” These men come to the cupboard every 30 days for food, and do not want the special “ready to eat” foods in the homeless bags. Nope, they assure me, they are NOT homeless, because they have a fire. That means they can cook. During the winter I always ask these fellows if they need shelter, and they always laugh and say, “No, we’re fine.” Part of their decision making is knowing that the ONE small shelter in Harford County is almost always full, especially in inclement weather. The only other option is to be sent into Baltimore City to a shelter. And most importantly, the shelters are DRY. No drugs, no alcohol, and no one actively high or drunk are admitted.
I ran into a married couple, living in a tent, who’d been victimized by vandals, burning their tent and possessions. Both were working, he as a cook, she as a highway flagperson, but they were unable to save enough for the first- and last- month’s rent that a landlord requires to rent an apartment. This couple was only requesting a replacement tent, which they received. But a local mental health agency that was treating the wife was actively working on getting them into an apartment. They’d ended up in the tent because an employer had taken advantage of them (didn’t pay the husband), so they were evicted, with nowhere to go.
Then there are the “No-Tell Motel” dwellers. As you drive up and down Rt. 40 you’ll see them, motels that charge weekly rates, or rock bottom nightly rates. No matter, they’re still a very expensive type of miserable housing. But, they don’t require security deposits, and you can pay as you go. So, at the Deacons Cupboard it’s not unusual to hear us ask, “Do you have cooking facilities?” Ask school secretaries about the number of students who list an address with a room number on their contact information. Displaced moms with kids, and senior citizens seem to make up most of this group.
These are just a smattering of the mostly invisible homeless of our community.
There are challenges at every turn for the homeless and those trying to assist them. Landlords (rightfully) require first and last month’s rent as a security deposit—that’s a minimum of $1,000 in one wad, per homeless person or family. Most landlords (rightfully) require proof of continuing income from potential renters. Utility companies also require security deposits.
Getting the homeless into jobs is also difficult. Applying for a job and listing either a motel room or the “woods behind the grocery store” as your address guarantees that your application is headed for the shredder. What does a tent dweller wear to a job interview and how does he clean up for it? All of this pales in the face of the drug/alcohol abuse, mental or physical illness that permeates the homeless community.
When you add the desperation of homelessness to substance abuse and mental illness you have a community ready to explode. The most minor slight can set it off. At the emergency food pantry we have to use “deli style numbers,” so that folks are helped in order of arrival to prevent arguments. The notion that one person got a “better” brand of cereal or butter can set off anger. So, our poorest neighbors often disproportionately need the help of “peace officers,” in the truest sense of the term. And police involvement doesn’t help one’s resume.
So, to move one person away from homelessness, we must secure an apartment (including $1,500-plus security deposits for landlord and utilities, and ongoing rent until the person is self-sufficient), provide mental health services, clothes, bathing facilities, and coaching/mentoring to land a job, and continuing mentoring and monitoring to keep the person on the right path. And that implies that the homeless person is 100 percent compliant.
It’s a tall order. But there are things we can all do to help.
Give money! My favorites (other than a shameless plug for Grove Presbyterian’s Deacons Ministries) are the Harford County Community Action Agency, The Salvation Army (these folks do great work!), or the Welcome One Emergency Shelter (the only one in Harford County).
Give time! Volunteer at one of the area’s emergency food cupboards or at the homeless shelter. You don’t need to know how to solve the big problems, just how to listen and treat people with respect. A simple conversation can mean all the difference.
Give stuff! Church and non-profit related thrift shops have the ability to give stuff away when needed. In Havre de Grace, you can donate to the American Legion Thrift Shop or the Lutheran Mission Thrift Store. In Aberdeen, Grove Presbyterian Thrift Shop will accept your donations.
I wish solving homelessness was as simple as throwing millions of dollars at it. It isn’t. It’s an octopus of a problem, with tentacles going off in every direction. I wish I had the answer to getting everyone off the street and into homes and jobs. I don’t. But I suspect that the problem will be solved one person at a time, and it will be solved at the local level.