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Archive for February, 2008

Communication is one of the many barriers the homeless are faced with when attempting to reclaim their lives.  When applying to jobs from a shelter, it is hard enough to conceal the fact that you’re homeless.  In fact, many homeless individuals miss valuable job opportunities because they cannot receive phone calls at a shelter or when an employer realizes the address listed on an application is a homeless agency.

This is why Google’s recent provision of permanent phone numbers and voicemail to the homeless community of San Francisco is hopeful stuff!  This is definitely a service that many Center for Respite Care clients could use.  For example, we provide our clients with a phone line, but it is shared by 14 individuals.  This can make it difficult to receive calls and for this reason, we allow our clients to receive business calls on our phone line.  This doesn’t always alleviate the problem, however, as we’re a small agency-there are only four phone lines to go around!  And sometimes, they’re all in use.

So hooray for Google and here’s hoping that someone is able to spread this service throughout the U.S.

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This story is the first in what I hope will become a multi-part feature of the true stories of Center for Respite Care clients.  Our client’s name has been changed to protect his privacy, but the article itself is not fiction.

From Morning to Night: Rick’s Story
“My sister didn’t let me drink in the house or come home drunk so I would, literally, go to the store, get a six pack, drink it and then sit out on a cold freezing bench all night long, just to get that alcohol. I needed that alcohol in me.”

As a state-qualifying wrestler in high school, Rick* never gave much thought about the possibility of being homeless one day. When he arrived at the Center for Respite Care, however, his leg was broken in two places, his cast was in tatters, and his hand was badly injured from a piece of embedded glass. He seemed far from his days as a star athlete.

“I had no crutches, no medications, no idea of what I should do,” he says, recalling how quickly possessions get stolen at shelters. “People are always watching, but you can’t watch your stuff all the time. You look away for one second and it’s gone. That’s your everything – it only takes a split second and everything you have is gone.”

So how did Rick become homeless? A turning point was the death of his father. Rick had taken care of both parents until his mother’s death in 2002, and continued to care for his father until his death in 2004. Having left college years earlier, Rick watched friends graduate, get married, and start on lives of their own.

While caring for his parents, Rick’s drinking continued, but it wasn’t until his father’s death in 2004 that Rick found himself unable to function. He did odd jobs for a landlord in return for an apartment, but when his building was sold, Rick was evicted. His sister took him to a local shelter and he later completed inpatient treatment for alcoholism. When a close friend relapsed the following summer, however, Rick followed, spiraling downward once more.

Back at the shelter months later, Rick’s alcoholism escalated as he became ensnared in the vicious cycle of bumming money, buying alcohol, and getting drunk. Looking back, he remembers the toughness of life on the streets, saying, “If I would’ve stayed down there, I’d be dead by now. . . people don’t realize how quickly you can become homeless, and how hard it is to get out of it. In order to get help, you have to know these places [social service agencies] exist, know how to get there, and find some way to do what they tell you.”

Rick sought help, but other programs couldn’t accept him because of his alcohol abuse. One social worker, however, pulled him aside. “If you really want help,” she said, “be at the front desk [of the shelter] tomorrow at 8:00am.” Rick was there by 6:30am.

At the Center for Respite Care, Rick finally got the medical treatment he needed. “In one day, I went from being barefoot on the street to having clean clothes, something nice to eat, clean, sober people around me, new crutches, and medicine. From morning to night, I was living in a totally different way.”

Today, Rick is looking forward to starting physical therapy for his hand and hoping that his broken leg will heal properly without surgery. He is working toward permanent sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous and reconciling with family. “My sisters really want to see me be sober,” he says, with a hint of sadness, “I don’t feel left out—I left myself out—but I miss being around them, just being there for them.”

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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For a homeless person, illness changes everything.  Viruses and minor infections can become major health obstacles when a person is forced to sleep in the cold and is unable to care for themselves properly.  What starts as a cold can become pneumonia.

For the homeless community, the emergency room is often the only source of health care they have.  Waiting for routine problems to become emergencies is often the only way treatment is available, but what happens after the emergency room?

All too often, not much actually does happen.  Struggling much more than before, the person misses medications, follow-up appointments, changing wound dressings, or something as basic as resting.  Theft at shelters can make adherence to prescription medication schedules virtually impossible.

Is it surprising at all, then, that so many homeless individuals end up in emergency rooms over and over?  And given their own funding restrictions, how much can we expect hospitals to do to care for these individuals?  The cost of keeping someone in a hospital bed is astronomical. 

What can be done?  I’ll let you know in our next installment!

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Watch two former clients of the Center for Respite Care talk about their journeys into and out of homelessness. 

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Still worthy of kindness!Take a moment to imagine a homeless person.  What do you see?  A person huddled around a few trash bags full of belongings?  The unshaven visage of an older man who appears drunk?  A person sleeping next to a decrepit bicycle on the sidewalk? 

The stereotypical image of homelessness is not pleasant.  It certainly is not cute.  Few people, however, consider how this image of homelessness effects the ability of nonprofits helping this community to survive.

Studies have shown that physical attractiveness counts in our society.  Employees who are less attractive make lower salaries and experience fewer promotions than their more alluring counterparts.

In much the same way, homeless people are less attractive recipients of charitable impulse.  And homeless shelters, respite centers, soup kitchens, and emergency shelters are suffering as a result. 

Part of the problem is lack of a natural constituency for the homeless community.  Think about it: families and friends of people with mental illness or cancer would be likely to donate to these causes.  They are the group with the most natural inclination to give money to organizations that strive to prevent and cure these ailments. 

But what about friends and family members of the homeless community?  For many homeless people, the reason they are homeless is that they don’t have families or friends who would take them in.  There are a variety of reasons for this, but the point is that there is no natural constituency of donors to homeless agencies. 

The people supporting the homeless usually don’t have homeless friends and relatives.  Why?  Because these people are sympathetic to the plight of the homeless.  They would be more likely to take in a needy friend or relative.  That’s not to say that the families of homeless people don’t ever have good reason for refusing to help these individuals.  In many cases, in fact, they must turn the person away for their own protection or because the individual refuses to get the help they need. 

But . . . these people are also not likely donors to homeless causes. 

As an agency that serves the adult homeless population, we’ve tossed around this scenario many times.  We want to help our clients, and yet we see that the media images we have of them are not as compelling as, say, a little girl in Africa holding a sack of rice. 

It’s just not cute to be homeless. 

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How’s your emergency fund doing these days?  According to financial experts, you should have 3-6 months worth of living expenses saved (and liquid) for quick use in case of emergency such as illness or a layoff.  But how many of us do?  Some perhaps, but certainly not all.  Perhaps we have some money saved, but dip into the stash too frequently for fun items like tech upgrades, vacations, and daily lattes.  Perhaps we had some money saved and slowly chipped away at it.  Perhaps we have some money saved, but is it enough?

For some of the clients that come to the Center for Respite Care, homelessness isn’t the only life they’ve known.  In fact, many have held steady jobs, and lived in apartments and houses.  For some, a string of unfortunate events leads to homelessness.  They are the same events that happen to us all, although perhaps more concentrated. 

For example, many people experience loss of a job, death of a family member, or the end of a romantic relationship.  However, when events such as these happen quickly, a person barely getting by may find themselves suddenly unable to pay their rent and utility bills, not to mention find food and other basic necessities. 

Some turn to friends or relatives for temporary help, but many leave or are turned away after arguing with the host, or engaging in a behavior of which the friend does not approve.  Sometimes the behaviors are legal, sometimes not.

Once the person is homeless, an injury which may have caused them to quit working now becomes a lifelong disability as life on the streets doesn’t allow time for healing.  As the days on the street stretch into weeks, people become depressed.  They feel they are undervalued, invisible, worthless, and abandoned.

In many ways (and as we’ve discussed before) homelessness is a cycle.  It is rarely a chosen cycle.  Rather, a series of unfortunate events may tip the scales against our favor.

At the risk of sounding like an insurance salesperson: if you were physically unable to do your job tomorrow, what would you do? 

There are many paths to homelessness.  For some, the journey begins with a tough childhood, for others a string of hardships may be the spark, and for the rest, well, we’ll have to ask them ourselves.

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