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Archive for the ‘working with the homeless’ Category

ken-juggling1 Sometimes we all feel like we’re juggling – work, bills, family, health – it can seem like  a lot.  The Center for Respite Care’s staff and clients are no exception.  Like most nonprofits, we’re always trying to keep overhead as low as possible.  And our clients often stress over health problems, fractured relationships, rebuilding, dealing with lots of paperwork (getting ID’s, food stamps, etc.), and the day-to-day inconveniences of being poor.  Waiting for a late bus when you’re trying to get to the doctor is no joke!

All of this stress needs an outlet, and that’s where Juggling for a Cure comes in!  Friendly founder Ken Lewis is a U.S. Navy vet started Juggling for a Cure in 2008 and already has a busy schedule of performances.

I think when Ken first came in, I underestimated the value of this service.  Since entertainment isn’t essential, our staff tends to focus on the basics as much as possible.  Still, it’s great to see the clients get their minds off their troubles for a while, relax, and smile.

juggling-audience-smiling

Plus, Ken doesn’t just perform, he also teaches – and learns – in front of his audience.  He has been coming to the Center for Respite Care for three months and with each visit he brings new skills to teach and props to share.  The audience gets a quick tutorial on how to learn juggling and Ken freely passes around his props for everyone to touch.  He even got us to participate.  Check out Ginger, one of our nursing assistants, learning to juggle below.  (She juggled two bean bags after only 2 minutes of teaching!)

ginger-learning-to-juggle4

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Yesterday was the kickoff for Cover the Uninsured Week 2009.  Most of the patients at the Respite are uninsured.  In fact, if you receive our print newsletter, you would’ve already read a story about Walter, who became homeless as a result of his wife’s bills for breast cancer treatment.  (If you’d like to receive our print newsletter, email your address to respitesupport AT zoomtown DOT com).

The link between lack of health insurance and bankruptcy is clear: a 2001 Harvard study found medical bills to be a leading cause of personal bankruptcy.  And even those with health insurance may find  that their coverage isn’t sufficient to face major or chronic illness.  Student health plans, “mini med” plans, and limited liability coverage can offer lower premiums, but seldom afford the protection needed to weather catastrophic (or even serious) illness.

In November 2007, the Wall Street Journal reported on inflated medical bills received by Jim Dawson of Merced, CA.  After exceeding a $1.5 million lifetime maximum benefit on his health coverage, Dawson was slammed with $1.2 of grossly inflated medical charges.  Dawson’s charges were removed after the medical center received an inquiry from the Wall Street Journal, but few of my homeless clients are lucky enough to have a major media outlet report on their behalf!

It’s a problem from any angle: the same Wall Street Journal article noted that the hospital admitted its charges were necessarily inflated to account for the 2/3 of issued charges it would never collect.  And physicians’ skyrocketing malpractice insurance costs have forced some M.D.s to leave the medical world.  A New Hampshire emergency physician shares this perspective.

Many of the patients at the Respite have experienced the horrors of a lack of medical care.  When a medical concern arises, they typically wait until it becomes urgent to seek emergency care.  Even if they do seek medical attention early, homeless patients may be forced to wait until their illness or injury becomes an emergency so that they can qualify for free or subsidized services. 

Clearly, our healthcare system needs improvement.  I don’t want to discount the low-cost, free, and subsidized services provided so generously in the Greater Cincinnati region.  Low-cost medical and dental clinics and relief from hospital bills are services that homeless men and women rely on.  Still, there is much work to be done in improving healthcare for the homeless.  Cover the Uninsured Week is just one more great reason to mention it.

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How about five hundred daffodils? 

500-daffodils-blooming

Luckily, I had a wonderful volunteer (one of those ones who can do anything!) come in and help me cut the ends off these.  They come courtesy of a generous friend via the American Cancer Society’s Daffodil Days.  Now that’s leveraging your gift!  And they’re going to be so beautiful when they all open up, just like these:

bunch-of-daffodils

Yeah, yeah.   My desk is messy.  But today I helped a sick person get a referral to the Respite, and now he’s a patient here.  It all works out in the end.  Despite economic woes and car troubles and family problems and dinners that burn on the stove, there are sometimes flowers at the end of the day.

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A few weeks ago, a new client arrived at the Center for Respite Care with a horrific case of frostbite.  Freezing rain splashed off the sidewalk as he gingerly walked to our front door with only bandages on his feet.  The frostbite was a result of working as a parking garage attendant.  Today, he is healing, but still faces toe amputation. 

Personally, I’m not a fan of cold weather.  Our current weather makes me want to hide underneath the covers–or, at least, it used to.  One recent morning, I woke up and immediately decided I had left a window open.   I dug out my trusty thermometer: fifty-eight degrees!

I called my landlord, but ten days later, the whole building was fifty degrees.  The landlord came over, but it was too late to call for repairs.  We went without heat that night.

There is a big difference between having some heat and having no heat.  I piled three comforters on the bed, cranked up a tiny space heater, and shivered.

My heat was fixed the next day, but not everyone is so lucky.  In fact, every night in Cincinnati, hundreds of homeless men, women, and children are without heat and shelter.  Unlike me, they have little hope of reprieve until summer.  What little time and money they have go toward finding the next meal, tracking down loved ones, and waiting for benefits such as food stamps and rental assistance.  The unlucky ones develop pneumonia, frostbite, infections, and cancer.

If you’re snowed in today, appreciate your heat!  And consider helping your fellow citizens find shelter, heat, and medical care.  The economy is tight for everyone, and no group feels this more acutely than the homeless.

To make a donation to the Center for Respite Care visit our website.

Check back soon for Respite in the news.  (Hint: did you see Respite in the Enquirer last Sunday?)

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Reading other blogs about homelessness is a curious thing.  There are blogs by those who are or have been homeless, those who work or volunteer with a homeless clientele, and blogs about other topics that mention homelessness once in a while (typically when the author has an encounter with a homeless person).

The most frequently commented upon blog articles seem to be those about an individual’s first night of homelessness.  I admit, I frequently leave comments on these articles myself.

Why is it that we’re so sympathetic to the person who experiences their first day of homelessness, but callous toward the person who has been homeless for months or years?  It’s a matter of perspective.  The person spending a stray night in a homeless shelter could well be us, we think.  

What if we lost our jobs and had a concurrent major illness?  What if a loved one (or ones) passed away suddenly?  What if . . . whatever combination of tragedies it might take.  I think we’ve all had thoughts that it could be us.  For some it might take more tragedies than others, but the possibility is there.

In considering the chronically homeless person, we’re less sympathetic.  Why?  Because we believe we cannot sink to that level.  We would pull ourselves out or find help somehow.

We may be able to make the leap to understanding who someone (even ourselves) can become homeless, but we believe that if you’re homeless for more than a few weeks, well, you must just be lazy.  Or ignorant.  Or an addict.  Why don’t they just get jobs after all?  Or just apply for the loads of benefits we finance through our taxes?  Or get social security?

We fail to consider the psychological effects of life on the streets.  It takes many of our clients several days to warm up to staff at the Respite and our mission is to help them.  Imagine how difficult they find it to reconnect with family and friends.

And all those “free benefits”?  True, they’re out there.  But how long can you afford to wait?  It can take weeks to qualify for food stamps, months to gain tenant-based rental assistance, and years to be awarded social security disability.

As for employment, would you hire someone who admitted to being homeless?  How about someone who claimed to have stable housing, but was mysteriously never home when you called?  Would you hire someone with dirty fingernails or ragged clothing?  Maybe you would.  Then again, maybe you’d prefer to hire the clean-cut teenager who made the honor roll last quarter.

Are we really as impervious as we believe?  Or is the hard truth that homelessness, once it happens, can be nearly impossible to escape?  How many of these truths do we ignore because they are simply too frightening to accept?

The ultimate truth is surely more complex, but everytime I read comment-loaded articles about an individual’s first terrifying night as a homeless person, I wonder.

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We call those who are served by the Respite “clients” for several reasons – it connotates respect and self-worth, helps to maintain professionalism, and it’s accurate, if somewhat formal.

One of our clients passed away yesterday morning, and calling him a client already seems wrong.  Mr. W was a friend as well as a person who came to the Respite to recover.  Despite the severity of his illness he was always in good spirits, always polite.  In fact, he was cheerful to the point that his death took some of us by surprise. 

After becoming ill one afternoon, he took a cab to the emergency room, telling his friends on the way out to help themselves to his cigarettes; he knew he wasn’t coming back. 

Although we know that everyone served by the Respite is ill, we are never truly prepared to lose them.  Rest in peace, Mr. W.  We miss you.

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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving!  And what could be more wonderful than a holiday with so much great food involved?  Even for me, an admittedly mediocre chef, friends, family and (admittedly again) food take center stage.  I quizzed all available staff and clients to put together a new “complete the phrase” activity about Thanksgiving.  The query was one with which you may be familiar . .

I’m thankful for .  .  .

. . .friends and family.

. . .that there is a place like Respite.

. . .opportunities.

. . .God*, who gave me another chance to start over here at the Respite, and new beginnings.

. . .the Lord who is watching over me, keeping me clean and sober, and who brought me here.

. . .blue skies and sunshine.

. . .that I have the Lord and for everything I have, although I hope some things will improve.

. . .faith, family, friends, food, forgiveness, and fudge.

Also, we’re thankful to our extended “family” of volunteers, donors, supporters, staff members, friends, board members, and those who follow us online or via newsletter.  Your support is incredible and we are incredibly thankful for it.  Happy Thanksgiving to all!

*The Respite is secular and we welcome a diverse set of men and women with varying beliefs and backgrounds.  The intention here is to let each client’s voice be heard, not to promote a particular belief system.

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