Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Golden Voice of Homelessness

His name is Ted Williams. One You Tube video of him has nearly 7 million views as of today. He is the “Homeless Man with the Golden Voice” that has been featured in almost every media outlet these past couple of weeks. He’s been on various national TV shows, been offered voice over work and announcing gigs, and offered housing. He is riding his 15 minutes of fame for everything they are worth. Good for him!

Let me state right now that I hope Ted Williams makes it

As someone involved with programming and housing for homeless people I see a lot of familiar themes in this man’s story. He had a job, apparently served in the military (His mom showed a picture of him in uniform), had a family, has a talent, and he lost all of that to addiction and “other things”. That is not an unfamiliar story to those who work with the chronically homeless.  And believe me. We don’t really know the whole story.

But I am watching with interest as America seems to be fascinated with this particular homeless man. Sure, the video is amazing. Here is a disheveled homeless man who has this booming God given announcer voice. People want to help him. So now he is being given housing, job offers, and all kinds of assistance. But will he be able to deal with it? Already the signs of stress are showing, he had a heated argument in a hotel with his daughter, she claims he’s drinking again, law enforcement had to respond. 

When will America start seeing a clearer picture of the chronically homeless? Maybe they will now, through the story of Ted Williams. “Hey they gave him jobs and housing, he is off the streets, he says he has been sober for 2 years, he should be fine!” “All he needed was to get off the streets and he’ll be OK.” 

The thing that bothers me most is that Mr. Williams needs guidance. I hear about the job offers, TV appearances, etc., but what I really want to hear is that someone is intensely working with him and counseling him at every step of this journey. I know he met with Dr. Phill so that is a hopeful start. But long after Mr. William’s 15 minutes are up, he will need counseling and support. 

I see it all the time with the chronically homeless men that come through our doors at Community Missions. One man I know is personable and likeable, helpful, smart, skilled, and earnest. He would be someone that you would instantly think, “With just a little help this guy would be fine, get him somewhere to live and he could make it.” But, you’d be wrong. His issues run very deep, the emotional and mental health challenges he has cause him to constantly repeat his disastrous downward spirals. In the 4 years I have known him he has been given multiple opportunities for help and housing. He has taken advantage of all the help that comes his way, he tries very hard, but ultimately he flames out and fails or abandons the programs and people that are helping him. He is in a program as we speak and I hope that this is the one that will really get to the roots of his problems and help him overcome the demons that haunt him. His journey to what you and I would consider a “normal” life will be long and difficult. 

 So as America watches The Homeless Man with the Golden Voice, I hope we see some things. I hope we see that homelessness is complex and the roads that lead in and out of homelessness are difficult and tangled paths.  I hope we see that it is possible to make it out, but that making it out of homelessness requires lots of help and resources that may not always be available. I hope we see that "homelessness" is not a one size fits all description.

I hope Ted Williams makes it out of homelessness. I hope he can reconcile with his family. I hope he can stay away from the addictions that tempt him. I hope he can deal with his 15 minutes of fame.  I hope he can hold down a job using those amazing vocal pipes. I hope that in a year or two he is still doing well. I hope.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Take Me To The River

Yesterday at 4:59 pm my phone in the office rang. When I answered the lady on the other end said, “Someone told me that you are in charge of all the homeless people who live in Tent City down on the river, is that true?”

Now the first thing that would jump out at you if you work with the homeless is that no one is ever really “in charge” of them. Just like you and I, they are independent people. Most of them are pretty fiercely independent, which is often one of the many reasons they become homeless. 

I explained that no, I was not in charge of Tent City, but that I did have two case managers who regularly go down there and interact with the people. We also have an Outreach Group that meets regularly to assess the needs of people living on the street and coordinate so that we avoid duplicating efforts. Many local agencies do outreach work of different kinds to help those without housing.

I always tell people, “Don’t just decide you are going down to the homeless camp on your own. That is not a good idea.” You never know what you might encounter, because homelessness runs a wide gamut of issues. Most homeless people are going to be polite and grateful for help. But mental illness is also very prevalent in the homeless population, and with it comes substance abuse and medication issues that cause instability. You don’t want to stroll up to someone that might be very unstable and potentially violent. 

There is also the issue of working within the system of care in a community. In our community we have several agencies that work together to address the needs of homelessness. Those agencies are ALWAYS stretched very thin; our shelters are packed, our housing programs full, our budgets strained.  Those agencies need your support and have a pretty good idea about how to funnel resources in ways that will have the greatest impact.

As the weather gets colder some people will move on to a place where there is more shelter space or will be able to make temporary housing arrangements. But the sad fact is that there will be people on the streets when it’s cold. If you want to make a difference, look at how you can team up with others in your community to help. Local agencies will be glad to get assistance from people that really want to make a difference!   

Monday, October 18, 2010

Show Me Your ID

When I was sixteen I passed my drivers test on the first try, mostly because my grandfather knew the officers giving the test and so they passed me by ONE point. Since that time (and its been enough years that I don't want to number them) I have never lacked for identification. I have always had "the proper ID" at my disposal. I have my original birth certificate and several copies, my social security card is tattered but intact, and my driver's license is always with me. I never have had to scramble to prove my identity.

As I stood handing out fliers about our Project Homeless Connect (PHC) event I realized again just how much of the little things in my life I take for granted. One of the focus areas of PHC is helping people get their identification papers. I spoke with almost 100 people today at the Open Door Food Kitchen, and I got question after question about how to get ID's.

"My papers were all stolen with everything else I had." "My child needs a social security card and a birth certificate and I can't afford the fees." "I lost my ID, I have no idea what happened to it." "My ID expired and I can't afford to get a new one." "I don't have a way to get to all these places I need to go to get all my papers."

So tomorrow, October 19th, 2010, we are helping people in our community get their Missouri Birth Certificates, verification of Social Security, and a photo ID. We have a grant for the Heartland Foundation and Learn and Serve America to help pay the fees. We have transportation to the license bureau office. We have volunteers who will help guide people through the process. I made a really cool flow chart about all the stuff you need and where to go. Even with all that in place...I know it will be a crazy and stressful day of trying to help people get all this done! But it's worth it. Operating with out any ID is very hard and in order to get the services they need, they need their IDs.

It is sad that something so simple, that you and I never give a second thought to, like having identification can be such a challenge for the homeless. Hopefully tomorrow we can make some progress in getting that fixed for the folks in our community.

Monday, August 30, 2010

“This guy is a recluse”

This is a story I wrote about a year ago after spending a day talking with homeless people at the Columbia MO, Project Homeless Connect event. St Joseph is going to have their own Project Homeless Connect event on October 19th. We will need volunteers that day so be watching for more information on how you can get involved.

Ed could be your grandpa. He’s thin, dressed in a neat shirt with a ball cap on his grey haired head. He looks like he might be an older farmer or a retired construction guy. He’s a veteran. He speaks with a clear and authoritative voice. The more he speaks the more it becomes apparent why he is homeless. Ed isn’t giving us much information at first. He’s being coy about his background, or where it is he sleeps and eats each day. He’s testing us to see how long we will put up with him, can he goad us into some reaction. We’re patient and it pays off, he takes a liking to us and begins his story. “I came here to do a petition drive for an attorney. I got more signatures than anyone! The law was unfair to people who might get caught smoking pot, that one trip-up can ruin their life if the laws aren’t changed. I don’t smoke or drink but the law is unconstitutional and so I thought it was the right thing to do to try and get it changed.” Then Ed told us he can’t go to the Salvation Army anymore, his story is interesting and somewhat believable, except there is surely another side to the story. He claims to have been an activist for civil rights in Norman OK back in the 60s. He tells us stories of standing up to racism when he was involved in campus ministries. The stories continue and he is happy to talk. How much of it is true is uncertain, the fact that he could be a handful for anyone trying to help him is readily apparent. He’s smart and obviously thinks he should be above this homeless thing…but for some reason he will be back on the streets or somewhere (he still won’t really tell us what his living situation is) when he leaves this building. After almost an hour of sitting at our table and talking with us in between our conversations with others, he still won’t tell us his name. Another man comes by who knows him, “This guy is a recluse,” he jokes with us. But there is obviously much truth to that statement.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I Never Knew...

I didn't write the following post. Couldn't write it. It was written by a friend of mine that I have known for almost 18 years. Someone I worked with for many years. I knew she had some things happen in her life long before I met her, but I had no idea.She responded to a cause request on Facebook today. The cause is Community Missions, and we provide housing and support to chronically homeless men. Here is what she wrote when accepting the request to join the cause...

Years ago, in another lifetime, I made a horrible life choice. It not only affected my life, but my daughter's. At 8:00 am Dawn was a happy 10 year old decorating her room. At 5:00 pm the same day, she and I were "displaced" -- we weren't allowed back in our home under threat of violence. We weren't allowed a vehicle for transportation. We had only the clothes on our backs. It was January. We went walking uptown. I can still feel the tears frozen to our cheeks and Dawn's small hand clenching mine so tightly she cut off my circulation. We were so scared! Thank God our church family and friends came to our aid. I never missed a day of work. Dawn never missed a day of school. I filed for a restraining order to keep Dawn safe. We wore friends' hand-me-downs to have clothing changes. Later, someone left word for me of an apartment to rent. They said our first month's rent had been paid by an anonymous donor. Our church didn't have a food pantry, but partnered with one in St. Joseph. They brought us food, clothing, appliances, furniture, but most of all the gave us hope that the light at the end of the tunnel wasn't a train. Could we have turned it all around without their help? I can't imagine how. So I go a little "ballistic" when I hear people say homeless folks choose that way of life. No, they are choosing to go on the best they can. God sent folks in my life to "bring me home". It is time for me to help others "come home". Won't you join me?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sad for our Seniors

The woman we helped today is not homeless. She has a small apartment in subsidized housing for seniors and disabled people. She is elderly, disabled, on oxygen and a bit of a hoarder. Her apartment was clean but she just had too much stuff! The exterminators were needing to treat her apartment but there were too many things in the way. Without help she would wind up evicted. She has no family to speak of and she can't do much herself. She spends most of her time in a scooter or in her lift chair. Her speech is slow but she is a very sharp lady! And kind of funny in her own way. Where does someone like her turn for help?

InterServ's nurse got things moving and we organized a small crew to go in today and move things and clean things and work to get ready for the exterminator. We had to wrap things in plastic, throw things out, box up things, do endless laundry, you get the picture. It was a long hot day for everyone!Special thanks to Zach & Kyle who agreed to help us for a few bucks and InterServ Home Care Aide Marsha who has done an unbelievable amount of work to help this client.

It was sad that an agency like InterServ is really the only place this woman has to turn to in a time of crisis. But, at least we were able to help her and keep her in housing! In this season of United Way giving just remember that sometimes agencies are the only "family" some people have.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Just A Small Thing

There are a lot of things I take for granted in my existence of everyday life. I know how to maneuver in my world, in the place that I live. And I have the ability to manage my own schedule without too many problems. I’ve watched my kids grow up and now that they are teenagers they are getting better at managing their time and making decisions about how and when they want to do something or go somewhere. Of course, being typical teenagers they want to go somewhere and do something all the time!

But what if you couldn’t negotiate your schedule? What if you just couldn’t manage to get things in a workable order? How hard would even the most basic organizing of your life be under those circumstances?

We first met “Kyle” in our Cold Weather Shelter. At that time we operated a temporary shelter for homeless men just to get them off the street in the worst of the winter weather months. Kyle was outgoing and funny, he always had a big story to tell. He was living on the streets.

We knew that something was amiss in the way Kyle negotiated his world. He seemed like an overgrown 14 year old in many respects. Seemingly normal behavior followed by erratic and incredibly impulsive behaviors.

When Community Missions opened the Juda House we moved Kyle in and started to really work on stabilizing him and dealing with his issues. What we found was that because of his specific condition, he would always have difficulty in managing his world. The impulsive and sometimes reactionary behaviors were caused by a very real issue that could not be reversed. (I’m not being too specific here on purpose because I do not want to reveal anything that might identify this person).

Our Care Coordinators pushed him to do better, take more responsibility, make good decisions and back up those decisions with the right actions. Now we are not talking a few weeks or months of work here. This is a multi-year process. We move forward a few steps and then hit a wall or fall back to an old patter of unsuccessful behavior. The great thing about Kyle is that he almost always has a good attitude and sometimes that’s half the battle.

Just a couple of weeks ago the Care Coordinator pulled me into the office and said, “You won’t believe what Kyle did today.” I was bracing for something bad.

She proceeded to tell me, “Kyle realized that he had been scheduled for two appointments at the same place (which is about a 45 minute drive away) on two different days next week. He also knew that this was not a good thing because it meant multiple trips for someone to transport him. He then picked up the phone; called and changed his appointments so that they were on the same day and made sure that one appointment would follow the other in such a way that he would not have a long wait between appointments! He did it all on his own without any help from me!”

Kyle proudly walked into the Care Coordinator’s office and announced that he had made some changes in his appointments and was very happy to tell us that he did it on his own. He took great pride in the fact that he was able to manage something like this on his own.

It may seem like a small thing. I mean he just made a phone call and changed an appointment time right? But in Kyle’s world it was a huge step. It’s one more step that he has made in his time at the Juda House. One more step away from his life on the streets. One more step towards independence. One more step towards becoming the person he really wants to be.

But sometimes it’s just a small thing that can really make your day.