Saturday, June 6, 2009

House of Charity Episode Ten 6.5.09


Yeah, no kidding.

It's on a coffee cup, one that kept cropping up at odd moments. Or maybe I always noticed it because it seemed like it was yelling at me.

It resides in it's place above the desk of our kitchen manager. Err, the House of Charity's kitchen manager. I gotta stop saying that, since I'm no longer employed there.

May 31st was my last day, and I'm happy to report that it was my last day, not the sleeping program's. 104 men age eighteen and above still reside in the House of Charity each evening. For now. The future, for now, seems uncertain.

May 31st was the day a guy with a few a years on me and a tear-drop tattoo saw fit to give me a hug. And I let him--he then returned to raving about the new Transformers movie coming out.

June 1st was a day like any other, because whether I'm there or not, there are people at the House of Charity, as there are people everywhere.

People with problems. Just like people everywhere.

Just ask, folks will let you in on them. Sometimes you don't even have to ask, the information is volunteered. Like with folks everywhere.

I've spent the better part of a year working with the homeless in Spokane, and I'm still trying to figure it out. What's so different, that is. Well, there are differences. I (someone with a place to go tonight), have got that bit covered. I don't have to worry about it. It's also a safe bet that I'm starting to go a bit paranoid if I'm worried about someone taking my stuff, or them taking a knife out and waving it at me.

It's amazing that folks whom you would be hard-pressed to call paranoid if they were worrying about these things (since they happen) are able to dig themselves out of such holes. It's that paradox that I've been thinking about since I got to the House of Charity--so, you want to take those that have nothing, and yell at them to get a job, without really mentioning how, but you're willing to take someone who has so much (probably anyone reading this, considering you're reading it on a computer), and applaude us for it.

But I shouldn't be so bold, since we've all got problems. Thankfully though, when someone's driving down the street, they usually don't throw things at me. Nor do my weaknesses (a plenty, don't tell anybody) get taken advantage of for profit ( or sport. At least I hope not.

Currently, though, my problems consist of how to figure out to move to New Orleans (as part of the Greater New Orleans Region of Teach for America) and teach a slug of kids that have much bigger fish to fry than doing their chemistry homework to learn to achieve the potential that they have in them.

Gah, I should be preparing (things to read) now.

But why is it a question that people over thirty could lead productive, useful lives? Doesn't make the future seem bright, really. Makes it uncertain.

Why did someone find it interesting enough to put on a coffee cup? (Not that that's a gold standard or something) but seriously, life is just starting to get good about then right?

We're not still buying the message Hollywood is selling are we? That you can never be too rich or too thin? (Sorry Wallis Simpson). I hope we aren't. (Young could be in there too.)

I think we're better than that.

I think that if we're ever going to make headway on this problem of homeless individuals we're going to need to stop looking up. Not that self-interest is a bad thing, we've got to take care of ourselves. Otherwise we're also going to be needing a lot more help. But if accumulating stuff, and getting better and better stuff, is the goal, we're all in a world of hurt. Because stuff doesn't make the world better.

Because I don't think you can be over thirty and not interesting, not to mention productive and useful (I hope).

Because despite this being my last post, there's still more story to be told (hint--I'm accepting applications for a future writer--hint), and that there are so many out there that could use a hand--and so many that are doing such amazing things.

You could be one of those people, even if you're over thirty (and maybe even if you're not).

There's so much to do, that much is certain.

Mother Teresea is purported to have said (maybe she did, maybe she didn't):

Nothing that we do matters. Do it anyway.

Kind of takes the uncertainty right out of it right? Nobody get's to ask what the point is there. Or, (because this is my last post, you have to let me throw all my quotes on the wall) one from Oscar Romero, S.J. (pretty sure on this one):

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,

it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Still with me? Great. That one's a bit longer. It helps. Don't understand how there could be so much brokenness in a society that's been given so much materially? You don't have to.

Because we still can do something.

Even for those over thirty, who are worried about living productive, useful lives. It's gonna take all of us, and if anyone says they're too old, or otherwise don't have anything of use to offer, well you've got your eyes, and those count (you have to see someone to listen to them), and you've got your ears (you'll need those, definitely, because when you're considered the dregs of society not many have the time for your stories--and the stories are awesome), and if you need any more encouragement, well, I've got a cup of coffee for you.

Author's Note: thanks so much for reading, everyone, since we're all busy, and I'm honored that you're using your time to listen to what I have to say. I'll be getting a blog going for my experiences with TFA, but this one didn't start until Halloween of this year, so give me some time. In the meantime, there's plenty to do.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Link 5.11.09

Thanks to Pete at the House of Charity for this excellent link!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

House of Charity Episode Nine 5.11.09

Folks, I'm back.

The long hiatus from articulating experiences at the House of Charity can be summed up in four letters--MCAT. But, for the next twenty-one days, I'll be here, or more specifically, there, at the House of Charity.

But some links before we get started.

Catholic Charities Spokane's Blog:

Maybe even more interesting, the 'Faithworks' newsletter this past month featured an article from the House of Charity's very own Chris Heinrich (of fame) and, as soon as it's been scanned, will be online here:

(also, Chris produces some excellent writing outside of his House of Charity work. I like his 101-word submission for the Inlander--there's a link somewhere in his blog to 'That One Guy')

But where were we. Oh yeah, twenty-one more days until my time at the House of Charity comes to an end. Incidentally, that's the exact number of days until the sleeping program closes.

Just for the summer, but still.

I've said it before, I'll say it again. The House of Charity is about people. But usually, I'm talking about clients/patrons/guests. But the staff are people too. Some blog with panache, like Chris. Or there's our director, that received a police report of a body that was found, and from the approximate description and date of death, found out who it was--the person passed away three years ago.

And he remembered him. Jeff. His funeral was a few weeks ago, and his family finally knew what happened. After three years.

Then there's the staff member that patrons generally call the boss man, or, "You know, the one that walks around." He's our head of security, and when a tour I'm giving isn't quite impressive enough, I tell kids that he once trained with Chuck Norris. Which is true.

When he started a couple of years ago, the House of Charity was a very different place. Frankly, it was more dangerous--this I've been told--as people used to loiter about on the rocks near the House of Charity, in and about the abandoned buildings in the area, moving to and from the boardwalk, and Dick's Hamburgers. His work, for the past few years, has been not only buiding a rapport with some of the most dangerous people we serve, but with the local law enforcement as well.

Something about a silver-haired retired Marine, LAPD (south-central) police officer, and EMT conjures up quite a bit of respect in folks, and the best part about our security director is that he gives respect to everyone. Without exception.

And he's seen just about everything.

So, when he's worried about the sleeping program closing for the summer, that maybe more than anything else made it sink in. When someone with over thirty years of experience in law enforcement is talking about the changes that will happen in the community--even I know that I need to clam up and listen.

See, one of the things that happened the year after the boss man started working at the House of Charity was the sleeping program stayed open for the summer. Traditionally, its last night until fall would be the 31st of May, then it would re-open come October (or September, I'm not sure which), and be open for the colder winter months. The reasoning was, patrons would rather sleep outside--despite the level of danger, instability, and health problems that are avoided by sleeping in a warm bed, wearing clean pajamas, and having a hot shower every night.

And having your belongings locked away safely while you slept.

But, this year, as the vice-grip of the "great" recession tightens, the sleeping program is going to close again. Which is ludicrous. The funding necessary for the program came from a state grant, which carried with it stipulations toward ending homelessness, which are difficult for our staff to quantify. Despite nearly every week someone from our sleeping program, having their basic needs of food, shelter, and security met, finds housing on their own.

A few weeks ago it was a slight man with a conductor's cap that had an omnipresent parakeet on his shoulder who, on his last day, almost teared up in thanking us for treating him like a person, like that wasn't what he expected.

Last week it was an old electrician from Detroit, and an insightful man (I think Italian) that I really have no idea where he's from.

But past the respecting innate human dignity that is the centerpiece of what we do as an institution, let's throw some argument towards why closing the sleeping program is financially a poor move.

1. Providing access to basic shelter, saftey, and hygiene in our sleeping program cuts down on emergency room visits caused by lack of proper care, not to mention the number of E.R. visits that will occur due to trauma suffered while sleeping outside or from the effects of increased self-medication with drugs/alcohol to mitigate poor living conditions (for example, camping out in people's park). Keeping the sleeping program open will keep emergency room visits from skyrocketing.

These emergency room visits by people that cannot afford them must be paid by the hospitals, and will act to drive up health care costs and increase wait times in the emergency room.

2. Downtown Spokane businesses are going to have to put up with an increased presence of our patrons, from an increased level of panhandling, to increased levels of crime, both petty and violent. Petty crime from individuals lacking adequate housing and falling back on drugs/alcohol as coping mechanisms, and violent crime from individuals in the same situation. Increasing levels of danger is going to drive consumers, already hit hard by the recession, away from downtown, which will become increasingly dangerous. Keeping the sleeping program open is good for business, that can use all the help it can get in these times.

3. The increased levels of petty and violent crime as our patrons are put in more dire situations will cost the city more in police officer time, department resources, and will take officer presence away from other neighborhoods, making everyone less safe. Not to mention the increased expenses from all the jail time that will occur due to the increase in petty and violent crime.

On this one, it might be time to remember Malcom Gladwell and 'Million-Dollar Murray', the chronic inebriate that cost a Nevada city over a million dollars in the course of a few years in police time, emergency room visits, and detox.

Or if you're more inclined towards local's making the argument:

Local's like the director of Catholic Charities Spokane pointing out that it costs about $8 a night to house guys here, as opposed to about $81 nightly at Spokane County Jail.

It might be time to remember that the poor are always with us, and if they're not going to be sleeping at the House of Charity, they may be sleeping on the doorstep of downtown businesses. Or they might be drinking because life seems hopeless, fall down, and have to go to the emergency room, and you may have to wait longer to be seen for your appendicitis.

It might be time to think of our "boss man," and how the House of Charity was when he started. How much more dangerous it was, and think of what happens when people aren't treated with respect to the dignity that isn't ours to take away. It can get ugly.

It might be time to think about what we can do to keep the sleepin program open.

Because it seems like our state just tried to save money by getting rid of an ounce of prevention, and is forgetting what a pound of cure will cost--and who's going to foot the bill.

And we've got twenty-one days to change that.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Reportin' 4.19.09

As the 'House of Charity' tab on the Catholic Charities Spokane website will tell you:

Life at the House of Charity through the eyes of area college students.
Thank you to EWU Journalism professor Jamie T. Neely and her students
for visiting the House of Charity. Three articles written about their
impressions of the ministry of our program and its impact on Spokane's
homeless community can be found at this link...

It's always fun to hear what someone has to say their first time in.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tent City, inc. 3.26.09

This morning's New York Times has a cover image I wasn't sure that I'd live to see.

Fresno, California's very own shantyville. Whether we call them Hooverville's (circa 1930), Nickelsville (circa current Seattle, WA mayor) or if I'm being unfair calling them Bushville's (considering his ambitious housing-first model to significantly reduce homelessness), maybe we should just call them their city's Capital Hill. 

Whatever we call them, I don't see them going away anytime soon.

(Oh, and I'm riffing on the downside of free-market capitalism with the name, not just misspelling Capitol Hill.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

House of Charity Episode 8 3.24.09

Apparently, Thoreau didn't just live in the woods. 

He had people over. He wrote in a journal, dickered around on his place, went to eat at Emerson's, and, most importantly--spent the next seven years folding his experience "many times thick" as he wrote his masterwork, Walden, on his experience. It took him seven years to aptly catch and recast his time by the pond. And then some.

On that note, Representative Kevin Parker's Town Hall Meeting (see earlier posts) happened on Saturday, and giving that man a tour was a touch of a shock to my system--it took a few days to sink in. And then some.

See, I give a lot of tours at the House of Charity. To local greats like Inlander reporter Kevin Taylor, or to local student groups getting a taste for the lives of the have-nots. Or, in some strange cosmic coincidence, the Bishop of Guatemala showed up one day. 

One of the best ways to frame a tour is by pointing at the wall near our entrance, which has a reminder of why we're there--Matthew 25. The chapter with that Sheep and Goats business. Or, in other words, for that which you do to the least of me, you do to me. In a large measure, it's what we do. Well, in the St. Francis of Assisi sense that we need to preach the Gospel always, and when necessary, use words. Because giving with strings attached seems disingenuous. 

But enough theology.

When I started in on the tour with Rep. Parker, and framed our mission with that verse, he fired back the other half.

"For that which you do not do for the least of me, you do not do for me."

My jaw went slack.

Even the Bishop of Guatemala forgot to remind me that I was only using half the idea.

That being said, as I was recovering my voice, I was met with another question. 

"How does GAU affect your population?"  

(GAU = General Assistance for the Unemployable, a state program that's due to be cut by Governor Gregoire's new budget. It provides those that are deemed by social service professionals to be unemployable for a certain tenure, and gives them $339 a month with which to scrape by during their recovery).

Thankfully my knee-jerk was on target. 

"It's literally a lifeline for most of our clients."

Now I didn't mean literally the way we college-age types do--for emphasis. I meant that GAU being cut from our legislative budget will mean that people who are desperately in need of services will be out of luck, and by out of luck I mean that they will be filling hospital beds, psychiatric wards, and, well, the morgue.

Sounds harsh, I know.

To everyone that's feeling the sting of economic hard times, for everyone who's lost a job, or has family out of work--it's a rough stretch. But nobody feels it more strongly than those that are not able to help themselves.

Those that can't pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

To get a realistic picture, after the tour, later on during the Town Hall Meeting in earnest, our assistant director framed the issue thusly--that there will be a domino effect should GAU fold. 

1. Those receiving GAU and using it to pay rent (which takes a large chunk of the $339/month, or a % when the rent is subsidized) won't be able to pay their rent any longer--and will be out on the street.

2. The housing complexes filled by those using GAU to pay rent, and also by those working individuals who pay their rent by their wages, well, when GAU goes, so do so many of the residents. So, most likely, they'll have to close. Which puts the wage-earners not even using GAU out on the street.

3. Then the social services supporting those individuals that were in housing, and the entire support network in place, well they now lack clientele--so they're out. Social service agencies close, and the city now not only has a massively increased homeless population, we're also less able to get people back into housing, because of the now-closed agencies.

Like I said, literally a lifeline. But not just for those on it. For our city. But since we're all here, let's take this situation a touch further.

4. Increased numbers of persons sleeping outside with absolutely no income, out of work due to lack of available jobs, mental health personnel to stabilize them, or housing to provide a stable environment means more crime. Lack of state funding for more law enforcement means less will be done to stymie the increase.

5. The ordinances passed by downtown businesses towards keeping downtown Spokane shopper-friendly and safe? Well, increasing numbers of homeless persons in more desperate situations makes for more panhandling downtown, and more people willing to commit crimes. 

People backed into a corner aren't always friendly.

6. The physical hazards of living on the street--getting "rolled" (mugged), frostbite, hypothermia, all the trappings of the decrease in available hygiene (no end to problems there)--including the psychological burden of never quite being safe--increases E.R. visits and floods (even more so) Eastern State Hospital and the Psych floor of Providence. Not to mention the viable alternative of "three hots and a cot" (jail time) when compared to the alternative.

. . . I don't really care to go on. And this is just in Spokane.

Granted, we're in hard times. 

Granted, my friend the Spovangelist has been saying that the fat is going to burn for some time now. But this isn't what she meant. 

Granted, nobody really wanted to make changes when things are good. 

Granted, 2009 is a year of turmoil. And upheaval. And change.

Maybe, this will be the year that we recognize our old understanding of what it means to be a homeless person (derelict, or deadbeat, or bum or lazy, or junkie) falls down dead. Because many of our homeless will be. Dead, that is.

Maybe this is the year that we recognize that, a la Malcom Gladwell (see the 'Million Dollar Murray' post from December) that there are more cost-effective ways of providing social services. That maybe this is the year that we recognize that our poorest are forced to spend the most on health care--when they go to the E.R.--because simple, affordable, preventative care is consistently unavailable. 

Because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Maybe we've forgotten that. That this ounce of prevention put in place by GAU will cost us a pound to fix once it's gone.

Maybe this is the year that was stop our neurotic fear of enabling those with horrifying addictions--as if the truism at the needle exchange wasn't true, that the best day using is worse than the worst day sober. Maybe this is the year we realize that when people are in crisis they revert to what they know. What's safe. And when they're presented with clear, viable, and possible alternatives, they make changes. Maybe we'll realize that presenting those in desperate need with more than condemnation will help them change. 

Maybe this is the year that we'll see the insanity of making a goal to halve homelessness by 2015 and then pulling the only rug out from under our most vulnerable that they know.

Since if GAU leaves, we're not halving homelessness, we're doubling it. 

It took me a few days to make sense of my time with Representative Parker. It took Thoreau seven years to write Walden after he left his cabin and his pond. Seven years from today, it will be interesting to see where our government has taken things. Where change was made, and where new crises forced new thinking--because knee-jerk reactions like cutting GAU may sink the ship.

Mostly though it will be interesting to see if, as a society, we fall back on our old paradigms in this crisis, or whether we feel our backs being pushed up against a collective wall, and reach for a new door. 

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Local Events of the Worthwhile Variety 3.22.09

I copied this from the message board. If it's the Stephanie I'm thinking of, her recommendation will be spot on.

First, watch this video:

A week of presentations and panels will be held in the Teleconference Room of the Foley Library at Gonzaga University (see schedule below), in conjunction with a photography exhibit in the rare book room of Foley Library, 3rd Floor. Photographs taken by women at the Women's Hearth, a drop-in center for homeless and low-income women in downtown Spokane, are part of this exhibit. Monday's presentation will be a repeat of this afternoon's and will include the above clip. If you go to no other talks, please see this one. If you are interested in social justice issues, or if you work with homeless men and women, you really should hear Gerry speak and see some of his videos.

More about Gerry Straub can be found here
and here

Presentation/Panel Schedule:

Sunday, March 22, 4-6 pm: Poverty and Prayer with Gerard Straub

Monday, March 23, 7-9 pm: Poverty and Prayer with Gerard Straub

Tuesday March 24, 7-9 pm: Poverty in Spokane - Hearing the Voices of Poverty (with Mary Rathert and a woman from the Women's Hearth)

Wednesday, March 25, 7-9 pm: Poverty-Global Issues - Differing Perspectives

Thursday, March 26, 7-9 pm: Poverty-Local Issues - Differing Perspectives

Friday, March 27, 7-9 pm: Personalizing Poverty: An Individual Responsibility