It’s another grey, cold and wet December morning which means huddled in the shadows you’ll see them.
Gathered close around their person will be their few possessions: a sleeping bag, a backpack and various odds and ends of things indistinguishable what with the little amount of early morning light that reaches the dark corner of their world.
With dark circles etched beneath her eyes, her haggard face was barely visible below long uncombed and unkempt hair.
‘Did I have a plastic bag?’ she wanted to know.
As I cradled in my cold hands a hot cup of coffee I watched her on the monitor stir about gathering her few things and stuff them in the bag with one hand, puffing on a lit cigarette held to her mouth with the other.
Presently she ambled away, a pack on her back, the bag over her shoulder grasped in a very sad caricature of a Santa who will never make his rounds. Not this Christmas. Or the one after that.
Of all seasons of the year it’s this one when the needs of others, as sure as sleigh bells – and cash registers – ring, can weigh on our conscience like an embarrassing over-burdened, festively decorated Christmas tree – the fire in the hearth snap-crackling happily nearby – while the homeless seek shelter under a tree of their own.
From cheerful bell-ringers to cardboard sign-holders, from dependable charities to darkened stairwells, we see the faces and maybe hear of their plight provided of course, as we rush about, we pause momentarily to listen and perhaps consider what to do.
And what would that be?
We can take, what Matt Driscoll called in his December 1, 2017 Tacoma News Tribune headline, a “head-in-the-sand attitude toward homelessness.”
There are alternatives.
At our neighborhood meeting this past October 5, we heard from Kelvin Ceasar, Community Impact Manager, United Way of Pierce County. He has a grant the purpose of which is “moving as many as possible out of poverty but a minimum of 15,000 in the next two years.”
There were some very broken – but on the mend – people sitting at that forum, willing to share their stories.
“What were the challenges/barriers that kept them on a financial treadmill? What could be done differently? What would fix the system?”
Ceasar had been asking those questions over the previous two months at similar meetings held at schools, libraries, and missions throughout the county.
Why not, instead of potentially dispersing energy and effort over so wide a constituency as is represented by an entire county, instead laser-like focus those efforts on a single community, then use that model to superimpose on Any City, USA?
Like the University of Washington Tacoma (UWT) Nursing Project that this Winter through next Spring will bring twenty students – hospital RN’s seeking their bachelor’s degrees – to this one-square mile of poverty.
Led by innovators Robin Evans-Agnew, UWT Liaison and health education coordinator; Janet Runbeck, RN, MN, Finance/Administration Assessment coordinator and site-development outreach; and Matt Wolman, Tacoma Pierce County Health Department Liaison with responsibilities for Equity data and Assessment boundary definitions, the nursing students will survey the neighborhood and, based on survey results, initiate projects that could include health prevention, food, transportation, housing, homelessness, addictions, and sexually transmitted diseases.
Successive years are a possibility.
Two years ago, almost to the day, the Lakewood City Council’s Study Session consisted of “an entry-level primer” on homelessness. Key among the presenters was the Rescue Mission with a PowerPoint study entitled, “What if we could address the causes of homelessness and not just the systems?” Like the warmth of a fireside was the Mission’s emphasis away from “viewing homelessness as simply a housing crisis” and instead promoting a holistic relational structure wherein those in need are paired with those who enable – as in empowerment, not as in making dependent.
Among the books for recommended reading was one entitled “When Helping Hurts: How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor . . . and yourself.”
“Simply giving people money is treating the symptoms rather than the underlying disease and will enable him to continue with his lack of self-discipline (in which case) the gift of money does more harm than good, and it would be better not to do anything at all than to give this handout. Instead, a better – and far costlier – solution would be to develop a relationship with this person, a relationship that says, ‘We are here to walk with you and to help you use your gifts and abilities to avoid being in this situation in the future. Let us into your life and let us work with you to determine the reason you are in this predicament” (p.55).
That’s the start, according to authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, of what likely will be years of investment in this person with lots of ups and downs.
But that’s how you spell HOPE:
House-by-house – or hovel, or wooded encampment – approaching people where they live, or rather subsist; providing
Opportunities that are realistic; pointing in
Positive directions with specific steps; and, most important of all being their
Encouragement for the journey – a navigator, a mentor, somebody who very possibly has been there, done that, joining the person at the bottom, literally, of the stairwell, assisting with the steps necessary to return to a semblance of dignity and humanity.