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Kelly J. Cooper

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Help Me, LazyWeb! [Apr. 9th, 2007|02:41 am]
Kelly J. Cooper
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A few days ago (maybe last week?), I caught part of a story on libraries dealing with the chronically homeless, which may or may not have been sparked by this story, "America Gone Wrong: A Slashed Safety Net Turns Libraries into Homeless Shelters" by Chip Ward from 4/2/2007.

It made me wonder if we should change our thinking, from treating homelessness as a problem to be solved OVER TO seeing it as an unfortunate but standard output from the current societal structure.

Maybe, if it was seen as PART of the system, instead of this weird, alien thing that just happens to people who can't cut it in the "real" world (or whatever other stereotype is handy for the day), then the system could be adapted to compensate. Problems have solutions, and then they go away. Homelessness never goes away and needs a wide variety of ways to handle it, with housing being the first and most important, but not the only answer. It does not have a solution, per se.

If it's part of the system, instead of kicking the homeless out of libraries, we make it standard for libraries to have a social work outpost and support facilities.

THEN I realized I'm completely talking out of my ASS and I don't know a damn thing about how to deal with homelessness.

I'm a bleeding heart liberal lefty pinko socialist, but I have trouble working on patch solutions (Habitat for Humanity, soup kitchens, etc.) without knowing that there are end goals. SO! Who knows of resources to learn about how to handle homelessness, improve conditions for the homeless, treat the causes and effects, fix the safety nets, etc.? Cuz if I just plug key words into Google, I get millions of hits and I have NO idea where to start.

EDIT: Note that I haven't stopped giving money to homeless guys and contributing to organizations that help the homeless (when I can; I haven't been able to in a while). I just want to do MORE and I'm flailing about where to put my energy.

[User Picture]From: catness
2007-04-09 12:39 pm (UTC)
I used to hang out with a homeless woman in the Bay Area, who got all her net access from the Palo Alto library. When I went out west, if I could, I'd get transportation out of SF and go meet her somewhere. She didn't ever act like being homeless was something she needed to get solved. :/
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[User Picture]From: miss_chance
2007-04-09 04:57 pm (UTC)
I think I know what you mean in seeing flaws in left- (and right-) leaning solutions... But I also think there are answers to the questions you pose. Do the people want help? Well, in most cases I think the answer is "yes." If the answer was "no" there wouldn't be a line down the block at the shelters at sunset. If the answer was "no" there wouldn't be a two-year waiting list for the permanent-housing shelters. Or, to put it another way, not everyone who is homeless wants help, but if you want, I can introduce you, one-by-one, to about 150 people who do. There is not One Unified Face of homelessness. There are hundreds of individual people, who might be classifiable into a couple dozen broader categories of people who need very different things.

Does getting getting people off the street help them? One good way to find this out is to read their own writing. The "Spare Change News" has weekly stories written by people who had the bottom drop out from under them one way or another, then got the help they needed, and then got their feet back under them.

Do they know how to help themselves? Not in every case. A large part of the budget of services for the homeless is for social-work that ranges from job-training to basic life-skills, such as knowing to show up on time for a job if you have one, etc. There is also a portion of the homeless in MA who became suddenly homeless when the state stopped funding mental health facilities. Bang. One day several hundred people who could not take care of themselves were driven from facilities in the suburbs into Boston and dropped off on the Common, without any idea what was happening. They may or may not be able to learn how to take care of themselves, depending on the degree of mental illness.

How is it possible that the best way to help is to just stop helping? In some sort of "maybe they'll all die off" kind of way? I suppose if you want to live in a society in which the response to "I need help," is "Die," then I suppose, but it won't stop being the answer, you'll have to keep saying that every single day. Personally, I don't want to be that hard.

Maybe it's not that I want to help other people. Maybe I just don't want to step over sick and frightened and hungry people on my way to get my next latte... maybe it makes my croissant taste a little more bitter if I've had to turn a cold shoulder too many times on my way to the cafe. Maybe I just think my selfish little life would be better if the people who needed help got it, so I didn't have to spend any energy making up excuses for why I can't be bothered to give it.

Today I saw a woman with Parkinson's fall down on the bus. I could just say "huh. maybe she's not able to take care of herself. I should just let her die there." Or I could say "Here, let me help you." Not helping people won't magically magically make their need go away and never come back. You can't even "breed out" people who can't take care of themselves with a generation of not giving a shit.

I totally agree that the solutions we as a society have floated have been flawed in one way or another. But I don't get how you get from "we haven't solved this problem," to "maybe the problem doesn't really exist."
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[User Picture]From: miss_chance
2007-04-09 04:36 pm (UTC)
Your thinking on this is really interesting. I think I've been unconsciously coming to the same opinion, without articulating it as directly. By which I mean: I used to not want to put my energy into what I thought of as "stop-gap" measures such as shelters, etc., without having a sense of the bigger picture.

Then one day I was walking to work and shrugged off a request for "spare change" with what was then my standard "sorry, can't do it," and the guy asked me "can't? or won't? just keep it real, sister." I thought about that and said "You're right. I can't right now, but I sometimes can can, an when I can, I will." (I think I was late for class and had no money on me).

Now I find my mind-set has changed. I don't think I can change racism, cruelty, poverty, hunger, selfishness, etc., etc. on a global scale, but I'm one person and I can make the world at least one person less cold. So I help when I can, and always have a friendly word at least, for the folks on the street, because I figure if the day cna have more rather than fewer people being nice to each other in it, all the better.

I think in someway, I switched over to that thinking you're describing of this being a "standard output," and I can do what I can to alleviate suffering in that channel.

I think I told you that I applied for a job teaching at Pine Street Inn. A couple years ago, I would have thought "what's the point? It's not going to change anything?" and now I feel like if I get that job I can change something. Something small, and local, but something real none the less.

I still don't know a damn thing about the grander social theories, but I may, if I get that job, know something from ground-level. I'd love to talk with you more about this.
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[User Picture]From: laurenpburka
2007-04-09 10:21 pm (UTC)
As far as I know, the two big causes of homelessness are the cost of housing, and the systematic 'de-institutionalizing' of the mentally ill during the Reagan years. On the one hand, cities that used to have boarding houses where respectable people could rent a room by the month, shower and stash their stuff, and have an address to put on a resume, are now taken over by half-million dollar condos. On the other, mentally ill people who do want help have nowhere to go except the street or jail.

You could think of some of these causes as choices made by society about where to allocate resources. But a lot of them aren't really choices. They are sort of vast, rolling dirty snowballs of zoning regulations, property taxes, managed care, shifting of Federal income tax burdens, NIMBY, the cost of educating kids, and policies that keep gasoline costs the lowest in the Western world while shortchanging public transit.

While preventing suffering is a good idea, don't knock alleviating suffering, even if it's just a for an evening.
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[User Picture]From: liralen
2007-04-10 05:18 pm (UTC)
Hm. Our local library does have a list of exactly where homeless folks can go when they need stuff.

Our local OUR center (homeless resources center) which is just a few blocks from our library has a whole smorgeshbord of things to help out. Everything from day care to rent help to food and clothing and counseling for debt and a mental health clinic and shelter with stuff to do called "Quiet Voices". Some of the Quiet Voices folks actually volunteer at the lunch/breakfast counter, anyone can get a meal there so long as they follow the politness rules for the place.

The homeless here are a mix from all kinds of sources. A good percentage had an illness without health insurance and went bankrupt as a result and couldn't get back to earning even with a family to raise. Some were just in bad jobs with bad choices and bad luck, like one family where the guy was selling loans at a lending place, but they asked him to do stuff he didn't think he should do and got "laid off" and the lending business is dying here badly. The fluxes of being in our society. It happens. There's a guy who choses to just be without a home, "Less stuff I have to keep track of if I don't have any." In the summer he works with carnivals, but doesn't see the point in paying rent when he has a perfectly good tent in the green space with plenty of bed rolls.

I like what you said. It's what Longmont's been doing for a while, as the city acknowledged that homelessness was a problem that was key, and getting food and shelter was a first priority, but that folks should get counselling if they need more than just a few day's worth of stuff. And there's a minimum barrier of having some ID and a Longmont postal address, those that don't want more help beyond just getting fed, don't bother, there are plenty of drug addicts on our streets that don't want to really do any more than get some food some of the time. The families often do and follow a program that includes getting quick housing at our low-cost shelters.

I thinking Longmont could do it because it's relatively small, and the problem of getting nearly a dozen different demoninations here to all work together was relatively small compared to a city or even county or state. But the city has acknowledged it as an on-going problem that fluxes with the economy of the city and nation as well as with the natural weather problems around here.

During the Christmas snow, the OUR center, which has no night shelter abilities, got itself together with the Longmont Police and the hospital to have some medical staff available and did a couple nights of sheltering with plenty of the appropriate precautions when letting in everyone off the street.

It's been interesting getting more and more involved with the OUR center workings, as I'm seeing more and more of how it can really work well. I'm mostly working in the garden, now, getting vegetables grown for the lunch counter, but folks like to come out during, after, or even before lunch to just sit where it's green and growing and they like to talk...
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