Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Gift (Part 2) by Madelaine Sayko

Continued from previous blog...

I wonder too what will happen in January and February, in March or May or July - when the impetus of good cheer fades and the need does not. Homelessness is not seasonal; and in fact the summer months often see a rise in the number of families with no place to live. The reality is that we cannot gather enough clothes and food and toys and household items to really turn the tide; those things may sustain for a bit, but lives cannot really improve if there are no jobs, no health care and no places to live.

But even beyond that there is one aspect of homelessness and poverty that is usually overlooked, one aspect that may in many ways inform these other vital needs. What others often don’t realize is the simple fact of just how lonely a place poverty is.

Studies have shown that familiarity with others – be they of a different ethnicity, religious belief, race or economic status – is a key factor in reducing prejudice and improving collaboration and understanding. So long as the poor are ‘out there,’ so long as the giving is not face to face, it is hard to understand, support and enact the kind of underlying changes that are needed to make a lasting difference because one can remain apart, one can see this as an act of charity and not humanity.

Human interaction is an essential part of any life; it is precious, it is empowering, it gives us a sense of meaning, of worth. To be ignored, to be invisible is to be meaningless; yet this is what poverty does for it is brutally lonely.

The homeless cannot have you over to their house – they have no house. The poor cannot go out to dinner they do not have the money, they cannot meet their friends for coffee and chat about the struggles and joys of raising children for there is no place to meet, they cannot hang out to watch the game on TV with their pals for they have no TV and they have no pals. They do not go to museums or book clubs or the movies. They do not have a community for even when they try to form one it will change; these are the vicissitudes of their circumstance.

The poor lack the entryway to one of life’s most basic pleasures; that of camaraderie, of companionship. When you have no income and no place to live your life gets small and direct; every day is about surviving that day, about managing the crisis you are facing now, about shelter and food and holding on Not having an income doesn’t mean more leisure time; it means no leisure time.

To be poor means that your dreams are reduced to the smallest possible existence, that you learn to keep your own company, head low, barely noticed; its better that way. You keep your feelings to yourself even as you hunger not only for a meal but equally for something that you cannot find in the food pantry; a voice to answer yours, a conversation, a human touch. Relationships, time with others, the art of sharing, a hug to ease ones fears; these moments buoy the spirit and give hope, they heal and nurture but the truth is that they are absent for the poor. For them poverty is only heartbreakingly lonely.

So this is what I hope – I hope that after this holiday season passes by we do not give up, we do not think we are done, that the gap has been filled. I hope that we will keep our awareness alive, that we will keep making our material contributions, even if they don’t seem to fill the vast space of need.

But beyond that I also hope that we see people who are homeless, who are poor, who are in need as people, that we learn to cross our paths with them, to talk with them, to employ them, to break bread with them, to even make them our friends. I hope that we find a way to give of ourselves, to embrace those who are without so that we can truly recognize these folks as people and perhaps change the course of their lives and the course of our own.

Ms. Sayko is a senior manager in health care who also works to improve conditions for those who struggle with illness, injury, poverty and homelessness.

The photo, "Hope for the Holidays," by ewitsoe is used with permission.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Gift (Part 1) by Madelaine Sayko

The other day I was in my beloved NYC, walking down 5th Avenue. It was an intoxicating moment; NYC at Christmas time – the cacophony of visitors, fur-trimmed, leather adorned, polar fleeced and down puffy, the slightly frenzied madness of families with wandering glassy-eyed children, ingĂ©nues who insist no matter the weather on wearing spike heels, the ubiquitous hot dog vendors (with everything of course), the smoky scented chestnut roasters, carols swirling past in the air punctuated by ringing bells and voices laughing and talking in a zillion different tongues. The gleaming star up by 57th street…and then there is the tree, oh the tree with its glorious blanket of lights, surrounded by wooden soldiers and angels and ice-skaters, bursting with a sense of festivity. And the stores, recession? What recession, the stores glitter and gleam with bounty, silk and elegance, their windows filled with fantasy worlds.

Then I stopped in front of Harry Winston. In the window was a necklace of breathtaking beauty, the facets of diamonds literally danced with fire and light. But even as I admired the magnificence of its beauty a thought came to me: how many people could live in safe homes and have food to eat for the whole of next year for the price of that single object?

Now, I understand that there is not a scale here – a necklace or the lives of 50 people, and I don’t expect folks to deny themselves beauty or pleasure or even very expensive things. But I think its important to pay attention. In that same bit of holiday madness were a few folks on the street corners, dressed more soberly than the rest. They were selling a magazine written by the homeless, it was a struggle for them to make their voices heard. And on the home front I noticed that our local paper had a small announcement: 43 people died from homelessness this past year. Interestingly this was placed under a much larger article that spoke about a crime problem in another community. Three individuals had been attacked and the police commissioner was quoted as saying, “Three is a big number.” Well, 43 is a big number too – even if it’s “just” homeless people.

Yet I know that people do care, they do reach out. Indeed, upon reflection it seemed this year that there was an even greater multitude of groups and causes soliciting contributions, from high school food drives to replenish ravaged food banks, to corporate groups sponsoring families with no money for clothing or household goods, from collecting toys to simply raising funds. This holiday I have seen a growing league of individuals, all of whom are attempting, in various ways, to fill the expanding gap of need experienced by so many. And, despite the faltering economy, I have also seen an equally abundant number of folks responding, reaching into their pockets and trying to help.

Yet I have mixed feelings about all this goodwill. On one hand I am deeply moved by this grass roots enthusiasm, by the fierce determination and pervasive belief that “a small group of individuals can change the world,” that with enough cans and sweaters and teddy bears we can heal the heartbreak and overcome the struggle that grays out the joy in life for so many. I am also gratified and touched by the number of folks who give, who recognize their relative abundance, who are moved by compassion or a sense of injustice or by something. These acts, regardless of who is in what political office, regardless of individual beliefs, speak to an essential goodness in people. And in that I find hope.

But I am also saddened by these efforts, saddened because their very abundance speaks to how great the need is. Notwithstanding the insights of the economic pundits, the reality is there on the street, in the numbers of folks who need food, clothing, who cannot afford holiday presents or have no home in which to celebrate. The need is there in the empty food pantries and strapped agencies. And, unfortunately this mushrooming growth of helping agents is merely the representation of how the demand for help has outstripped the depth of available supports.

This piece is continued on the next blog entry.

Ms. Sayko is a senior manager in health care who also works to improve conditions for those  who struggle with illness, injury, poverty and homelessness.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Community & Isolation at the Holidays

A couple of weeks ago, I had two remarkable and different experiences within 48 hours related to homelessness. The first brought a profound sense of community, the other, a profound sense of isolation.

My community experience took place in the Regent Theatre down the street from where I grew up. My rock and roll band had reunited (after 12 years, 7 collective children and, for some of us, serious hair loss) to play a benefit concert to help end homelessness. For me, it was a once in a lifetime experience: playing the music I love, with great friends, for a cause I believe deeply in, in a theater filled with family and old and new friends. My favorite teacher was even there in the front row! Throw in the connective power of music in the mix and, for me, the night became transcendent. It was a deep sense of connection in the warm theater, protected from the December winds outside, singing songs to welcome the holiday season.

Less than 48 hours later, I joined almost 300 people as part of the City of Boston’s Homeless Census run every year in December by Jim Greene of Mayor Menino’s Emergency Shelter Commission. It was very cold and late. We started at 9pm and many teams worked past midnight. The goal was to do an exhaustive count on one night and discover what services homeless people needed, whether they were veterans, and if they wanted to come in for the night (most refused) or maybe get an extra blanket.

I was part of the team that went with the State Police. The officers knew particular spots among the underbelly of the highways, amidst steel girders, cement overpasses, and carbon monoxide where homeless people stayed every night. Most people—like me—never dreamed of going to these spots, never mind sleeping and living there.

The first stop was under an overpass of Route 93, a major highway through the city of Boston. The police dropped us off, then stayed back as our team of 5 looked for people and called out, “Mayor’s Office for the Homeless Census, anyone here? We’re just counting folks and seeing if anyone needs services tonight.” Cars raced by on the highway near us. It was pitch black and cold. Seeing no one, I was ready to leave for the next spot when someone found Larry. Larry was up under the overpass tucked in an opening where no one could see him, in the dark, bundled up in two coats, a worn hat and gloves. When he realized he wasn’t in trouble, he opened up, told us some of his story. He didn’t like the shelters because they reminded him of prison. He had an ex-wife and kids who were doing fine but he hadn’t seen them in a while. We recorded some other details (no names on this census) and as we started to leave he stopped us. “How were your Thanksgivings?” “Fine,” one of us said. Larry said: “Mine was real good. I had 3 meals at St. Francis House, they even took my picture for the paper.” He was personable and articulate and eventually we had to go as our night was just starting. But what struck me was how isolated he was. Cut off from any social or physical nourishment.

I had been on such a high for 2 days – this sense of connection from the concert, a benefit for homelessness – and now I was reminded in the most direct way what the benefit was for.

We hear about mass foreclosures and layoffs and we wonder where people already on the edge go. Often they are so well hidden it’s easy to forget them, literally tucked away under the roads we speed over. In the dark. In the cold. Alone.

I realize too that despite some great strides in addressing homelessness, we have to do more and we have to do better.

Can you help Give US Your Poor in our efforts to do better with a donation, or host a house party with our help? You can make an online donation here.

Thank you for your support. Wishing you and your loved ones a happy and healthy New Year!

My best, John

Photo is "Highway" by lj lindhurst used with permission.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Thinking systemically about homelessness: What is our system's purpose?

I've been thinking a lot about homelessness lately as a system, particularly studying systems dynamics, an approach to understanding complex systems. There are different ways to think about a system. Writer, teacher, Donella Meadows, says a system has three components: (1) parts, (2) interconnections, and (3) a purpose.

So if we are to examine all the forces, actions, structures, and attitudes that lead to high rates of homelessness as a "system," let's look first at the purpose of such a system in the ideal. I say the ideal, because I want to think here about the system of factors acting to prevent homelessness and create/support homes for all people in the U.S.*

For starters let's describe our purpose as something like, "to end homelessness in the U.S." That's a good start. But it's negative: ending not having a home. It's more inspiring to shoot for the creation of something, something positive. How do we put our purpose in positive terms? How about: "to create decent sustainable homes for all people in the United States." By sustainable I mean that people can live there for a very long time, not necessarily that it's green (although energy efficient would be great). How about, "decent homes all people can live in for a very long time." I specifically did not mention "home ownership" or "housing" or "American citizens." I want to keep it open to how people actually live in homes because I assume there will be some rental housing, some home ownership, some communal living, some boats, whatever. If people are happy in a community, have access to food, have good social networks and are sheltered from the weather, that is my hope - the type of home I'm less concerned with. And if someone is here illegally I still don't want them living in an alleyway...for their sake or mine.

Thinking systemically about any issue--and even determining a purpose--is a team sport. Because a system involves many people it takes collaboration to define the purpose, the vision for it, and even what the system is. I whipped the above purpose out alone on a laptop for this blog. Not the best process. There are hundreds of perspectives on this system I do not, could not, have. I need to share it with people that bring different perspectives of the system. No one person can have a view of the whole system at any one time, so collaboration is vital to capture those perspectives to get us closer to the truth of how it functions (or can function). Together we'll adjust, change, add, tweak, sleep on it, share, and adjust some more. We need to talk to homeless people, low income residents, market rate renters, teachers, housing developers, legislators, service providers, not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) folks, mainstream resource administrators, landlords, employers, public officials, health care providers/recipients, etc. I'd ask them, "What is the purpose you'd like to see for the system you're a part of that affects the creation of homes?"

We incorporate the wisdom of the group in the purpose statement. In a systemic process like this, getting the purpose statement right can take a day, a week, or longer. But it's vital and it's time well spent, like laying the foundation of a new house.

Next step (for next blog): identifying the parts of the system and their interconnections!

* My assumption here is that if we looked at the purpose of the actual system in place (as opposed to our ideal), it would not be to create homes for all people but rather to hide homelessness.  Maybe it's unintended but that is the purpose of the system that's created.  But, again, that's my assumption.

Photo is titled, "14 Purpose" by midoubleko and is used with permission.