Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Redefining Homelessness



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Homelessness can be defined many ways by different people. Oregon’s Ending Homelessness Advisory Council’s definition of homelessness includes those who: “…share the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, personal safety, or a similar reason.” It is these definitions that help local agencies determine who gets services.

Recently my two children and I became homeless, displaced and transient. It happens to a lot of people in life. In our situation it was due to an impending divorce. Almost immediately I started rallying together whatever resources I could to try and make a break from the situation. I needed to know what to do next; because what was being offered seemed neither reasonable nor healthy. By most standards I am educated, capable and employable; so I could eventually rebuild a life for my two kids and I. Part of what complicated the issue was not just the children collectively, but I have a son who is partially blind and disabled. So I started making lists as to what all I needed to do to get us out of this situation. So I started calling friends, family members, church members and associates to see what ideas could be put together. Most of our family lived down South, so we were lacking in a local support network.

In the midst of this I mentioned to one of friends that the kids and I might have to possibly stay at The Hope Center here in town, or maybe somewhere in Albany. After more than a few conversations the friend and her husband made the offer for the three of us to rent a room from them. I was so hurt and depleted because of the circumstances that I took them up on their offer; and spent the next few days crying myself to sleep. I was happy we had not been relegated to living in our small car. However, as a mom needing to provide for her two children I felt that the temporary solution, however welcomed, still left us in a very vulnerable and precarious position. Local resource agencies that I contacted for help classified the three of us as being homeless. It was very hard to hear. Words like displaced and transient are perhaps a bit more palatable to accept in this scenario; yet the word homeless was still what each organization said. It was scary to realize that very little separated us from being on the streets; and it was sobering that it could all shift very quickly and without notice. It was only ten years ago, right after Jordan had been injured, we had lived in shelters for six months; and now the memories of such came flooding back.

As individuals we may have different ideas of what it means to be homeless. It is almost as if we think of homelessness in terms of levels. Some levels we are comfortable with, like displaced and transient; and other levels make us uncomfortable. I am not sure that there should be varying degrees of homeless. Our experience has been humbling, stringent and confining. After all, my children and I did not ask for this to happen; and that is true of the bulk of homeless situations. The question then is: should my kids and I have to be living under a bridge in order to get care and compassion? Of course the answer is no.

I write all of this, not just to help people redefine their ideas of homelessness, but also to get people to extend themselves to homeless people regardless of which level of homelessness they occupy. Positions like what my children and I experienced happen a lot more frequently than most people are willing to admit. The homeless are not only living in cars and under bridges; they sometimes have jobs and stand in line next to you at the grocery store.

Only a few weeks back I had notified our pastor that I wanted to be part of the team of volunteers that would be helping down at The Hope Center; and now weeks later my kids and I are struggling with the same needs and fears as other homeless people. We now rely on a handful of dear friends and many strangers. Some people have been very warm and supportive. But some people have told me not to tell people that we are homeless. I guess I should be embarrassed to admit such a thing. That sounds like pride; and pride has no place in this circumstance. Hopefully people will remember that the next time they encounter a homeless person and they are tempted to turn away. Pride and “keeping up appearances” actually helps to facilitate people becoming homeless in the first place.

We became homeless; and it was not of our own making. We needed help; but so too does every other homeless person out there in our community. Perhaps my daughter, my disabled son and I give atypical faces to homelessness; and if homelessness can happen to us then it can happen to anyone.

I would love it if we as a community would shift all of our preconceived ideas of what we think it means to be homeless and just love on those who are. If enough wonderful people in Sweet Home lend a hand to their neighbors or even contact City Council as to how they can help, we as a community can make a difference.

“Without a family, man, alone in the world, trembles with the cold” Andre Maurois

Submitted as a Letter to the Editor...The New Era...Sweet Home...November 24, 2010

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