Archive for October, 2008

October 29, 2008

Who is helping?

“Isn’t there someone helping already?” “Aren’t there people who can help more than me?” “Isn’t the government doing something about this problem?” These are questions that get asked all the time. The answers are not easy.

There are many people helping with homelessness directly. In Austin, we have two large organizations that probably do more of the heavy lifting in the area of homelessness: the Salvation Army and the ARCH. Both offer beds nightly. And both run at near capacity. There is clearly a shortage of beds, but the issue is broader than this. The beds are all in one spot. Rightly or wrongly, many homeless youth (an older homeless as well) say that when they stay at these two places, they are too temped to do things they know are not good for them. Of course, neither shelter wants anything going on that will hurt their clients so they are very proactive against destructive behavior. All in all, many homeless youth choose not to use the services of the Salvation Army and the ARCH. There is also a new effort by Mobile Loaves and Fishes to create affordable entry level housing for homeless. Some youth have expressed interested and even begun to use this option. The youth say they like it because they can have their own place with privacy and dignity and because it is not downtown where they tend to get into trouble. They say drawbacks include the difficulty of making a transition from living on the street to paying modest rent and difficulty in dealing with upkeep of a place of their own.
There are many organizations that help with feeding of homeless. In Austin, homeless people state plainly that it is hard to go hungry if you are well enough to get around, but you have to get around. Meals downtown tend to be heavily oversubscribed with long lines and waits. Youth state that they don’t want to wait in such crowded environments, surrounded by older people. They tend to go to meals where there are fewer people or meals that cater to younger people. And the youth say they prefer to avoid the crowded meals and ask for handout food, from local restaurants and from restaurant patrons taking home leftovers. Pizza is, of course, a favorite. The describe that it’s difficult to seek out scarce food pantries in the downtown area so they can take food back to their camps for the night and weekends.
Physical health, dental, and mental health care are very hard to access for all homeless in Austin. The youth know that the county health system provides a MAP card, although they say the process of getting one is very confusing. This gives access to free clinics, dental clinics, and even mental health care. The services are spelled out in a 20 page booklet of what you can and cannot get. The youth talk well about services received at People’s Clinic, RJ Dental Clinic, a city operated mobile dental van. Local emergency rooms end up providing a lot of health care to homeless youth, just as they do for many of America’s people living in poverty. It’s expensive and often leaves the youth with bills they simply don’t know what to do with.

Government programs also step into assist homeless youth, although few are targeted for them. Some have disability insurance and Medicaid. Some have food stamps. Some use Texas Workforce. MHMR services many homeless young people. Federal supported housing it available to some youth, although the waiting period (months) is so long that most youth say they feel it’s not a real option. Homeless youth will often ask for help get establish and maintain government benefits because they feel they are confusing or challenging to access alone. Expert case managers who keep up with the way things work in the local are with government agencies are crucial to this process.
Many churches help homeless youth. As well many non-profits. And even some for-profit businesses are well-know for helping street youth. These organizations often provide food, clothing, vouchers for work clothes, vouchers to help pay for ID replacements, backpacks, blankets, leftover food packaged to go (with dignity), access to animal care for their pets. They serve meals on certain days, operate food and clothing pantries, open buildings as overnight cold weather shelters. One non-profit targeted for youth is Lifeworks Street Outreach. It has been in operation for more than 15 years. It is known within the street culture as a safe place to go. It admits youth up to age 24. However, many youth have not moved from the street by this age, and they recognize that there is no similar service for older youth.
And there are missionaries, both from Austin and from around the world, who have come specifically to help with homeless youth in Austin. These missionaries meet the youth where they are in the streets, come to know their lives, help with individual crises, and share the Gospel with them. One such group is Help for All Nations, a group sent from an international organization based in Germany that focuses on youth recovery, currently operating in 7 countries. Their strategy is to equip the youth who are ready to live better lives to help spread the gospel in the more dark places that makes up the overall street youth culture in America.
All these sources of help are wonderful. Please understand that I am describing the help as it is often described to me the youth. I say again, all these sources of help are wonderful. The sources of help are constantly reinventing themselves and reacting to funding and governmental policy changes. This means they are constantly the services they provide and how they provide them. The youth often perceive the changes as difficult to navigate and inconsistent.
So, with all these sources of help out there, what should you do? I have three suggestions:
1) Start looking for homeless youth. Observe them. Smile at them. See them.
2) Start noting what services are available in your area for homeless youth. There are probably more than you think or know about.
3) Begin to see where your heart breaks because there isn’t enough service available. This is your clue, your call, to action. Begin by volunteering with an established organization to learn the ropes and see firsthand what is being done.
October 20, 2008

How can I help?

This is a difficult blog to write. But I’m trying to take the topics that I committed to write on in order and knock them out! Why is “How can I Help” hard to write about? Because, frankly, the task seems hard, scary, and even hopeless sometimes. What do we do when this is true? Well that’s but subject of another blog (and one that I heard an excellent speech on by Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission). For now, suffice it to say that since we recognize it’s a hard problem, it is worthy of attention of the body of Christ. Since it’s a scary problem, we need to recognize that God does not call us to do more than our share. He will do the most important work… we just have to show up and do our part. Finally, since it seems like a hopeless problem at times, we have no choice but to lean back into the arms of our loving Savior and let him support the work.

Back to the question. 
How can we help homeless street youth? I think the answers depend on where you live — specifically on whether you live in a large urban place or in small town — and on your temperament. Let me expand on this.
If you live in a rural area or a small town, you might think, “Oh, this is not my problem. This is an urban problem only.” However, I think you’re mistaken. According to the youth I work with, they often go to small towns. They find them hospitable and less stressful. They go to your small town to see friends, get away from the city, and to recover a bit. They hitch hike into your town, they may ride a train and jump off near your town, or they may have a friend to take them there. The drawback of a small town for them is that there are usually few organized shelters, social outreach agencies. So the homeless youth will need to depend on the kindness of individuals, either working individually or called upon from churches or agencies not really focused on homeless youth. You are critical to care for homeless youth in small towns!
If you live in an urban setting, you are going to see lots of homelessness today. There is just no way to escape it. In fact, it’s very hard not to become callous and crass toward the homeless population. You will seem them “flying signs” (begging for money) at busy intersections. You will see them “spanging” (asking for spare change) on a busy street. You may see them congregating near the city center, usually in a place where young people already hang out (e.g., a university or college). You may see them camping out in more out of the way greenbelts or parks. There are lots of social organizations on which they can depend, but they need something from you as an individual as well.
In both cases, rural and urban, homeless youth need a humanizing loving face to smile at them. You need to see the youth and acknowledge them. I think this can be easier in a rural setting sometimes. Frankly, they do not often finding loving faces in the urban environment. Even the social agencies who are there to help the homeless are not often happy to see them because of all the difficulties and troubles one faces in an urban environment. The agencies are often overrun with supplicants, the social workers are tired and emotionally drained, the range of services is severely limited after almost a decode of curtailed governmental social policies. However, these agencies provide valuable social work that the homeless simply cannot exist without… access to mental health and medical assistance, access to shelter programs, access to your tax dollars for food, shelter and education. And many agencies do provide loving faces, too! These agencies each need the support of yourself in the form of advocacy for their agencies, financial support of their work, and volunteers to help keep things fresh.
What about church organizations? You can help out through church organizations that support the homeless. I believe that church organizations are critical to the care of homeless youth. Social work alone is not enough. And this applies to urban as well as rural areas. However, the programs will be more defined in urban areas out of necessity. It is important that the faces of the church workers be loving. Whatever you are doing for the homeless youth, you must love them first to be effective.
Depending on your personal temperament, you can choose to work through a social agency or a church organization. What about individual efforts? Should you give to the youth directly? This is a very difficult question. I do not want to oversimplify it, but given people’s intense interest in this subject I feel I must say something. First, I have found only two guidelines that I can solidly stand behind… (Guideline 1) Don’t work alone on the street. Take someone with you. Always. (Guideline 2) Whatever you choose to give individually to a homeless street youth, if you can give it with a loving message of acceptance and hope, it is probably worthwhile giving it.
(Guideline 1) I don’t want you to think that all homeless street youth are dangerous. They absolutely are not as a whole. However, they are programmed for survival. They do odd things. Things they later regret. They can overreact to things to which we are not well attuned (e.g., physical threatening body language that might seem normal among your friends, hearing things literally in ways you do not, hearing things in terms of their past experiences which you obviously don’t share, hearing and thinking about time differently than you do). However, if you work in pairs, you are very unlikely to get into trouble if you confine your work to agencies, churches, and public places where there are people around. I work with people who have done street work for 20 years or more, and we all agree: don’t work alone.
(Guideline 2) You will hear and be encouraged not to give money to homeless people. However, I must say that they could not survive without money, and they often have no legitimate access to money. It’s that simple. When you give something to a homeless person… anything…, it can always be converted to cash. (A bus ticket can be sold to a commuter for 1/2 price. A meal can be swapped around the corner for a couple of bucks to someone who wants the meal more.) And cash can be turned into alcohol, drugs, and other hurtful things. This is a fact and one we have to accept if we want to work with most homeless youth. However, I contend that if we give our gift with a message of love and hope, it is worth the risk. 
I confess that I rarely give out cash. This fact is understandable to many of those youth I work with but is a source of confusion for other among them. They say, “If I truly love them and want to take care of them, why would I not give them money?” It is a good question. I allow God to show me those occasions when it seems to be OK. On those rare occasions when I am able to give out cash with a message of love and hope, I am convinced it is no worse than giving out of sandwiches. (Flame suit on… I know this is controversial, and I myself can rarely bring myself to give cash… I believe it is because I find it hard to deliver the message of love with the cash.) However, if I were to give out cash by tossing it in a box without looking at the person and without telling them I’m sorry that I’m not able to help them in more specific ways, I have dehumanized both of us and this is not love. I look like an ATM to them, and they look like… well… I don’t even want to write it down. But I don’t think they look like a neighbor whom I love and want to care for. So what do I give? I give out socks. I give out bus passes. I give time spent with them listening. I give time spend tutoring them in pre-algebra so they can pass a test. It rarely seems like enough, but I have to remember that I can only do my part. God it bigger than the problem and I have to trust it to Him.
We must give love first. And to do that, we have to truly love them as they are. They are not perfect. They are not going to change so that we can love them. They are not going to stop living on the street, stop drinking, stop using, start believing so that we will love them. We have to love them first. Then we are freed to look for ways we can help.
October 9, 2008

Understanding the problems faced by street youth

Youth on the street face an amazing array of problems. But before we go into that, let’s think about the problems that we would think of first. What comes to mind when we think street youth? Runaway? Maybe. Unsupportive family? Sometimes, but certainly not always. No housing? Almost always, but often getting shelter does not change much. No job? Usually, but getting a short term job doesn’t often have the positive effect that the average reader might want.

So what are the problems faced by a youth on the street? What dominates their day, takes most of their energy, and occupies their time? 
I believe that survival takes the most from the time and energy of a street person. It almost defines street culture… the art of surviving at all costs, no matter what you have to do. If you need to sleep outside or squat in a vacant building, you do it. But that doesn’t give you a good nights sleep… it usually robs you of sleep because of bugs, lights, getting to bed late, and being woken early. If you need to eat from the trash can, you do it. But it doesn’t give you any control over your diet or your health. If you need to “sell yourself” in exchange for money, shelter, or safety… you do it.
But there are services and agencies to help out, right? There sure are. I volunteer and work at a couple. However, I have to remind myself everyday that they street youth often live far from where we services are delivered. They have to take buses, ride bikes, and walk to get where we are everyday. And they have to go all over town to collect the services to which we refer them. It’s hard to imagine, but here’s how I imagine it for myself. “I imagine that I have to apply formy driver’s license 4 times today… and the 4 offices are all over town… and my car is broken or in the shop. It’s been years since you did this, and I expect they have changed the procedures at all these places. I absolutley don’t want to do this today, but this is what I have to do because I need those licenses.” That’s how I think it feels to access services all day. You’re appreciative and you do it, but it’s hard and taxing. It takes your attention and your energy. I don’t know about you, but I rarely get as much done on days when I have several “mandatory” errands to run like that. The same is true for a homeless street person. When they have to travel from place to place getting lunch, bus tickets, medical care, canned food, clothing, vouchers for something they need, and on and on, it doesn’t leave them much time (or energy) for other things. And best of all, it starts all over tomorrow. Survival is tough.
Survival mode puts you in one survival crisis after another. Street youth get used to seeing life as a series of crises. You need lunch, but the bus pass you planned to use to go there got stolen or lost. Now what? You planned to get medical care today, but the clinic is closed because the nurse practitioner is sick or needed to renew her training. Now you need to go across town to a different clinic, but that means you can’t get back in time to get your canned goods for the weekend. Now what? These are practical crises that come about because of simple survival. Instead of making progress, you find yourself getting by. But the crises don’t stop there.
There are also social crises on the street. The street is tough — you won’t make it unless you are tough, too. It’s filled with people who’s past and present make them angry, and they often express it in violence. Your safety is paramount on the street. You’ve got to stick up for yourself. I don’t want to give the wrong idea… the street culture is actually a very tight and close-knit group. However, as one person reacts to crisis and makes decisions, it often effects others. One person might make the decision to take something needed from another. This crisis can ripple from one person to the next. It tends to appear overly dramatic to those from the outside, but I prefer think of it as an immediate crisis that threatens the survival of the youth. It has to be dealt with, and this means more time and more personal energy poured into something other than getting help you need, getting better. Instead, you tread water.
Probably we can all relate to a social crisis in the following way. We have our day all planned. It’s going to be busy, but pretty cool because of all we’re going to get done. But our best friendcomes in and has had a romantic and dramatic breakup. We listen, we comfort, we advice. Pretty soon, our time is gone and our energy is shot. We didn’t get what we needed done. However, since we’re probably not living in constant crisis, it doesn’t matter that much. We can probably choose to do one more thing tomorrow or rearrange things in some other way. However, if our friends was particularly demanding on our time and energy, we may find ourselves being too tired to even figure out how to repair the damage until tomorrow, until after we’ve had a good night’s rest. This is a good plan. But of course, if you’re a homeless street youth, you probably wouldn’t be able to get a good nights sleep, and before tomorrow you’re likely to be presented with at least one new crisis to deal with.
After living this way a while, a new source of crises will develop. Enter the personal crisis. You’ve been living on the street, depending on the street community for survival. You’ve gotten used to living with a plan for dealing with the current crisis through the next few hours and then figuring out what to do next. You’ve come to expect to be tired and dragging. You live in less than wonderful places, and you have to deal with hair lice, body lice, other parasites. You might develop bacterial infections from small scratches or wounds. Your mouth care is far from ideal on the street, so your teeth or gums may hurt. Your stomach takes a beating from strange or bad food, from drinking, from worry and stress. It’s hard to keep your feet healthy… you may have sores or infections that make it painful to walk. You may have sex scares… pregnancy, expores to STDs, urinary tract problems.  It drags you way down without a doubt. You may have discovered through the street culture, several ways to numb this feeling… through alcohol, pot, pills, or other drugs. You may experience significant crises of health and mental attitude. You may experience significant crises of your day to day health as affected by alcohol and other substance use. 
As with the social crisis, the energy required to resolve one crisis takes away energy required to deal with the next. Anyone who partied too hard one night and just couldn’t manage to get anything done the next day has experienced this. However, if you’re living in survival mode, having no energy to deal with each crisis can literally threaten your very survival.
So what are we to do, those of us “normies” who don’t live on the street? I asked you to first see the youth and, now, second to empathize and respect what they have to deal with each and every day. It is no wonder they have difficulty to find the time to do the things we would wish for them that we mentioned in the first paragraph (reconciliation, homes, jobs). 
From the time that someone wants to come off the street, it take about 18 months of hard work to accomplish it for the average street youth. Some are faster, some much slower. Some have great help from outside family, some leverage social service very well, some do it almost all on their own. However, it takes a lot of personal strength, inner strength, to overcome the daily crisis and begin to work on the long term planning and improvement. Please hear me when I say that I have great respect for these youth. There is no need to think that everything they do is OK or right. It isn’t. But there is every reason to see them, to empathize as much as we can with how difficult their walk in life is, and to say a prayer for their safety and ability to handle the next crisis today.