December 31, 2008
Yesterday, I was chatting with many of the youth about their Christmas. Many took advantage of the holiday time to reconnect with family members, to make few changes in their lives, and to generally relax a bit. One story in particular really got my attention…
George came in and shook my hand. I asked him how his Christmas was. He answered, “Great!” Wanting to draw out a bit more information, I asked him to name 2 things that were great about it. He gave me quick responses: “My wife and her father started talking again! And he offered me a mechanics job… I thought I would never get that type of job again. I love working on cars! And we spent Christmas with her father and it was great! I’m so happy! I’m so happy I’m sort of in shock!” I wanted to reinforce that he should and could be happy from time to time, so I said something along the lines of “I’m really glad to see you so happy! You just light up. It’s OK to be happy from time to time.” He responded very honestly, and without a manipulative thought in his head, “I haven’t been this happy since I was six!” Then he walked off to take care of some other things.
He left me in shock and awe. Shock that he could so quickly name the time when he was this happy before! And awe that it could be so long (he’s about 20) since he was this happy!
God is so good. We need to live in the moment and enjoy happiness when it comes our way. Time with family, time to do things we enjoy, and time to simply be who we are.
December 23, 2008
Yesterday I made a gingerbread house with the homeless kids. This is an annual tradition for me, going back 4 years. It is an activity they enjoy. I am aware of the extreme irony… and so are the kids: we are building a fake house with homeless people, and we are using food to make it for people who are sometimes quite hungry. However, they do love the activity.
This year, we talked about what Christmas means to some of them as we worked. One girl had very fond memories of family. One young man expressed concern that Christmas is simply a commercial holiday designed to increase the buying habits before end of year.
As we worked on the house, I asked them to compose a story. The story below expresses some of their home, ideas, and beliefs. It was a group effort over the course of the couple of hours it took to make our house. It is a very warm wish for the future from people who have a hard time imagining the future at all. Enjoy and have a very Merry Christmas!
A Gingerbread House Story
Once upon a time there was this homeless guy who won the lottery. He did something first for himself, but he eventually bought a piece of land in Alaska. He built a big two-story house with a garage on the bottom for parking bicycles. He decided to bring street people into his house because he never forgot where he came from. Since they were homeless, some of them felt more comfortable living outside. This is why the man decided to have a tent city behind his house for people to live in.
The people living in the tents discovered that they needed a table. They wanted a huge table that everyone could sit around and that could keep everything off the ground. They had great times around the table. Everyone shared whatever they had, and there was plenty for everyone.
One day the police decided they didn’t like the tent city, with all the homeless people living on man’s property. They raided the tent city and gave everyone tickets for camping outside. The man was heartbroken. He hired a lawyer to defend everyone who got a ticket and to make sure the police would understand that he had invited all the people to live on his property.
Some of the people living in the tents grew up and moved away. Some fell in love and started families. Some stayed with the man and helped the man and take care of other homeless people.
December 16, 2008
Holidays are hard for people in general. And of course, I think they are hard for homeless people, too. After ranting my last blog, I felt you deserved a good warm story. Here it is…
A homeless teen (or maybe he’s 20) is anxiously awaiting tomorrow. He received a round trip bus ticket from his parents to Illinois. He’s looking forward so much to this. He can’t wait. He told me all about his excitement yesterday. He’s looking forward to seeing his family. He’s looking forward to seeing his old high school friends. He has a book he’s always wanted to read to take with him on the long bus ride.
He’s also a little worried. He hopes his family won’t mind too much his getting drunk regularly. He hopes they will treat him with respect even though he lives on the streets in Austin. He hopes they will not fight too much with each other.
What will he do after that? Well, the ticket was purchased round trip. So he’s coming back to Austin about a week after Christmas. The date is set. The plans are made.
I can’t help but be excited for this dear young man… for his honest excitement with going home. For his universal concerns about being accepted. I also can’t help but notice the problems in his life that the two-way ticket decries. He is alone without support in Austin, except from other street youth. This is the single most common characteristic of the homeless: a complete lack of a stable support network.
Please count your blessings this Christmas. Let your heart be warmed by the open joy of a young man who lives on the street but is going home for the holidays. Realize that we all have a child inside us who wants deeply to be accepted. And pray for him to develop a support network wherever he goes. He’s s wonderful young man.
December 16, 2008
Your ID. I’m sure you take it for granted. Maybe you even hate it… that lousy picture… having to renew it from time to time…. it only comes to your attention as an inconvenience. However, it is very important to you.
If you were homeless, the chances are near 100% that your stuff will get stolen or lost within 3 months. I find it hard to have compassion for people who steal from people who have nothing, but perhaps it is more often really lost than stolen. *When* you get picked up for warrants… in Austin, sleeping outside is illegal, sitting on the sidewalk is illegal, and panhandling within so many feet of a crosswalk/roadway is illegal, so you’re going to get a ticket and that means going to jail 30 days later when you have a warrant for not paying your $150 ticket… when you get picked up by the police, you have no place to put your stuff, so your stuff often gets stolen. As amazing as it seems, many of my clients go to jail and the police don’t return their ID. I’ve spoken with public defenders about this and they say it is common… the arresting officer keeps the ID for his report and then nobody ever asks for it back. Anyway… chances are you’re going to lose your ID if your homeless.
Good luck getting food stamps. Good luck getting work… except the kinds that pays cash… if you’re lucky enough to have an honest employer that pays you at all. Good luck applying for school or grants. Good luck opening a bank account to keep your cash safe. Good luck even cashing a check! Good luck getting off the street!
So… you need to get your ID. Do you know you need to have ID to get ID? Since 9/11, the US has significantly tightened documentation in this country. Too tight for the homeless at the bottom of our society. To get your ID you most commonly would use a social security card. To get your social security card you most commonly need your birth certificate. To get your birth certificate you need… you guessed it… ID. Unless you can go to the place in person (what if you’re adopted? what is you’re born in another state?), you need ID! I have one client now who needs his birth certificate from Virginia right now. I called and spoke with very nice people in the office there. Unless I am immediate family (he is estranged from his family and they will not help him) or a licensed social worker (I am a missionary but not a social worker) or a government worker providing services to him (he is not eligible for government services without ID!), then I cannot get his ID for him! I can order it online for $50 from several services, but only if I lie and say I am him (which I can’t do because it’s immoral and because my credit card name doesn’t match his) or pay with his credit card (which he can’t get because… you guessed it… he doesn’t have ID).
90% (that’s off the top of my head… but it’s close) of the homeless surveyed in Austin want to work if it will pay enough to get off the street. A third (also off the top of my head) of the people who want to work lack identification as the major barrier to work. I’ll wager that the City of Austin (or other cities and states) will incarcerate most of these people at least once in the next 6 months. For the cost of one night stay in jail, I bet we could buy their ID for them and thus help many back to productivity and avoid future incarceration and social service costs.
Join me in praying for sanity in the ID situation. We need to make being able to identify yourself a right if we make identifying yourself a requirement.
December 7, 2008
I was invited to join in an Austin community planning event called Ending Community Homelessness, ECHO. We heard from community government leaders, non-profit agency leaders and several citizens who were formerly homeless. We saw an exciting new video that addresses 10 common misconceptions about Austin community homelessness. From there we broke into smaller groups with special focus on homeless families, homeless youth, homeless veterans, and homeless with mental illness and chemical dependencies.
I was assigned to a group that focused on homeless youth. We heard from a representative of Department of Education, a leader of Lifeworks, a leader from Ready By 21 Coalition, and a leader from Casey Family Programs, the instigator of the Raise Me Up campaign.
Then we were asked to break into even small groups and provide input. We were asked to dream big, describing how Austin will have overcome the challenges of community homelessness in the year 2018. What was key? What was our strategy? What challenges did we face?
Here are the big and bold dreams of my small group concerning homeless youth in Austin in 2018:
We have overcome community homelessness of youth by empowering the youth themselves to be a voice in the solution. We provided mentoring to them and helped draw out the strengths in the youth. We helped organize them and give them a voice of their own. They are now recognised as a strong part of the solution in our community.
We have overcome community youth homelessness in Austin by raising public awareness within our community. We started by educating every single teacher in Austin and every single student about homelessness. We broadened the definitions of homelessness so include those at risk of homelessness and those without support networks. We made homelessness personal to our citizens and gave them personal ways to act and respond. We tied solving homelessness and being good stewards of the earth together. It has become of source of pride in Austin that we are 100% housed.
We have overcome community homelessness in Austin by distributing human scale on-step service delivery all over our community. No one wants shelters and service centers in their back yards to we put it all over town. This allows us to make them smaller so that each person can get a personal touch. We have combined homeless facilities and service delivery in neighborhoods by combining them with other necessary public buildings and services, following the model of Jake Pickle Elementary School. This has provided incentives to neighborhoods to have the facilities and services. We have recouped the cost savings from shrinking institutional programs aimed at criminal justice and invested these savings in community based homeless solutions.
I know it’s a bold and audacios dream, but if 10 people can agree on these visions, why not 100? Why not a whole neighborhood? Why not a whole community? Dare to dream!