My colleague and I got out of the car in front of the Tim Horton’s. Standing away from the store was David, doing his best to blend into the background, shivering in the cold. We almost didn’t see him. I called his name and his beautiful smile lit up his weary face. I introduced myself as the person who had spoken to him on the phone at the Crisis Center and invited him inside for a hot cup of coffee. Again, that smile, I will never forget.
Nobody makes it a goal to become homeless. They are trying to survive from one minute to another, they are targets of crime more often and they are stuck in a cycle of health problems, circumstances and bad decisions. They can’t get off that merry go round. That day, David had eaten something out of the garbage and later in the evening, the food didn’t agree with him. He quietly explained, “I suspected I would get sick but I took a chance. I was so, so hungry.”
Homelessness isn’t sexy like puppies and kittens so we like to keep it invisible. As I write this, in the space of 2 weeks, our local news has been making it visible by reporting that shelters are being shut down due to lack of funding and that a downtown merchant placed spikes in strategic places that made it impossible to sit on a ledge or lie down near the store. Now here’s what is interesting: the mayor was indignant that the store would take this action to keep the vagrants away. The irony is that city hall discourages loitering on their doorsteps.
Clearly, raising taxes won’t help since the governments won’t send it down the line that far. Does that mean that we just turn a blind eye or do we start giving money out to everyone with their hand out? I think there is a third option that helps more. First, figure out your “giving or donation” budget for the year or the month. We all need limits, especially when it’s on topics that pull our heart strings. Here is a list of things to consider that make a difference but are low or no cost to you and some will prevent homelessness from happening in the first place:
Give to local food banks (year round). A mother shouldn’t have to choose between feeding her children and paying the rent. Kids going to school on a full belly learn more and it can break the cycle of poverty in a family. Being hungry should not feel “normal” to a child and that can go a long way to preventing becoming homeless.
Let someone you know couch surf “temporarily” (when appropriate). Someone did it for me when I was in my 20’s and I’ve done it for others who needed help. I’m not talking about rescuing someone but rather intervening when a young adult needs a break from home or a Mom needs a break from the family. DON’T take in the homeless man on the street.
Caveat: If you allow someone to couch surf for a day or two, make sure you have good boundaries; and if in doubt, call a crisis center for advice to find alternative resources and how to access them. Then, dial the phone and hand it to them. Drive them where they need to go so they feel supported but let them “own their circumstances” so they can feel proud when they overcome them. (I’m an optimist.)
Social Media. Start liking, sharing and commenting on articles that educate others as to the realities of homelessness, mental illness and other marginalized people. It’s okay to FB “Like” the pictures of homeless puppies but let’s bring these human discussions to the mainstream more often.
Support Mental Health initiatives and organizations. 20% of the population will experience a severe mental health crisis in their life that will impact their ability to work. Many times, they lose their job first and then they become ill. No family is immune from this statistic. Strong Mental Health Organizations improves outcomes, decreases crises and shortens recovery times when someone is ill and keeps patients off the streets. Let’s make sure they’re still there if those statistics makes it through our front door.
Get educated on mental illness. If you have a loved one who suffers, in Montreal, check out AMI Quebec or Friends for Mental Health to help you towards a better outcome. Education will lower stigma and improve outcomes because it increases prevention before a crisis occurs. One of my mottos is: “Fix it while it’s small!”
Talk to kids about these issues. I believe that a kinder more compassionate world begins with the values we impart onto our children; the leaders of tomorrow. Validating how scary that homeless person looks should also include what might really be happening and what we can do for each other as human beings. Take this opportunity to teach your child gratitude to protect their mental well being!
Support a shelter or start a charity. One of my nieces saw a homeless person. My sister explained to her that he sleeps outside. My niece began a small charity in her elementary school to give homeless people warm sleeping bags. (Okay, she’s not a normal kid, but if she can do it…). Helping others increases a person’s sense of personal competence.
Be part of a growing movement. In the U.S., some people pick up a used backpack, fill it with useful items and leave it in their car. When the opportunity presents itself they give it someone in need. They keep their total cost under $20.
Item ideas (mostly from the Dollar store): fresh socks; toiletries (shampoo, toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, toilet paper); non-perishable foods; bus tickets, notebooks and pens and a coffee card for $5.
Just giving someone an apple or a granola bar from your lunch bag will increase your self-esteem. How amazing that you are so rich as to help another!
Make your voice heard. All the governments are talking about austerity measures. I agree with them. I also believe that social nets are an important value and that we must have balance to not let people fall through the cracks. Vote at every single election and tell your representatives what you want from them.
Remember David at the beginning of my text? He suffered from a mental illness. He is part of the majority of homeless people: non-violent, clean and quiet, compliant with his medication, living moment to moment, not knowing where his next meal will come from. After working with him for 3 days, if he had not been sideswiped by mental illness, I am convinced he would have made a most gentle and wonderful philosophy teacher. Instead, he is dumpster diving and sleeping where he can.
Let’s set a precedence of caring by being kinder to the Davids of the world.