This is a long one but it’s something that I have to share, something that I feel I’m finally (almost) ready to share. This one was tough for me but I hope it can help someone not feel so alone or ashamed, and I hope it inspires others to help.
It doesn’t take a lot of effort to offer a hand up to someone in need. You don’t need a lot of time or money, just the willingness. What follows is the short version of our story followed by ideas of ways you can help others, all based on our experience.
If nothing else, I hope that this post opens the eyes of those who think that homelessness is a problem only for the lazy, the drug addicts and the mentally unstable. Homelessness affects every ethnicity, every religion, every age and can happen to any of us.
I really wish I didn’t have to say this, but, any negative/mean-spirited/condescending comments on this post or Facebook will be deleted immediately.
I’m going to be taking the next week and a half off from blogging because the hubby is on vacation and the kids are caught up (HA!) on schoolwork. I’ll still be in and out on TBH’s Facebook page as well as my personal page (warning: I’m opinionated!)
Jason and I wish all of you a very happy holiday and a new year full of love, peace and comfort.
Last night my family and I enjoyed a Community Christmas Party at the local theater. My daughter takes classes at the theater and was participating along with many other local performers. The entire night was a benefit for a local charity that helps needy and homeless families, Street Angel House* .
During the evening we were confronted with some alarming facts. There are 2600 homeless people on any given day in my community, of which about 250 are children. That number may not seem very high but I don’t live in a city. I live in a rural county that is mostly known for it’s orange groves and cattle ranches. In neighboring Orange County, FL 32% of the homeless population is under the age of 17. The average age of a homeless person in the United States is 9.
Nine years old.
This one gets to me. There is such a stigma around being homeless (or needing a little bit of help). The thing is, it happens to “normal” people too. Homelessness can happen to almost anyone, I know this because it happened to us.
You read that right, my family was homeless in the summer of 2008 as the result of an extended job loss. We managed to hold on for a long time but eventually our savings account ran dry and despite our valiant efforts (and with both of us working minimum wage jobs because they were the only jobs we could find), we became homeless.
It got to the point where we could no longer afford rent and were depending on others to help us with the electricity bill. We were making the rounds to food pantries because each could only give us enough food for a few days.
We were more fortunate than most, we had help and people who believed in us. When we had to leave our house my mother-in-law offered us a room to sleep in (imagine 7 of us sleeping in one bedroom, I can sorta laugh about it now). With the help of some fantastic people we were able to move into our own place after 2 months. While our homelessness was relatively short-lived it took much, much longer for us to get back on our feet. We’re still feeling the effects of this situation today, financially and emotionally.
We haven’t forgotten how it felt to be in that place, how it felt to know we couldn’t afford to feed our children. We remember how people called us names and told us that we shouldn’t have had children we couldn’t afford. I remember the feeling of nauseating shame that came with walking into a church and saying “I heard I could get food here, we need help.”
This is why I get so riled up when people spread the stigma that anyone who needs help must be a lazy drug-addicted alcoholic who wants the government to give them everything. I’m sure we’ve all seen the graphic that has been making the rounds recently, comparing food stamp recipients to wild animals. Perhaps you’ve seen the bumper sticker that states “Be glad I’m a Republican, we can’t all be on welfare!” No. More likely than not that person paying with food stamps works a full-time job, and even if they don’t, how could you deny a meal (or basic health care) to your brother or sister? Or children?
For as much bad as there was, I also remember the good. I choose to remember the good.
I must remember the good because the good is what will change the world.
I remember the friend who drove to my house and dropped off food and clothing for the kids. The friends who got together and provided a Christmas for us. The friend who dropped Easter baskets on our front door. The person who slipped $20 into my purse at the grocery store. The social worker who was kind to me when I applied for state health care. The family member who gave me his credit card when I needed to see a doctor. The stranger-turned-friend who believed in us enough to rent his house to us despite our low income. The cashier who didn’t treat me differently when I paid with food stamps. The almost half-my-age boss who treated me like a normal human being when I accepted a job usually filled by teenagers.
Yes, there was bad, but there was so much more good. I firmly believe that there are a whole lot of people out there like us, normal people who are trying so hard but the cards just aren’t coming together yet. I want them to know that things do get better, just hang in there. It’s ok to ask for help when you really need it; and to those who help, know that your kindness is never forgotten.
The rest of this post is going to be a list of things you can do to help your friends or family (or strangers) who may find themselves in this situation. These things don’t have to take a lot of time or money, just a little energy and goodwill.
-Offer to babysit a mildly ill child or be a contact to pick up a sick child at school. Have you ever been threatened with job loss because you had to pick up your sick child from school? I have. Have you ever dosed your child up with medicine before daycare, knowing that the fever would return and you’d be getting a call to pick them up, all because if you didn’t go to work that day you would be fired? I have.
Sick child care is insanely expensive and difficult to find; but losing your job is more expensive and a new job harder to find. Offering to babysit a mildly ill child can help the parents keep their jobs, which helps the family recover faster.
Similarly, most day cares aren’t open at night or on weekends but that is when a lot of people work. Night and weekend daycare are out there but cost about double what regular daycare does, which negates any wage the parent earns.
-Offer storage space so the family doesn’t have to replace furniture and other items once they have a home. When we moved in with family we had to leave almost everything behind. We lost a living room suite, a dining table and our beds.
-Offer to dry clean clothing before a job interview. My husband had one cheap suit for job interviews, a $99 Wal-Mart deal with one tie, one pair of socks and one dress shirt. First impressions are everything in an interview but sometimes people just don’t have the $12 or $15 it takes to have a suit cleaned and pressed.
-Allow the family to do their laundry at your house. It may cost you a dollar or so to run a few loads of laundry at home but it costs $3 to wash and dry one load at the laundry mat. We’ve had times where we washed clothes in the sink, and this is ok temporarily but isn’t practical for a family or job seekers.
-Gift cards for haircuts are always appreciated, especially if someone is looking for a job. Gas station and public transportation gift cards are helpful as well, you can’t work if you can’t get to your job. Used bikes are great gifts for the person who finds a job nearby, they don’t need gas or insurance!
-Offer to buy the family shoes. It’s easy to find hand-me-down and inexpensive clothing, it’s not as easy to find decent shoes, especially if anyone is walking to work or school. School uniform pieces and school supplies are also good things to buy, and are often very inexpensive if purchased the week school starts.
-Let them use your computer. A computer and internet service are requirements if you’re job searching today, but paying for internet access was out-of-reach for us. We used the library computers as much as possible but there was an hour time limit per person per day, you can’t store files on their computers, there was often a 3 hour wait to get computer time and it costs $.25 per page to print. Allowing someone a few hours a week on your computer will help them in their job search and applying for state benefits.
-Donate food to a food pantry or directly to the family. The food needs to be unexpired and fresh, though many pantries can freeze meats that are near expiration.
-Donate pet food. It’s tough enough for children to be faced with the realities of adult life, they shouldn’t have to lose their beloved pets too. Donating pet food can allow the family to keep their pet and it helps keep pets out of overcrowded shelters, where chances are they won’t find another home.
-Donate toiletries. Donating food is great but there are a lot of things people need that aren’t typically found in food pantries and aren’t covered by food stamps. Back in the day I would purchase tampons from the restroom machines at work because I only had a few coins, I didn’t have enough money to buy a whole box. I’d also ask my female coworkers if they had any with them because I forgot mine at home and darnit I didn’t have any coins with me; the truth was that I just didn’t have any money.
Toothpaste, toothbrushes, feminine hygiene items, soap, shampoo, razors, OTC medicines, laundry detergent. These are all things that people need to maintain their health and appearance (so very important for job seekers and kids who are trying to act “normal” in school), but they aren’t free. These are items that can be purchased inexpensively with coupons or at the dollar store but still may be out-of-reach for those down on their luck.
*If you’d like to help the Street Angel House please visit their website. They’re in need of donations of food (especially peanut butter, juice and canned food), toiletries & gift cards and money is always put to good use.