Your Turn: Ending homelessness requires a common goal

Sleepy eyed on a recent Sunday morning, a young mom named Rebecca and her two children, Byron, 6 and Kennedy, 2, wandered over to the Lawrence Community Shelter’s front desk, the place where I was stationed as a volunteer.

I had brought doughnuts.

“Would you like one?” I asked.

Byron’s and Kennedy’s eyes lit up.

“They’d love a doughnut.” Rebecca said.

As Byron began munching on the pastry, he offered me a high-five.

I served on the board of the Lawrence Community Shelter from 2010 to 2015. Yet, I am only now getting to know the people we serve. I am learning their names, recognizing their faces, hearing their stories.

People who are homeless are among the most vulnerable people in our community. They battle poverty, life circumstances, mental illness and the effects of trauma and abuse.

The Point in Time Count conducted in the Lawrence area in January identified 396 people experiencing homelessness.

I write this column in the hopes that you too may see the person on the street as, well, a person, carrying the same dreams, desires, fears and needs as yourself.

As Mr. Fred Rogers, of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” fame, said, “How sad that we would give up on any other creature who’s just like us. Perhaps we think we won’t find a human being inside that person.”

The Lawrence community Shelter is committed to not only not giving up on people but helping to provide a pathway for a positive future. The work is paying off!

Take Fran, a young mom who along with her two children had been spending several months at the shelter.

Where else could she go? Fleeing an abusive relationship, and with neither of her parents living, the shelter was the best hope for her young family.

Sheryl Sanders, family program manager at the shelter, who worked closely with Fran to help this threesome get housed, noted, “Fran had never been homeless. She was terrified, just the fear that comes with our complete loss of everything.”

Just when Fran imagined life could not get harder, it did.

She ended up in the hospital, diagnosed with two serious illnesses while her children remained in the care of the shelter staff.

She could not believe how the shelter community wrapped their arms around her and her family.

“While I was in the hospital, doing (physical therapy) and trying to get better, the shelter took care of my kids. There’s not another place in the world that would do that. I just did not think there were people as good as them in the world.”

Now Fran and her children are housed.

How many other Frans are out there in our community, living in their cars, camping down by the river, out on the street?

One of the barriers we face are the myths, namely that people choose to be homeless, and that if folks wanted to find housing they could.

This is not the case.

I asked Renee Kuhl, the new executive director of the Lawrence Community Shelter what she thought was important for the community to understand about homelessness. She said:

“In order to end homelessness in Lawrence, we need to accept the following:

1) Emergency shelter is not a resolution of a housing crisis. While people are living at LCS, they are still homeless. Ending homelessness means offering a pathway to permanent housing for every shelter bed.

2) Everybody is ready to be housed. Recovery from mental illness or substance use disorder or employment, should not be prerequisites to housing, subsidized or otherwise. These types of barriers are more costly to communities than the housing itself, because they cause overreliance on emergency resources, like the shelter, the emergency room, or the police station and jail.

3) Those who experience homelessness once are more likely to become homeless again. That’s why prevention of homelessness is crucial. For every household we prevent from becoming homeless, our community will save thousands of dollars in crisis resolution and emergency services.”

In sum, all our efforts to end homelessness will not come to pass unless we find the will to do this in our community, to be committed to a common goal of making sure every person has a safe place to live.

And finding that will only happen when each of us is willing to probe our own hearts, to ask ourselves if we can really see in our most vulnerable citizens a human being just like ourselves.

— Peter Luckey is a United Church of Christ pastor.


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