Monday, October 15, 2012

These things shouldn't happen

This morning the Bear and I were on our own. We got ready and made sure to put on our jackets, because it was chilly this morning. The Bear snuggled into her new sweater from Nana, and was surprisingly cooperative getting into the stroller for our walk to daycare. She was a little hesitant to leave me, but then gave Gloria a big hug, and went on it. I grabbed my bag and zipped my coat up and started walking into work.

About halfway to work I passed one of the grates that blows warm air. There was a 50-something looking man, curled up, asleep on the grate. He had no jacket, and no visible belongings. His face was thin, but relaxed in sleep.

This shouldn't happen. No person should be without food, shelter, medical care or clothing.

Homelessness is a problem. It's a problem that stares me in the face every day here in Berkeley.

The city has a lot of resources, including a shower program, and several drop-in programs and shelters, but most have limited hours. Surprisingly, the Youth Emergency Shelter is only open half of the year. 

I am especially impressed with the women's daytime drop-in shelter, which offers breakfast and lunch, a series of programs and counseling to aid single parents in transitioning to long-term housing, and encourages patrons to volunteer to assist with the upkeep of the shelter. 

We give food directly to some of the homeless people we've met, and for one particular gentleman, we've given him money directly. But, I am generally cautious about giving money to anyone. Perhaps I'm too cynical, but I really want the money we spend to go towards providing food, shelter, medical attention or clothing. As such, tonight I donated to the women's daytime drop-in shelter. 

But, regardless of my desire to give them money, I try to make eye contact, and say "hello", or otherwise acknowledge the people who ask for money along Berkeley's streets. It is the same as I do with just about anyone I pass. Granted, as the cities I live in get bigger and bigger, I tend to stick out more, but I just can't get over my mid-west up-bringing. 

I think all human beings deserve to be acknowledged. And, I'm ashamed of how I've changed here in Berkeley. I admit that I don't always interact with people on the streets, especially when I'm alone with the Bear. I can't risk her safety. There's only been twice that I've been genuinely concerned about our safety here.

The first was when we first moved here. The Bear was only 6 months old, and she and I were walking to the grocery store. A woman, who was yelling profanity and fragmented thoughts, was sitting on a bench. As we walked past she stopped yelling and started whispering. When I got about 10 feet away she sprung up and ran to catch up with us. She just stared at the Bear, whispering, and keeping pace with me. I was on a main road, and turned into the first store I came to. She waited outside for us for several minutes, then walked off somewhere else. 

The second was a few weeks ago. The Bear and I were walking home from daycare with Little Brown Dog, and a tall man was stumbling up the other side of the street. He saw us and crossed, without looking. He asked if my dog would bite. I said, probably not, but that he is shy (at this point all the hair was standing up on Little Brown Dog's back, and his ears were flat against his head). I started to walk away, and the man blew marijuana smoke at me and the Bear, then started to curse at me for something I couldn't understand. He walked to the middle of the street and yelled at us until I was too far away to hear him.

Poverty is one of the biggest factors affecting homelessness, but these two experiences highlight, for me, how important assessing and treating mental health are for tackling homelessness.

For a snapshot of homelessness last year: 
In 2011, 636,017 people experienced homelessness for at least one night, with about 107,148 chronically homeless. Of the 636,017 people, nearly 67,495 of them are US veterans, and 236,181  are people in families including children. 

To put those numbers in perspective, consider the population of:
- Syracuse, Nebraska: 1,950
- State College, Pennsylvania (home of Penn State University): 42,499
- Carlisle, Pennsylvania: 19,072
- Lincoln, Nebraska (home of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln): 262,341
- Berkeley, California: 113,905
- San Francisco, California: 812,826

We have a lot of work to do to help our fellow humans. We can start by recognizing humanity reflecting back at us.

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