By Jan Johnson
Carol could never catch up financially. Before she could pay for rent, food, and child care, her purse was empty. As we became friends, I often found her staring into an empty refrigerator and crying over her broken marriage. She was a teacher, but she didn’t manage money well and she was too devastated by her divorce to care.
In the summer, she taught summer school, but when it was over in July, she couldn’t find a temporary job that coordinated with child care and bus schedules.
I tried to help. I paid her to watch my children. I brought her food. I encouraged her to study for a state teaching credential test so she could get a job in a higher-paying public school. Beyond that, I was stumped.
Then I read in the newspaper that single-parent families were the fastest-growing category among the homeless and I suddenly realized Carol and her children were likely candidates. There are at least a half-million homeless children today; some statistics suggest up to a million. How could I be concerned enough to write a check to a downtown mission, but not enough to recognize a friend who soon could become a resident there? I had stereotyped the down-and-out person as someone living on skid row, but that’s not so.
RECOGNIZE THOSE IN DANGER
Typical scenarios leading to homelessness include: a family who can’t find affordable housing after their older building is torn down, so they live in their car; a waitress who goes on medical leave and can’t survive on sick pay without tips; a nurse’s aide can’t afford child care for her three children, so she leaves them alone at night while she works and is reported to Child Protection Services.
Many of us are so busy that we don’t see the financial problems of those around us. My friend Marguerite didn’t understand how desperate her neighbors were until someone bought their house at a foreclosure auction. “I remember the husband lost his job, but I never dreamed it was that bad,” she told me. “I’ve tried to find out what happened to them, but no one knows.”
Carol’s problem opened my eyes to the people around me who were about to become homeless. A survey of homeless mothers by Harvard Medical School and the University of Southern California points out circumstances that these women had in common. Based on their findings, here are some phrases we might hear in a friendly conversation with a potentially homeless neighbor, friend, or church member.
• “My husband/wife is leaving me.” “I just moved here.”
One-third of the surveyed mothers became homeless due to a broken relationship, another third because they were evicted, and another third because they tried to relocate.
• “I can pay for everything but child care.”
Three fourths of the surveyed mothers couldn’t find affordable day care. Until 3-year-old Charlie got into school, Carol’s day care bills saddled her.
• “I barely knew my parents.” “My family can’t help.”
Forty-three percent of the interviewed women were runaways or had been placed in foster or institutional care as children (one-third had been abused as children). More than a third of the women had deceased parents and many had no siblings.
Carol’s parents were dead, and her brother helped her once but refused to help her again.
• “I know I can handle a job, but nothing seems to work out.”
Sixty percent of the women had at least a high school education, but two-thirds hadn’t held a job for longer than a month. It never occurred to me that Carol could be nearly homeless since she had a master’s degree. What I didn’t understand was that her self-esteem had slipped so much that she was lethargic at home and on the job. She used up her sick days and more with her own illnesses and her children’s. She was rehired that fall on probation.
The problem of homelessness can be so overwhelming that we think only specialized organizations are equipped to deal with these problems. But a friend who works at Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles told me she believes the church is the highway around skid row. “It’s that committed network of people who already know potentially homeless persons who can help the most—before they get down here.”
Carol’s problem opened my eyes to the need for prevention as well as cure for the problem of homelessness. Here are some suggestions on how we can help.
BE A RESOURCE PERSON
People with financial problems can get so discouraged that they aren’t good at digging up job-training programs or subsidized child care. We can make some phone calls and search the Internet for them.
• Ask friends if they know someone who’s selling a reliable used car or who rents inexpensive apartments. They may know about employers who offer child care, such as universities and hospitals. A needy person may not qualify for a professional job, but these institutions need clerical and custodial help too.
• Ask potentially homeless friends to rethink their family options. Can an aunt or in-law move in and trade room and board for child care? Jan McDougall, formerly of Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, points out that many times people in this situation are estranged from family members who would help if they knew there was a problem. Probe to see if they could patch things up with their families.
• People who work regularly with the homeless can direct us to resources. You can call large churches in your area that have staff persons who specialize in this area and can answer telephone requests about available programs. Some churches publish their own classified ads or bulletin boards that feature used furniture, jobs, and quality day care. Ask your local councilpersons to supply you with a social services resource list.
BE AN ENCOURAGER
Here are some other ways you can bring hope to those feeling discouraged by their situation.
Be a friend. View this person as a peer instead of a “needy person.” On Carol’s birthday, my husband watched her children while I took her out for cheesecake. It seemed frivolous in light of her serious needs, but she loved it. “I feel so special,” she whispered before hugging me.
Validate them. McDougall believes that lack of self-esteem is a major problem. “Almost every woman I work with has been emotionally, sexually, or physically abused by a family member.” This is true of many homeless men as well. One way we can help is to point out this needy person’s good qualities. When I admired Carol’s tall, slim figure in her class picture, she looked shocked. Between the breakup of her marriage and her own self-doubts, she’d forgotten that anyone could think she was attractive.
Don’t expect miracles. Understand that some days a potentially homeless person may want to work on problems, and other days she will feel hopeless. Carol studied for her credential test sporadically. I learned to praise her for her confident moments and walk with her through the discouraging ones.
Find support. A family’s personal and medical problems may be more than you can handle. Shelters and self-help groups for alcoholics, spouses of alcoholics, and battered women are often listed in the telephone book. Some missions offer free clinics. Some churches offer free counseling.
Share your faith. “Drug pushers are bold and courageous,” says McDougall. “That’s how we need to be. I always tell people that God loves them and then give them further teaching as needed.” Since Carol already knew the Lord, I tried to remind her, without giving her pat answers, that God loved her.
DON’T TRY TO DO IT ALL
McDougall differentiates between the homeless person who wants help and the “street person” who doesn’t. “Street people are there by choice because they like the excitement and the freedom,” says McDougall. “Most homeless families, however, are people who have lost their jobs and ability to cope. They have goals and they’ll use whatever help you give them as a stepping stone to greater things.”
I wasn’t this wise when I tried to help our local bag lady. I gave her food and suggested local shelters. Sometimes we just talked. Later I found out she gave the food away and never tried the shelter. Now I recognize her as the street person McDougall described. I still talk with her, but I understand that she doesn’t want my help.
You might want to enlist another church friend or couple to help you so you’re not the sole emotional support for your friends in need. I got involved with Carol because my friend, Jamie, who was Carol’s coworker, asked me to pray for Carol. Together we consoled Carol through her divorce and encouraged her to get a generous child-support settlement. Thankfully, her ex-husband paid it on time and Carol survived.
Helping others doesn’t have to drain you—it can help you. After talking to Carol about how God always provides, I received a car insurance bill that had doubled. “We can never pay this,” I stormed. I thought about Carol and rehearsed my words on myself.
Jan Johnson is a retreat speaker and author of Growing Compassionate Kids and Enjoying the Presence of God. Visit her Web site at www.janjohnson.org.