Homeless people have shelters to go to, a common belief comforting those who don’t know better.
Having just come from Carlisle Cares, the community-based shelter where my friend and colleague Pat LaMarche works, having run shelters for 15 years myself, having seen shelters across the country for the past 9 years of my HEAR US traveling, I find myself seething at the perverted reality of what our shelter “system” is in this affluent country.
Pat’s shelter is probably average (no offense!). It’s in a middle-income borough in sort of central PA. Hundreds of similar communities dot the Keystone State. This community is quite unusual, with 3 shelters—one in a fixed site, this one which rotates to different places of worship—and a Salvation Army shelter for families. Shari Bellish, the shelter founder, fights hard to keep this meager operation going, knowing that 55 people a night will have a safe place to sleep.
I listened as Pat answered one of many phone calls she and other staff get during the day. “I’m sorry, we’re full,” was the gist of it. The caller, a woman staying in her car. It’s below freezing tonight. Pat referred her to a neighboring community’s rotating site “shelter” program. At least she has a car, and gas is cheaper. Maybe she’ll get a spot to sleep.
Many shelters operate on paltry budgets, forcing them to creatively get around the lack of space and staff by setting hours that minimize the operations’ expenses. Pat’s shelter busses people to the night site which opens at 9:30 p.m. Everyone has to be out by 7 a.m., bussed back to this modest base so everyone can go on their way.
Imagine life for school kids—to bed by 10 if they’re lucky, up at 6:30, on a bus at 7 to go back to shelter headquarters to wash up and grab breakfast before heading out to school. Not a lot of quality time for homework, much less sleep and normalcy. The pads on the floor squeezed together don’t allow for privacy, or sleep.
Volunteers and a skeleton staff make this emergency arrangement possible. And it’s much better than everyone cuddling up on the street. In Phoenix, the county is contemplating shutting down their overflow shelter—a bleak warehouse that offers nothing but a place on the floor for hundreds of desperate men.
Reading Bill Moyer’s post on homelessness, I found myself torn. His valid perspective is tainted by the use of wildly-delusional statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD’s official report to Congress, which determines funding for homelessness programs, was that 578,424 people were homeless last year.
This extremely narrow enumeration hardly counts homelessness at all. It’s a one-night point-in-time count that, despite sincerely stalwart efforts by professionals and volunteers, documents a mere drop in the vast sea of people—adults and kids, oldsters and babies and those in between—with no place to go.
Case in point, the U.S. Department of Education reported that almost 1.3 million students without homes were identified in the 2013 school year, a staggering 72% increase since 2006. T America’s Youngest Outcasts reports over 2.5 million CHILDREN are homeless, not including parents or single adults. So, HUD’s report…just a tad under-representing the crisis.
I left as Pat headed down the garbage bag-lined hallway, holiday clothing donations. Folks were quietly waiting at tables. If you’d could ask, you’d hear about boredom, frustration finding housing or jobs, regrets about burned bridges and family alienation, and gratitude that at least they have some place to turn to on this cold Pennsylvania night where they’ll be safe.
It’s perverted that they should feel grateful. It’s perverted that many communities have no shelters. It’s perverted that HUD is pushing “Housing First” with inadequate resources to help those who need it, and we’ll see the perverted action of the 114th Congress, which doesn’t begin to have a clue as to the staggering scope homeless Americans, as they likely slash spending for human needs.