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Thanks to Melissa who shared this link with me:

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2011483190_homelesscensus31m.html

A story in the Seattle Times about the “new face” of homelessness and the disagreement about what constitutes homelessness these days.

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It’s that time of the decade – census time.   Time to stand up and be counted!  You might wonder, at least you might if you are in my situation, does the census count the homeless and if so, how do they do it?  I spent a little time looking into that question and it turns out that the homeless are actually counted more frequently than the rest of the country!  The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) demands a count at least every other year from cities and counties across the country so it can allocate money and services designed to combat homelessness. This means that there are already methods in place to conduct counts of people without a fixed address that census workers can use.  Do these methods work?

In Minnesota census ‘enumerators’ (why does that sound like a role for Arnold Swartzenegger?) try to count the homeless over a period of 3 days.

  • On the first night, enumerators will count persons residing in shelters and temporary arrangements.
  • On the second day, enumerators will interview persons at regularly scheduled mobile food vans and persons at soup kitchens. If individuals at the mobile food vans and soup kitchens report a “usual residence,” they are not included in the SBE operation and are instead included in the general population count.
  • On the third night, enumerators will count persons at pre-identified targeted nonsheltered outdoor locations.

They’d still miss us.  The article points out that counting the homeless isn’t easy because ‘some homeless people don’t want to admit they are homeless, and the homeless are not uniquely identifiable as such by any physical characteristic, and thus cannot be identified easily.’  That’s right; we aren’t all unkempt slovenly individuals shuffling along the sidewalk talking to ourselves or asleep under newspaper blankets on park benches!

Similarly in San Francisco they too will spend three days attempting to count the homeless at shelters, soup kitchens, parks and highway underpasses and the census in Washington D.C. will include people in transitional housing and emergency shelters, on the streets, and in parks and camp sites, along with formerly homeless people now in permanent housing where they receive assistance from case workers. It does not, however, include those who are doubling up with relatives and friends, sleeping on couches and floors, one step from a shelter or worse.

Because the HUD count, and now the census count, methods are aimed at what I consider the traditional class of homeless – as described above, those in shelters, attending soup kitchens, at campsites, etc. – I wonder if it will accurately capture the numbers of the new homeless, those formerly middle class, now unemployed and cast from their homes by this Great Depression.  We don’t frequent food pantries or hang out under bridges.  We (I’m speaking generically here) stay with friends and family, move from motel room to campgrounds, sleep in our cars and RVs.  And we are probably amongst those who do not want to admit we are homeless. Would you want to be memorialized as homeless in the census for future descendants and genealogy buffs to see?  And we probably won’t benefit from the funds for homeless services.

Yesterday we arrived home and amidst the commotion of unloading kids and homework and groceries and releasing the dogs from captivity for their mid-day walk, a young woman approached.  She was wearing a name badge around her neck, carrying a clipboard in her hand.  “Hello,” she said.  “I’m from the US Census 2010.”

We were counted. But I don’t know if we count.

I’m not sure how anyone who needs help gets it!  I spent a couple hours calling around today, trying to find a place for Tricia and Ben – I’m picking them up tomorrow at their old campsite at 9 AM and need somewhere to take them. The woman at Catholic Charities who answered the phone and listened to my sad story gave me the names and numbers of a couple shelters and then started in on campgrounds and motels.  That’s when I realized she was just reading from the phone book.  I asked what sort of services they offered in their charity work – apparently just  food and clothes.  So I called one of the organizations she had listed-  Project Understanding – here’s their mission statement: “Project Understanding is a faith-based agency founded and established on the principles and ideals of Judaism and Christianity whose mission is two-fold: To do justice by serving the poor, hungry and oppressed with compassion and mercy, and to provide avenues for those who wish to serve others.”  The person who answered their phone said the best he could do was to give me the names and numbers of  several other agencies.  I guess they serve the poor, hungry and oppressed by passing them along to someone else!   Then I called Salvation Army- they supposedly have a transition living facility.  The man who answered the phone said, yes, they do but not for couples, just for single men.   The rescue mission is for single men only. Freedom House Sober Living is for men only and probably wouldn’t suit someone accustomed to having beer with breakfast.  The Lighthouse Project is for women with children.  The only place I could find that takes couples only takes couples with children and no one allows pets. There is a winter warming shelter at the armory, doors open at 6 pm for dinner and a bed for the night.  Back on the streets in the morning. A possible short term (hah- there’s that idea again) solution but requires a cleared TB test no older than September 2009 and giving up Goldie. I even tried calling 211 – supposedly a resource hotline.  The line rang and a recording said “the code you have entered is invalid,” repeated the message in Spanish and hung up on me.  Deja vu- that took me back to my interactions with the unemployment office!  And this is why I’ve found it to be much more effective to rely on myself rather than seek help from agencies!  I am beginning to understand why the homeless are still sleeping in parks and abandoned buildings.

Yesterday my (truly) homeless friend, Tricia, called me to say that the police had come by their campsite and informed them that the landowner ‘wanted them off his land.’  They’ve been living there for over 5 years with the landowner’s permission so I asked what had happened to make him change his mind.  Apparently more homeless have moved in and a few have had brushes with the law and what was a quiet campsite for a couple and their dog, was becoming a rowdy group campground.  The police told them if they were still there on Wednesday they would get a ticket, on Thursday, they would be taken to jail. 

As an aside I wish the sheriff in Colorado could have acted with such alacrity when I called and asked if he could remove the squatter from our house.  Instead I had to go through 2 court hearings – one to evict him and one to decide if he owed me money (yep, like 1ok) and the sheriff wouldn’t act until both hearings (months apart) were completed.  But back to the current story…

Tricia asked could I help them move- they weren’t certain where they could go.  I said yes, of course, and got to work trying to locate a shelter for  them.  This is what I learned about the local shelters.  There is one for men and one for women and children.  This is a problem for Ben and Tricia who have been together for over 20 years.  She is disabled and relies on him.  They don’t allow animals.  This is another problem as Ben and Tricia have their ‘baby’ Goldie (a golden retriever) who is an older dog and suspicious of strangers – not exactly a candidate for shelter adoption even if Ben and Tricia wanted to give her up.  And the shelters are filled to overflowing already- especially during times of rain, such as now.  And they don’t answer the phone on Sundays. 

There is just no way I can invite Ben, Tricia and Goldie to stay with us.  I can’t see how it could be done.  I could help them move their tent to the state park where we lived this summer.  It’s only $10 a night if you bike or hike in with a tent (as opposed $35 per night if you drive in).  But when I checked campground availability I discovered they are fully booked until April.  Back to the drawing board.

Our house in the mountain state from which we relocated had 5 bedrooms, 3.5 bathrooms, and a finished basement.  I had replaced the old beige carpet in the living/dining room with a very nice bamboo floor.  We had a two-car garage and a decent sized backyard with a garden and room for a trampoline.  We were within walking distance to the kids’ elementary school. We had fun decorating and enjoyed the room and privacy it afforded us.  It was a nice house and a real step up from our 3-bedroom condo in California.  Just the way the American dream is supposed to play out.  Work hard and move up.  We were all pretty thrilled when we moved in – the house closed on my birthday making it the most expensive birthday present I’d ever bought myself!

And it kept being expensive – beyond the mortgage and property tax and insurance, I mean.  Furnishing a house that size costs money, heating and cooling and humidifying the house in a state that was hot in the summer and cold in the winter cost money, keeping up the yard and dealing with things that needed upgrading or replacing cost money.  And cleaning it, shoveling snow and cutting the grass took time!

And there were the neighbors.  How many people live in a house they love surrounded by neighbors that they can’t love?  We unfortunately lived next to an older couple who did not like children or animals and across the street from people who were well versed in every city ordinance (permitted length of grass, number of hours snow could remain unshoveled on the sidewalk before they could call the city and have it shoveled for you at your expense, etc.). We endured a barrage of notices from the city as our neighbors endeavored to teach us the ropes of living in that “best place to live” beginning two days after we moved in with a notice telling us that empty, flattened moving boxes could only be stored on our driveway for 24 hours! 

So owning a home was a mixed blessing but it was also meant to be an asset that would provide for us if necessary.  I expected the kids would grow up there and at some point inherit it. The first wasn’t meant to be as the health (heart/lung) issues my son had been born with turned out to be antithetical to life in the mountains.  The latter was stolen from us.  Because our “renter” refused to pay rent and it just wasn’t possible for me to pay a total of $4100 a month in mortgage there and rent here, we lost our dream house to the bank and our rented house later in the summer when I was laid off as part of an ‘overhead reduction.’

We spent 2 months being homeless– really homeless. Thankfully I had some money saved and lots of Priority Club points so instead of sleeping in our car we alternated between living out of tents at the local state parks and the Holiday Inn while waiting for my severance pay to come in.  Those were 2 very difficult months and looking back on it I’m surprised we survived as well as we did.  During that time I searched for a job but also scoured the web and newspaper for a travel trailer and was amazingly lucky to find one I could afford with a little help from friends.  There were plenty of cheap old trailers to be had but the sticking point was the age of the trailer – the local RV parks required your rig to be less than 10 or 12 years old to maintain appearances. 

Our rig is a Fleetwood Dakota 2004, 26-foot travel trailer.  It has a half-slide, a queen bed, a sofa and dinette that make into a bed, a small (counter-less) kitchen, and a bathroom.  It has heat (propane) and AC, lights and even a small ‘entertainment center’ consisting of a radio and cd player.  The kitchen has a small refrigerator and smaller freezer, a microwave and a stove and oven (which we have not been able to use as it sets off the propane leak alarm when I try it).  I complain about it but only about the size and lack of storage facilities.   Beyond that I like it. 

I like the autonomy it affords us, I like the privacy and security (compared to the tents), I like knowing that there’s no landlord’s vagaries to contend with. While the lack of storage space is an on-going hassle, cleaning is easy and quick. It’s so much more affordable than a house (especially here).  We pay for our space (some utilities included) and we live and let live.  If the neighbors or neighborhood becomes too problematic we can hook up and move on.  Come this summer, if I still haven’t found a job, and we have money for gas, we may very well do just that- go explore some of the country.  And in the meantime my new American dream isn’t a buying a house, or even getting into an apartment – it’s a larger travel trailer – say a 30-foot with a full slide-out, extra storage and bunk beds for the kids! Um, and maybe room for one more cat!

Then I’ll say “Our house, is a very, very, very fine house…”

Box Car Kids

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