Why is it important to help (a reprise from eight Christmases ago)

When I am asked about my volunteering to help the disenfranchised and how can someone go about doing it, my answer is to follow your passions. I usually ask what interests you, how much time do you have and what groups of people do you feel most comfortable helping. For some, it is visiting, talking, reading and singing with the elderly; for some it is mentoring or tutoring school kids; for some it is helping homeless people find shelter, find employment, or gain assistance. These folks need what you have to offer – your time, your experiences, your feedback, your coaching.

I was reminded of this yet again earlier this week. I was meeting with a formerly homeless father who the organization I serve with helped regain a home after he and is wife made poor decisions. He was a former Army soldier and was gainfully employed when he began a cocaine addiction journey that led him to being imprisoned. It also claimed his wife, as he noted, she was in worse shape than him. After his release from prison, he had a hard time and became homeless. He also did not have custody of his son.

Through the help of this agency, he regained a home, regained custody and eventually reconciled with his wife. He was doing well until he lost a second job in short order. He was among seventeen workers who were asked to not come back on January 6 unless called as the company is downsizing to four staff. He is in a bad mental place, so I met with him as I am helping the agency expand a pilot an employment initiative.

He was doing all the right things (resume drafted, applied to 25 or so places) to find another job and I offered some additional suggestions and companies he may wish to consider based on his needs. He also needed someone to offer support and reinforcement. Someone to say keep doing what you are doing and offering constructive feedback. He has interview on Thursday, so keep your fingers crossed.

Yet, I also want to share with you another reason why we should help. You see, through all of these troubles the mother and father have had, his son just graduated with a Master’s degree at a state university. Through all of this, his son was able to find opportunity. Through all of this, his son was able to complete his education. Through all of this, his son was able to break the cycle of poverty. One of the things we emphasize to others, is the homeless kids don’t have a place to study. Oftentimes, they may not eat or go without healthcare. So, helping the family find a home means more than just a roof for kids – it is stability.

When I speak with some people who are more conservative in mindset, I do my best to convince them to help these people climb a ladder. To some, I am wasting my breath, as they view these parents as lazy, drug addicted, or welfare bound. Some like to paint with a broad brush everyone who is in need based on the observations of over-dramatized anecdotes. Yet, the people I encounter are hard-working and are in need of a second job as hours have been cutback or they lost a job. Before the state of Florida was asked to unwind unconstitutional drug testing of welfare recipients, the data from the four months of the program said welfare recipients’ rate of drug use was 1/4 that of general society.

Yet, what I do get even these strident conservative folks to agree on is let’s do something to help the kids. There is a higher propensity for homeless children to become homeless adults than for general society. There is also a higher propensity for children who are violently abused to marry or become abusers themselves when they grow up. I mention the latter as 30% of our homeless families are homeless due to getting away from a domestic violence situation. So, if we can help the kids and parents find homes and help them climb the ladder, we can break the cycle of homelessness and domestic violence.

The Christmas season brings out the generous spirit of many. Yet, the needs last beyond the season. As someone who volunteers, I can tell you there is such great sense of purpose to help others. Follow your passions and offer your help to others. You will be helping more than just one generation. Plus, you will be helping yourself.

Merry Christmas and have a successful New Year.

What do these folks have in common? (a reprise)

The following post was written almost eight years ago. While more states and cities have increased their minimum wages and the Affordable Car Act helps greatly, this post remains relevant.

The following people have something in common. Please scroll down the series of descriptions and let me know what is common for all of them. The names of have been changed to protect their confidentiality, but the stories are very real.

Anna is working as an office manager working full-time making $8.00 per hour. She has is separated due to a domestic violence situation and has two children.

Hope is working two jobs – one full-time as an Administrative Assistant making $11.75 and the other part-time as an intake specialist at a Human Services agency making $11.00 an hour. She is also separated due to a domestic violence situation and has four children.

Julie is working full-time as a CSR (Customer Service Representative) for a bank making just over $14 an hour. She is unmarried with three children.

Nina is working full-time as a CSR for a utility company making $12.25 an hour. She is unmarried with one child.

Sarina is an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant making $12 an hour. She is unmarried with three kids.

Paul is working full-time on a cleaning crew making $11.00 an hour. He is unmarried with one child.

Carrie and Michael are married with four kids. Michael was laid off and Carrie is working in hospitality at a local hotel making $9.00 an hour.

Felicia is a Certified Nursing Assistant making $9.60 an hour at a hospital. She is unmarried and has one child.

Dedrick is a full-time security guard making $9.25 an hour. He is unmarried with three children.

Cassandra is working two part-time jobs, one as an afterschool teacher assistant making $11.25 per hour and the other as a retail clerk for a discount company making $7.95 per hour. She is unmarried with two children.

Terry is working as a public school teacher assistant making $11.00 an hour. She is unmarried with one child.

I could go on, but let me ask the question. What do these folks have in common? They are all homeless. When I tell people that the homeless people the agency I volunteer with have jobs, these people do not believe me at first. How can they be working and be homeless? It takes some people time for that to sink in. In fact, 84% of the families we help are working. The median wage for those 84% is $9.00 an hour. I purposefully used higher figures to illustrate a point – you can make above the living wage for an individual, but still be homeless if you are a parent. The living wage in my area for an individual is around $10.00 an hour and for a one-parent, one-child family is around $19.00 per hour.

There are five additional things I want to mention that are important to understanding, preventing and climbing out of poverty:

  • Family size is highly correlated with poverty. We must do a better job on family planning and providing birth control means and education. For my evangelical readers, your kids are going to be tempted to have sex. Please do not preach a message of abstinence alone. Teach girls how to say no. Teach boys to treat girls as more than sex objects and that no means no. But, let them know that if they must have a sexual relationship, to use protection.
  • Education is key. While the economic downturn altered this statement with layoffs and downsizings, for the most part, the higher your education, the less likely you are to be homeless. For kids that fall off the track, getting them back in school or on a path to a GED is essential. Fortunately, the community college systems in cities and regions do a pretty good job at getting people educated and developed with new career skills.
  • Healthcare is very important. The absence of healthcare is the key reason for personal bankruptcy in the US and an important reason for homelessness. People cannot afford their employer plan and one of the kids get sick or has an issue. Or, the parent stopped taking his or her medications due to cost and the resulting physical or mental issue causes a problem for the family or on the job. Fully implementing Obamacare will help, but the states who did not expand Medicaid need to do so.
  • Minimum wage needs to at least be the living wage for an individual. The homeless we help work hard, sometimes at more than one job. People like to say that increasing the minimum wage impacts the number of jobs. To be honest, most studies do not support that contention. We need to increase the minimum wage to the living wage for an individual. These jobs perpetuate poverty (please read “Nickeled and Dimed in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich). Short of that, we need to increase it more than it is now and graduate it to a higher level. Yet, the same people who decry people on welfare, also don’t want to pay people for an honest day’s work. If we pay people better and not like an economic slave, then the economy will actually flourish more.
  • Domestic violence is real. About 30% of the people in our program have come out of an abusive relationship. So, the spouse is making due without one of the incomes (for the most part) as well as dealing with a court-ordered spouse to stay away from her and the kids. I have said this before. If you are in an abusive relationship – leave. He will not change – leave. He will move beyond verbal abuse and it will become physical – leave. For the sake of your kids – leave. You can live a more normal life. Domestic violence is about power and control. It is difficult, but please leave.

Our agency is built with a model of helping people climb a ladder out of homelessness. The past fiscal year, 91% of our families were back to self-sufficiency in 21 months.  We provide rental subsidies based on their ability to pay, but they must work with a social worker and meet certain milestones. We also offer Hope Teams to mentor the family and kids. We do not do for them what they can do for themselves, so they must have a savings plan, take classes on Bridges Out of Poverty, and achieve certain milestones.

We all need to better understand our poverty problem in America. We must do better, but it must begin with realizing how it happens and helping people climb ladders out of poverty. We cannot solve this problem by kicking them when they are down and placing ill-founded labels on them as reasons to dismiss them as undeserving. Not only is that cold-hearted, but it is harmful to our economic growth. As Gandhi said it so well, “a society’s greatness is measured in how it takes care of its less fortunate.”

Missing context

It is not uncommon to see simplistic solutions or rationales skirt passed needed context. The other day, I read an op-ed that more of the blame on education problems should be laid at the feet of parents than teachers.

Actually, the problem has multiple factors, parents being one of them. But, the missing context is the high percentage of single parents and parents living in poverty. It is quite difficult for single parents to juggle a job (or two) and children and be able to attend all parent/ teacher meetings and help kids with their homework. And, kids in poverty have heard far fewer words in the home and start and remain behind as reported by David Brooks in “30 million fewer words.”

It is not unusual to read a letter to the editor say the problem with poverty is too many single parent families. Again, that is one of multiple causes, but why? There is a high correlation between poverty and large families. So, better funded family planning efforts have shown they can address both issues. Holistic sex education, better access to birth control, and straight shooting answers to questions can help young women and men with these issues.

Healthcare access is another concern that impacts people in poverty. The US is a leader in western world countries in a bad area – maternal death rates in delivery. We still have fifteen states who did not expand Medicaid. Rural hospitals have closed without needed funding. As a result, we have fewer doctors and nurses in these underserved communities. And, this does not reflect food deserts and their impact on community health.

Poverty, poor education, and poor healthcare issues go part and parcel with large family size, more single parents, and lack of opportunity in the community. There are multiple factors that drive these issues, but not doing enough to support families and children, whether it is better and safer after-school programs, whether it is more active community policing to address crime that comes with fewer opportunities, whether it is job retraining where companies and community colleges can address shortages, whether it is asset based community development to restore old buildings to something inviting and/ or commerce related, are all contributors in their absence.

I have worked with a number of homeless working families in an organization I was involved with. These folks were not in poverty due to lack of piety. Some of the most pious people I have ever met are homeless mothers. Poverty is simply the lack of money. Many had multiple jobs. They simply lost their home due to a healthcare crisis, due to childcare issue, due to the loss of car or one of the jobs, or their spouse or boyfriend beat them and they had to get out.

When we discuss the reasons why things happen, we need to think of the larger context. Otherwise, we will solve the wrong problem. A community developer from New York noted his chagrin when a community tore down a school (or left it empty). A community needs an asset like this not just for children, but for community activities for adults and children. This is the premise of asset based community development – repair or repurpose buildings.

Let’s think holistically. Let’s dig into the real causes. Let’s think of those who are in need and how we can help them climb the ladder. We cannot push them up the ladder, but we can make sure the rungs are well built and help them make the first few steps. A social worker I worked with used the phrase that she walked side by side with her clients. I like that. Let’s do more of that.