Friday, January 30, 2009

Homeless Count

Last night I participated in our city's homeless count. This is an annual event that tries to get an estimate of how many homeless live in our city (and therefore form the basis of data that is used for funding and planning). At first glance, and in most all cities, you see homeless people hanging around downtown streets, however the actual numbers of homeless--including people who live outside, "couch surf" with friends and family, and live in transitional type shelters--is in the many thousands. Here's some observations from the count:
  • It's hard to interview someone "tweaking" on drugs. They keep bouncing and moving and it is a bit disconcerting. You would think drug addicts would be a large population of the homeless but they are actually not one of the larger groups.
  • Mental health issues came up a lot in the people surveyed. Depression seemed to be the biggest mental health problem. I'm not sure if the depression came first so they had difficulty working then ended up homeless or if difficulties in life, being laid off from work, family drama, etc, exacerbated the depression which catapulted these people into homelessness.
  • Many people said that job loss was one of the main causes of their homelessness. Which makes me think that the recent round of thousands of layoffs may send many more people out to live on the streets and with friends and family.
  • I was shocked at the number of homeless families we saw. Many people we surveyed were single mothers with kids and intact families (mom, dad, kids) who have no place to call home. I can't even imagine what I would do if I was homeless with kids.
  • The majority of people we talked to were so normal. They looked like the average person on the street, not your typical "homeless" looking person.
  • Homelessness can happen to anyone. Many of the people I talked to listed a cascading series of events that made them homeless (ie: loss of job so loss of insurance, then a medical catastrophe, then loss of a spouse due to death or divorce, followed by depression and sometimes the use of drugs and alcohol to deal with the pain, followed by eviction from their home...)
  • The people we interviewed were all very nice. Some were more talkative than others, a few seemed angry (who wouldn't be), some offered to help haul the donations as we made our rounds; overall a nice group of people.

Here's what I took away from the experience (ie: some ideas for not becoming homeless):

  • Stay away from drugs and alcohol; these make a bad problem worse.
  • Pay attention to preventative health measures (vitamins, exercise, nutritious food, seat belt use, etc).
  • Stay on good terms with friends and family when possible. Give and help them when you can but also learn how to take from others as well. Some people are always the "givers" and the "tough guys" so when a problem comes up, they find it very difficult to ask for and take help from others.
  • Always have an emergency fund in reserve.
  • Have multiple sources of income (if your one and only source of income dries up you are in trouble).
  • Be as resourceful as I can be. Know what resources are available. Experiment with "alternative" living situations: bartering, selling things, I might even try dumpster diving...
  • Get a grip on my living expenses and downsize. I talked to one guy who was previously homeless--he had been a multi millionaire and when he lost his business he was in such a state of denial and shock that he just continued to live in his huge house and drive his fancy car until everything was repossessed and he became homeless (then his wife left him then he was deeply depressed...). I am happy to report that he is now once again successful but still comes back to help the homeless community when he can. I think many people live the way they think they should live whether or not makes in their current financial circumstances.
  • Pay attention to changes that are taking place around you and be proactive instead of reactive. If it looks like your industry is heading for the crapper, don't wait around until you get a pink slip, start now to learn a new skill, look into new job prospects, network with new and different groups of people, etc.

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