Expanding Our Hearts

Posted: April 1, 2008 in Compassion, Goals, Government, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Housing, Money

Yesterday, I experienced a wide range of emotions because of the song I’d heard while buying my morning cup of hot chocolate. All the thoughts and memories that seemed to flood my mind kept me feeling a bit "blah." There were moments of reprieve which came in the form of phone calls and emails from loved ones and friends, but over all there was a bittersweet sadness that overshadowed my day.

Last night after turning off the lights and crawling into bed, I felt emotionally spent. I was determined that I was going to wake up this morning and try having a brighter disposition today.  

As I pulled the blankets up around me and lay there in the dark waiting for sleep, I felt a sudden pang of conscience. Here I was, warm and snug in my bed while there were literally a couple of thousand people in my county who had no place to sleep. They were going to face the night without shelter: men, women and children.

Despite squeezing my eyes as tightly shut as I could, I nonetheless felt that one solitary tear escape from the corner of my eye.

As of October 2005, there are 2408 persons in SLO County who have been identified as being homeless. 817 of them are children.

With the economy in a massive nose dive, the rising unemployment rate and the increase of foreclosures, it’s a pretty safe bet that there are probably more homeless in my county now than there were back then.

Despite the numbers of homeless in this area, there are only two shelters: one in the city of SLO and the other in Atascadero. Between the both of them, they have a combined potential for providing shelter for less than 200 hundred persons. That translates to less than 1 in 10 homeless individuals who can find shelter on any night of the year. The remaining 2200 of them must find somewhere else to "bed down" for the night.

What bothers me is that the County has no genuine plan to provide relief to the area’s homeless. To be sure, there is talk about a ten year plan to end chronic homelessness, but that plan will not address the needs of the overwhelming majority of the homeless.

When I first heard about the 10 year plan I was excited. But the more research I did on it, the more I became convinced that it will not have an impact on significantly reducing the numbers of homeless in this area. The majority of homeless will not benefit from the plan. The problem lies in the federal definition of who can be classified as being "chronically homeless." Moreover, the county has no intention of providing solace to those who will not be able to avail themselves of the 10 year plan.

In fact, they have made their intentions painfully clear. Speaking on behalf of the county, Morgan Torell, the County Planner of Housing and Economic Development, is quoted as saying,

"We want to get to the root of homelessness rather than boost existing current services."

I agree that finding the root cause of homelessness is something that should be explored. I don’t, however, see how the county can realistically do much to prevent homelessness unless they can completely prevent unemployment, evictions and foreclosures. It seems to me that it would be more costly to do that than it would to provide the funding necessary to increase homeless services and implement programs that would help the homeless transition back into the community.

It’s quite obvious that our elected officials don’t have a true grip on just how devastating homelessness is – not only to those who are experiencing it – but to the rest of the community. If they did, they would be doing more than just passing ordinances that penalize the homeless for being homeless. They would be seeking ways of introducing programs that assist the homeless instead of laws that hinder and restrict them.

In the end, what it comes down to is this: if we want to end homelessness in our community, it’s going to take us – the regular citizens – who will need to step up and intervene. We are the ones who are going to have to make the difference. We can no longer afford to sit idly by and wait for our elected representatives to do the right thing. We are the ones who are going to have to take action.

There are so many in our community who have so much compassion; who want to find ways of helping our homeless find a way out of life on the streets. I know there are. I’ve met many of them. I’ve been the recipient of their kindnesses, as have some of the homeless I’ve met. But the compassion, in and of itself, isn’t enough. We must take that compassion, nurture it and allow it to become action.

I know times are tough. I know that everyone in our community is struggling to get by. I even know that some are right on the verge of becoming homeless themselves. One small "bump in the road" and they will find themselves standing in line at the homeless shelter hoping for a meal and a bed.

As the numbers of homeless continue to increase in our community, there is also an absolute need for an increase in homeless support services. And the only way the agencies that provide the homeless with even just the most basic of human needs, will be able to expand their services will be through us – John and Jane Q. Public. It certainly is not going to come from the local government. They’ve already made that quite clear.

It’s going to take more than our reaching into the closet and finding clothing that we haven’t worn in years, or looking into the cupboard and picking out canned food that we’re never going to eat and then taking it down to the homeless shelter. While these donations are certainly appreciated, something more substantial is needed. It’s takes money.

We may be able to only help our local homeless support service agencies a dollar or two at a time, but all of those dollars can and do add up. Individually, we may not be able to "change the world" but, collectively we can impact out little corner of it.

The only way these agencies are going to be able to expand their services is for us to expand our hearts. We have to let our compassion become action.

  1. Harmony says:

    Hi Michael,

    Yup – I too wrestle with “survivor guilt” as a formerly homeless woman. Perhaps a more accurate expression for that would be “survivor compassion”? It’s turned me into a full time advocate.

    Definitely we need more affordable housing. Definitely we need to address NIMBYism.

    Some days I get discouraged when I read the latest homeless articles; it seems that society as a whole is dismally slow on the uptake when it comes to doing away with myths and stereotypes about who and what homeless people are. At such times I just give myself an inner, morale-boosting speech and get back to the grind-stone.

    I keep thinking about all the vacant lots in so many of our cities across the nation. Why couldn’t some of them be designated as interim places for homeless tent cities (while they build enough affordable housing) ?

    Society needs to wake up and realize that the solution for ending homelessness has to involve more than just token efforts- as you’ve been saying.



    “I will always be on the side of those who have nothing and are not even allowed to enjoy the nothing they have in peace.”
    – Frederico Garcia Lorca –


    Thank you for the beautiful quote.

    Hopefully, one day more folks would feel the same about those who have “nothing”

    – m –

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