Voices From the Field Blog: Will You Still Be Mine?

by Rachael Kenney
January 27, 2014

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Homeless and Housing Resource Network contributing writer Rachael Kenney illuminates the challenges that couples experiencing homelessness face in forming connections with others as well as redefining intimacy in their daily lives.

Mark: “Well, if you had three wishes, what would they be?”
Paul: “House. Job. Baby.”

Watch a few of Mark Horvath’s videos about couples and it immediately becomes clear: Couples that are homeless have a similar desire for intimacy as couples who aren’t homeless. Not just physical intimacy, but emotional intimacy; a sense of closeness and emotional warmth. But so many of the ways that we build intimacy aren’t accessible while homeless. There is no kitchen in which to cook for one another, no TV to cuddle in front of, and no place to come home to together.

Paul, and his girlfriend Katie met when they were both already living on the street in London. Like many young folks on the street, they were not in school and could not secure employment, so they built intimacy by spending all of their time together, searching for resources, panhandling, and just waiting for tomorrow. One might suggest that these relationships are dangerous, that the young people glamorize homelessness and getting into relationships will just perpetuate the situation. There is some truth to this claim, as couples have more difficulty getting off the street because they often disregard housing options that won’t allow them to stay together. But dating while living on the street can also have a positive impact. For Katie, homelessness and her relationship with Paul contributed to her sobriety.

Others, like Edward and Anita, were married for twenty-two years before they became homeless. It appears that their strong foundation is what carries them through episodes of homelessness. And then there are Maria and Neville:

Maria: “[I’d wish for] a cheap little car so I can get around, and a wheelchair. Actually, a wheelchair is my priority.”
Neville: “And each other.”
Maria: “And each other. We’ve been married for four months, been together for five years. And I’ve never been happier in the sense of a relationship.”

Even with the stressors of being homeless together, these people value their relationships and work hard to maintain them. Their relationships remind them that they are valuable and worthy. They are important in at least one other person’s life.

When night falls, these three couples can be found “sleeping rough,” or on the street. Some of the reasons they do this are the same reasons that single people avoid shelters: theft, violence, and strict rules. But couples also sleep outside because most shelters can’t accommodate couples, even same-sex couples, in the same sleeping quarters. Sleeping rough may be a way to hang on to a sense of normalcy. Regardless of whether or not they are physically intimate during this time together, it gives them the opportunity to build emotional intimacy. And as they close their eyes and drift off into sleep, they can almost believe that they are holding one another in bed in their own home. And that the light from the stars and the streetlights is filtering in through the windows, rather than directly down on them from above.

Interested in being a HRC Guest Blogger? Email us at generalinquiry@center4si.com.

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Category: General | Guest Entry

Limitless Potential

by Valerie Gold
December 20, 2013

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Homeless and Housing Resource Network contributing writer Valerie Gold recounts the experience joining a team of runners from Back On My Feet, an organization that uses running to help people experiencing homelessness change the way they see themselves and to achieve real change. 

So much of the work to address homelessness involves waiting: waiting for people’s names to rise to the top of various lists, waiting for apartments to pass inspection, waiting for replacement documents, approvals, or funds. Waiting, and its accompanying frustrations, contribute to the sense of powerlessness and hopelessness endured by many people experiencing homelessness.

As 2014 begins, Back On My Feet (BOMF) is not waiting, but instead is racing forward with its mission to use running to help people experiencing homelessness to realize their own power and to achieve real change. With the addition of two new chapters in the last twelve months, BOMF now operates running teams based in homeless shelters in eleven cities across the country. Nearly 400 individuals experiencing homelessness are running with these teams each month. Eighty-two percent report that their health is good or excellent, and 94 percent describe themselves as hopeful about their futures. And so far, 46 percent of BOMF runners have obtained employment, housing, or both.

The Monday before Thanksgiving, I joined the team of BOMF runners who live at the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans for a pre-dawn run. The team assembled at 5:20 a.m. in the lobby of the shelter. The runners were easy to spot, bundled up in BOMF tracksuits and shod in bright new running shoes. As we waited for a few volunteers (referred to as "nonresident team members") to arrive, Eric,* a tall and friendly vet with an easy laugh, described the 5K race in South Boston that he had run the day before through a fierce wind and temperatures well below freezing. This was his first race, he said, and he almost stopped several times, but was urged on by Kathleen, BOMF’s Program Coordinator, who ran with him the entire way to set his pace and make sure that he achieved his goal of completing the event.

Once everyone arrived, we moved outside, formed a circle, did some jumping jacks to warm up, and then put our arms around one another and recited the Serenity Prayer. And then we were off. I settled in to run next to Joe, an elegantly-coiffed runner with a white goatee whose pace accelerated as the stars faded and the moon slowly set, until I nearly collapsed from trying to keep up with him. The physical suffering was worth it, as Joe was a great conversationalist, expounding upon the concepts of self-efficacy and mental toughness as I gasped and groaned and otherwise generally displayed my lack of any toughness – mental or otherwise. When I finally gave up and waved Joe on, I was immediately joined by a group of women from the Common Ground Team. One of them had her arm in a sling, and all of them shivered cheerfully as they introduced themselves and told me how long they had been on the team. I had no idea which of them were people experiencing homelessness and which of them were nonresident team members. This is part of what works about BOMF– by building teams of runners instead of groups of givers and recipients of support, of assistance, of anything but fellowship and mutual encouragement and accountability, BOMF makes it possible for people who have experienced terrible things, including great isolation, to resocialize and reconnect with others, while building or rebuilding key aspects of their identities: as athletes, teammates, morning people, or just plain survivors. At the same time, nonresident runners have the opportunity to connect in a meaningful and immediately rewarding way with people with whom they might otherwise never be engaged.

After my run, I followed the Boston BOMF staff back to the offices that they occupy, courtesy of Comcast. Victor, Kathleen, and Allison, all fearsomely fit, energetic, and passionate about their work, described their goals for doubling the number of BOMF runners in Boston, and for maximizing the positive impact of their program through strategic partnerships with homeless service providers and individualized supports for runners. They shared challenges, ranging from the easily addressed (advising a new team member that he should relieve himself before leaving the shelter as opposed to doing so mid-run in front of his teammates) to the more complex, like the heightened risk of substance abuse relapse, arrest, or other crisis occurring during the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Running alone won’t eliminate this risk, of course, but it can help, and the accountability and sense of belonging that comes from being on a team provides further protection. As Victor, the Boston Executive Director, shared his plans for "over programming" with movie nights, dinners, and races during this period, his investment in the safety and success of each team member was clear.

BOMF is more than a novel idea or a promising practice. It is a reminder that the people we work with in outreach programs and homeless shelters have limitless potential for healing and growth. Running is a great way to tap into this potential. It changes a person from the inside out, and provides a daily demonstration of the lesson so eloquently articulated within BOMF’s vision statement: If we keep moving forward, we arrive someplace different, we arrive stronger and often as better versions of ourselves.

Of course, running is not the only way to move forward or fulfill potential. As 2014 begins, I challenge myself and my colleagues to stop waiting and take inspiration from BOMF to search for new and better ways to be reminded of the tremendous power that each of us holds within.

*Permission was granted by all of the individuals identified in this piece to share first names.

Interested in being a HRC Guest Blogger? Email us at generalinquiry@center4si.com.

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Category: General | Guest Entry

Nashville Changes Strategy to End Homelessness

by Steven Samra
August 06, 2013

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In 2005 Nashville joined many other cities in the development and implementation of a 10-year plan to end homelessness. Unfortunately, despite the best intentions, Nashville has, like many American cities, struggled to accomplish the goal. A cadre of obstacles and barriers, including, but certainly not limited to scarce resources, reliance on “readiness” as a precursor to obtaining housing, a closed Homeless Management Information System, lack of affordable units and housing vouchers, all contributed to the challenge of procuring housing.  A lack of coordination among area behavioral health providers exacerbated these challenges, and frustration and hopelessness were increasing within the homeless community with each passing year.  

Thanks to the efforts of a new Executive Director at the Nashville Metropolitan Homelessness Commission and a committed team of Commissioners, partners, and volunteers, a partnership with the 100,000 Homes Campaign, and a collaboration of several local providers and faith-based organizations, the situation appears to be changing for the better.  

On May 29-31, 2013, twenty teams comprised of over 100 community volunteers canvassed the streets and campsites of Nashville, Tennessee, using the Vulnerability Index to survey and create a priority list of individuals experiencing street homelessness who are most at risk of premature death if they remain homeless. The Vulnerability Index, created by Dr. Jim O’Connell, President of the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless program, identifies those who have been homeless the longest and are the most vulnerable. In addition to gathering the names, pictures, and dates of birth of individuals sleeping on the streets, the teams also captured data on their health status, institutional history (jail, prison, hospital, and military), length of homelessness, patterns of shelter use, and their previous housing histories.

A heavily attended community meeting was held on June 4, 2013, to discuss the results of the survey and kick off the start of a new campaign, “How’s Nashville”. The immediate goal of the campaign is to house 200 of the most vulnerable and chronically homeless into housing within 100 days. Once this is completed, How’s Nashville will continue the effort to house the city’s most vulnerable members with the ultimate goal of ending homelessness within the city by 2015.  Although using a Housing First approach is often more cost effective than alternate methods, and certainly more so than managing homelessness on the street, there are still costs associated with providing housing to those experiencing homelessness.  

Community members rose to the financial challenge associated with the campaign, donating $36,000 during the June meeting to help defray move-in costs associated with the transition from street to home.  Outreach workers began immediately moving individuals identified as high priority into housing at the end of the meeting, and invited attendees to walk with them to a welcome home celebration. Through the city’s efforts, one individual was identified as “most vulnerable” and was moved into housing after more than 7 years of life on the street.

The campaign is off to a strong start with 43 people successfully housed and supported during the month of June.  Conversely, from January to May 2013, just 19 people experiencing homelessness were placed into housing.  uly is also off to a solid start and should meet or exceed the minimum number of placements needed to meet the final housing goal of 200 people housed within 100 days.  

Nashville’s homeless population may finally have reason for optimism instead of pessimism.  There will continue to be challenges associated with scarce resources and the city’s approach is far from perfect.  Clearly however, Nashville has turned a corner and embraced a new approach that is proven to dramatically reduce homelessness.  With the momentum of the How’s Nashville campaign firmly pushing the effort forward, for the first time in many years, Nashville is housing those experiencing homelessness in a systematic, logical, and coordinated manner. The future appears brighter for the city’s most vulnerable residents than it has been for a very long time.

Interested in being a HRC Guest Blogger? Email us at generalinquiry@center4si.com.

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Category: General | Guest Entry