Understanding Homelessness First Step In Ending It

“What a shame, what a shame

To judge a life that you can’t change

The church bells ring, the choir sings

So won’t you give this man his wings?

What a shame to have to beg you to see

We’re not all the same

What a shame”

 

Brent Smith/Dave Bassett

 

 

I last saw Wes Bright on Saturday June 4. He was a late arrival, as usual, to the Carbondale Homeless Assistance (CHA) lunchtime community meal at Faith Lutheran church. It was a smaller turnout than usual that Saturday, perhaps due to the warm weather. After getting his food, Wes found his way to a seat and ate alone.

 

Normally I would have grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down with him for a couple minutes to chat. But we had a smaller group of volunteers than usual that Saturday, as it was high school graduation day in the valley. By the time I got around to it, he had finished eating and was gone. No biggie, I figured. I’d see him again in a couple weeks at the next meal

 

But a next meeting is not to be. Later that night, Wes was struck by a car on Highway 133 and killed. It wasn’t the first time he had been hit by a car trying to cross the road after dark, according to the Post Independent’s news story. Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful. Word of Wes’s death spread quickly among the CHA community through social media and email, and the feelings of loss are quite real. The paper reported he was 45 years old.

 

Back in March, Wes came to one of our meals, a late arrival as usual. He was wearing a black jacket when he came in. I noticed when he left he didn’t have the jacket on. I found it hanging on the back of a chair but by the time I made it back outside he was out of sight. A few days later my wife saw Wes at the Carbondale Park and Ride and told him that we had his jacket.

 

“It’s not mine,” he told her. “I have my jacket.” The next time I saw Wes, I raised the issue with him directly, even showing him the jacket. He insisted it was not his. I can’t take someone else’s jacket”, he said. “It’s still cold outside. Someone else needs that.”

 

I didn’t quite know what to make of the fact that he didn’t recognize his own jacket, but at that point it really didn’t matter. The message was clear. If he thought it belonged to someone else, he wouldn’t take it. No one has ever claimed the jacket and it still hangs in the church closet.

 

A 2016 study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) estimated that in 2015, on average there were 564,708 people experiencing homelessness in America on any given night in the United States. Of this total, 47.6 percent were disabled and unable to work; 8.3 percent, over 50,000, were veterans; 6.4 percent, or almost 37,000, were children.

 

It’s not a well-publicized trend, but while homelessness remains one of this nation’s most embarrassing societal challenges, it has been steadily declining for the past decade. Again according to the NAEH, the national homelessness rate fell 12.8 percent between 2007 and 2015 from 647,258, to 564,708.

 

This statistic is a bit unexpected as the trend line cuts through the years 2008-2010, that comprise the Great Recession. Even though the economy lost roughly 8.7 million jobs during this period, homelessness remained almost unchanged at around 635,000, according to the NAEH’s “point in time” estimating methodology. Most of the last decade’s decline took place from 2011 through 2015, the last year for which statistical data is available.

 

Much of this decline is attributable to two effective policy initiatives hidden beneath the maelstrom of political controversy that always leads the news these days, one started by the Bush administration and one by the Obama White House. In 2005, the Bush administration shifted focus on homelessness with its “Housing First” program that prioritized housing the homeless ahead of treatment for mental illness and substance abuse issues. Two years later the number of chronically homeless people in the US had declined by 30 percent.

 

Rather than spike during the Great Recession, homelessness went flat and then started to decline again in 2011 once Congress and the Obama Administration doubled down with a plan to end veteran homelessness in five years and family homelessness in 10 years. 2017 is year six of that plan, and while progress is being made, we have a long way to go. Still, these two policy initiatives demonstrate that progress is possible when we define issues in terms other than partisan politics.

 

Call me crazy, but my guess is it will take more than federal programs to eradicate homelessness in America. As with other societal ills, the first step to ending homelessness is in understanding it. And the first step to understanding it is to get to know the homeless, and that doesn’t take a federal program.

 

Wes Bright was not looking for a home. He wouldn’t even accept a coat that he thought belonged to someone else. But he was a member of our community living his life the way he knew how, who deserved our understanding. His tragic accidental death is a shame and a loss, and I will miss him.

pmenter98388@gmail.com

Source : http://www.aspendailynews.com/section/columnist/175699

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