Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens." --J.R.R. Tolkien

A week ago today, while the rest of us were sitting in classes and at work, a team of volunteers was out on the streets.  Every year or two, volunteers from every county combine to drive the streets of our communities, contact local shelters, and try to determine how many individuals in our community are homeless.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) puts on this Point-In-Time (P.I.T.) Count to help assess the needs of our communities, and uses the numbers from these counts to determine each county's funding.

However, while government definitions of homelessness include individuals/families who are ¨couch-surfing¨ or ¨doubled-up¨ (living with relatives/friends), HUD does not consider these individuals to be homeless.  HUD allocates funding to support those who are without any shelter, finding shelter in places unintended for human habitation, or staying in homeless shelters.  On top of this, homeless individuals--especially in rural areas such as our own--are very effective at hiding their situations, and the number of those teaming up for the Point-In-Time Count is solely based on the number of volunteers.  Volunteers only have around 8 hours to assess the needs of an entire county.

As a result of all of these things combined, the 2015 P.I.T. Count determined that, on any given day, only 5 individuals were homeless in Franklin County.  Yet, we know that, that same year, over 550 students were homeless, and, in 2012, over 1,400 individuals stayed at the Agape House shelter.  These numbers simply don't add up.

While the HUD Point-In-Time is not extremely accurate, it does provide a snapshot of various components of homelessness.  It reminds us that there are homeless in our communities, and these individuals may be veterans, disabled, members of families, or have other situations that need attention.  It is nearly impossible to get a pin-point count of homelessness in our communities, but making our county's Point-In-Time count more effective (as many people are working to do) will only help us get those in need the life-changing help they need.

As the numbers are being tallied from this year's P.I.T., we can only hope that we can use the information we need to better our communities, and thank the volunteers for the time and efforts they donate.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

“As we roll down this unfamiliar road.../Just know you’re not alone/ ‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home.”-Phillip Phillips, “Home”

Across the country, people are celebrating the many blessings in their lives.  From the people we love to the gifts we've been given, we spend Thanksgiving being grateful for what we have.

This Thanksgiving, I challenge you do dig deeper.  Today and always, I ask you to remember the things we so often take for granted.  There are so many things in this world that we do not remember to value until they are gone.  I have learned that there is no one better to remind us what we have to be thankful for than those without.  I surveyed 42 clients at the Union Food Pantry, and their stories and overwhelming thankfulness to the volunteers at the Food Pantry is a true example to what gratefulness is.

The clients at the Union Food Pantry have gone through rough times, to say the least.  35 of the 42 are unemployed, 18 have a disability or medical limitation of some kind, and all have a different story to tell as to why they came to the Food Pantry for help.  They represent all walks of life--from ages 21 to 69, from individuals to families of 7, from visiting the pantry for the first time or for 20 years--but they are linked by the volunteers that work to keep the pantry running, as well as by you.

This past weekend, I helped at the Union Food Pantry as the donations from the Union Boy Scouts Drive came in.  Your donations filled the shelves of both the Union Food Pantry and the Second Blessings Food Pantry, but they did so much more.  They gave clients a Thanksgiving that they otherwise would not have.  Because of your donations, clients are "able to put food on the table."  The support that clients receive from the Food Pantry allows them to put money towards electric and medical bills, gas to keep the job for the few who have one, is helping a homeless family save for a place to live, and helps those fortunate enough to have a place pay the rent to stay there.

From job loss to cancer, disability to family death, homelessness to divorce, too many bills to too little income, and every combination there-of, the life stories of the clients vary greatly.  When asked what convinced them to turn to the Food Pantry for aid, one mother replied, "When we were so low on food that we had to eat beans."  A parent of another family, who is currently without housing, replied that they turned to the food pantry after, "I had lost my job [and] turned to drugs.  When I got clean and started straight, [and was] looking for a job, I turned to the food pantry for help."

These individuals are still working to rebuild their lives from desperate situations, and they are all the more grateful because of it.  They consider the food pantry a "God-send", "a blessing", and the key to survival in time of need.  Without the support of the community, they would be unable to rebuild their lives and keep their heads above water.

And so, this Thanksgiving, I ask you to be grateful that your needs are met, and that, no matter what situation you are in, there are people who are here to support you.  Be grateful for everything you have beyond your needs as well, because not everyone has them.  Look to these individuals who are homeless and in need as an inspiration and an example of being able to find the good in life even in times of desperation and need.  Finally, I ask that you keep those in need in your thoughts and prayers today and always, and that those that are so grateful for your help may one day be able to pay it forward.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

"To get through the hardest journey we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping." -Chinese Proverb

The rooms are not elaborate: two beds, a bathroom, and a small dresser for the few items a client may have are about the extent of their contents.  The food pantry is not overflowing; in fact, the shelves in the single room are usually completely bare after each day it is open.  Regular maintenance on floors, roofs, washers, water pipes, everything is much more difficult without tools and the money to pay for a plumber or electrician.  Inside the Agape House, resources are basic, but the effect they have is profound.

This statement is the embodiment of what I experienced as I toured the Agape House this past week.  The establishment is simple, but it meets the basic needs and provides a safe haven for homeless individuals across the county.  Inside those eight rooms, individuals have access to soap, toothbrushes, and blankets.  They find shelter from the cold and rain.  They can wash their clothes and shower.   They can direct their focus to rebuilding their lives, instead of worrying about the little things that others so often take for granted.

Every day, the Agape House opens its doors to everyone in need--not just those who are homeless. Anyone in need of a meal is welcome each night to share dinner with other clients and volunteers or receive items from the food pantry.  If a person is in need, the volunteers at the Agape House do everything they can to ensure he/she receives a blanket, or coat, or help paying a bill.  There is even a small "cabin" on sight to house a homeless family if the 8 rooms are filled.

The Agape House is in great need of donations.  Everyone who works there is a volunteer; they donate their time and money to those who are in greater need than themselves, even when their own personal amounts of time and money are limited.  They spend as small amounts of money as possible on the actual establishment, and nothing on anything that would benefit themselves.  Once the bills are paid to keep the lights on, everything else goes towards food and personal care items for the clients.

The Agape House is not a rich establishment, but, compared to what individuals have when they come to the Agape House for help, it is a luxury.  It is so much more important to the volunteers that anyone who needs help can find it in some way, than to spend donations unnecessarily around the establishment.

As Mother Teresa said, sometimes we must "live simply, so others may simply live."

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"It's your road, and yours alone. Others may walk it with you, but no one can walk it for you." -Rumi

How do you know when an organization is truly successful?  Is it the amount of people they help or the number of resources they provide? Or is it something that is based on the results, determined by long-term effectiveness?

The answer: yes.  For an organization to increase their positive impact, they have to balance all of these things, which is why organizations like the St. Patrick Center are so revolutionary in the plight against homelessness.

The St. Patrick Center is successful for two simple reasons: first, they have created a network of resources to aid their homeless clients in all aspects of their life; second, they require clients to work harder than they work.

Those who come to the St. Patrick Center have their most basic need meet first: housing.  As Rich Totsch--who works through St. Patrick Center's Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) in rural counties such as Franklin--noted, having somewhere stable to sleep relieves stress and provides a foundation off of which clients can rebuild their lives.  Clients are asked where they want to live, and the St. Patrick Center looks for housing to rent in that area.  From there, clients sit down and assess their own needs to create a individualized "wrap-around" approach to their situation.  They are given connections to jobs, medical aid, rehab, mental health resources, and life skills.  St. Patrick Center has established programs like McMurphy's Cafe: an employment training program for those who are homeless to undergo training, class time, and employment in the food service industry, allowing them to take the first step towards holding a job of their own.

The most important thing that the St. Patrick Center creates, however, is independence.  While the Center can repair cars, rent homes, and build resources, it is up to clients to utilize them.  When homeless individuals comes to St. Patrick Center, they begin a journey of self-reflection and strengthening.  This journey begins at the origin of their homelessness: their individual cause.  The first step they take is to reflect on what contributed to their homelessness in the first place, and then to determine what they need to do to avoid relapsing from the same cause.  They determine their dreams and goals, and map out a step-by-step plan to reach the end they want to achieve.  With guidance from the St. Patrick Center, they take the first steps down this road, until they are stable enough to walk it without assistance.

And that is where the beauty of the organization is seen: in those that continue to follow their goals into the future.  94% of those who receive aid from the St. Patrick Center reach full recovery from their homelessness.  They are able to keep jobs, pay for rent, and secure savings, health care, and transportation.  To be effective and successful in Rich Totsch's line of work,"You can't just treat and let go.  You have to give support and a plan [for the future]."

Most of the work done by the St. Patrick Center is in St. Louis, where clients have a wide array of resources at their disposal.  In more rural areas, such as our own, it is much more difficult to hold a job if you have no transportation; there are less housing options available; and the amount and type of resources in the vicinity are much more limited.  Even so, the St. Patrick Center extends their reach as far as possible to rural counties, reaching out to St. Charles, Lincoln, Warren, Jefferson, Franklin, St. Francois, and Washington Counties.  It is up to us now to increase the availability of the resources we have, and create those that we don't.

As you can see by their logo, faith is a huge drive behind the work the St. Patrick Center does, and God's hand can be seen in the massive positive effect that they have.  The St. Patrick Center is revolutionizing the fight against homelessness in a simple way: extending to clients a hand-up, not a hand-out.

Friday, October 14, 2016

"The only difference between stumbling blocks and stepping stones is how you use them." -Unknown

When Amanda Wilkinson asked the students in her program to create "Worry Dolls", the effect can only be described two ways: Heartbreaking.  And eyeopening.

Then again, what more is there to say when a child worries whether or not there will be enough food for him this week?  Or if his mother will come home tonight?  Or if one of the strangers that is constantly in her home will come into her room while she's sleeping?

While most of us can't imagine having these types of worries when we were young, these are the types of fears that Amanda battles every day in the Union RXI school district with her Pinocchio Program: an early intervention program provided by Crider Center for children in Kindergarten through 3rd grade to battle social and emotional complications.

Yes: we have kindergartners who worry about not having enough food or security or shelter or love in their life.

While not all participants are homeless, some are, many are from impoverished families, and all are fighting factors that could lead to problems down the road--problems such as homelessness.  Some children in the Pinocchio Program have, and continue to, suffer from trauma of some kind, whether it is  not knowing if they will have enough food to eat or a place to sleep that night, witnessing the abuse or neglect of a loved one, enduring abuse or neglect themselves, a parent's substance abuse or mental illness, or various other situations. If healthy coping skills are used, individuals can work through trauma and eventually heal.  On the other hand, without these skills, individuals often--in an effort to eliminate the pain trauma leaves--resort to "dysfunctional coping mechanisms." As with anyone who experiences trauma, we may begin to search for a way to numb the pain we feel--to create a distraction from our own past.  Unfortunately, these situations create common coping methods that aren't exactly healthy ones: substance abuse, depression, difficulty building healthy relationships, self-harm, and aggression--all of which can (and often have) lead to homelessness and poverty down the road.

This is where Amanda and other counselors step in: it is their job to help students "discover healthy ways to work through their feelings and emotions", so that they are better prepared to handle any hardships that they may face in the future.  Poverty and mental illness are largely intertwined, and both together make a cycle that is extremely hard to break--even from generation to generation.  For that reason we have to intervene as early as possible to show these children that, while their past experiences are out of their control and they were NOT the reason these things happened, their future and their personal happiness is up to them.  The goal of the program, as well as Amanda's personal mission, is that if we, "Can teach them coping skills and self-confidence, and teach smart decisions, it will carry over [to adulthood]."

And the effects of the Pinocchio Program's work is the difference between night and day: children who begin the program spending their entire school day without taking their hood down, or raising their hand in class, or saying a single word to anyone, grow to be able to be engaged, self-confident, motivated, and self-loving.  The counselors use things such as a feeling board, play therapy, and mini lessons about things like kindness and self-respect to touch the lives of multiple students in various Franklin County school districts each year.

Organizations like Crider--who established the Pinocchio Program--have put their heart and soul into helping tackle issues in our community.  They have dedicated their lives' work to pairing those who need aid with doctors, dentists, psychologists, mental health specialists, transportation., and a network of community resources.

Our lives affect who we are.  Anything that we do at any age shapes our lives, but we have to decide how to use that past to determine what we want the future to be.  The only way to truly end homelessness and poverty is to eliminate the factors that cause them.  The Department of Housing and Urban Development found that, in 2013, over 257,000 homeless people in the U.S. suffered from severe mental illness or chronic substance use disorder.  We need organizations like Crider because they find personal, individual ways to help clients grow and overcome problems such as these--and the Pinocchio Program starts with our youth, to provide a way to overcome obstacles both before and during homelessness.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Throughout this project, I've talked a lot about what one organization or another does to eliminate homelessness.

Now it's your turn.

While this entry won't contain any facts or statistics, I hope you find it the most inspiring one so far.  What this blog contains that the others haven't is the chance for you specifically to make a profound difference and experience at least a piece of what it would be like to be homeless.

On April 21st, 2017, I will be hosting a Homelessness Awareness Lock-in on the football field at Union High School.  While we are opening up sign-ups first to Union High School students and Union RXI District staff, the plan is for this to be a community event, open to community organizations and groups.

But, of course, the main thing you need to know is what's going to happen once we get there: the main focus of the night is a surprise activity (so I can't tell you yet!), but trust me--it will be eyeopening.  It will be a night full of experiences that are not available anywhere else in our area.  My hope is to create a night full of keynote speakers, service projects, raffle prizes, a soup kitchen, and much more.  And, to tie in the information we've built up over the past month or two, there will be booths for some of the organizations that prevent homelessness, giving you the chance to see exactly what they stand for and how you can help.

And then, participants will sleep overnight on the football field to experience for one night what it is like to sleep without shelter.  While we could never know exactly what it is like to be homeless without truly experiencing it, the goal of the night is to raise awareness about their situation in a hands-on way, and to raise funds and supplies for organizations who fight homelessness.

As a final fundraiser to support these organizations (and for those who aren't too keen on sleeping on the football field), the plan is to open up the cafeteria to the public for a benefit breakfast April 22nd.

Please note that all of this is just in the planning stages right now.  Nothing (other than the date) is totally set in stone, so I will keep everyone updated as new information arrives.  I will also let you know when it comes time to sign-up, so keep checking in!!  This will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many--if not all--involved, and I hope you will all sign up to participate.  If you have any questions or are interested in helping in any way, feel free to comment or contact me!  This is our chance to do something that has never been done in our area before, and I thank you all in advance for the support you will provide to our community.

Monday, September 26, 2016

"Your greatest test is when you are able to bless someone else while you are going through your own storm." -Unknown

The Catholic Church is the most charitable institution in the world.

On both world and local levels, they have invested countless volunteer hours and amounts of money into weaving charity and hope into the lives of those in desperate need of both.  So, what does something so large have to do with poverty and homelessness in Franklin County?

Sure, volunteers may be Catholic, people who donate money may be Catholic, but one thing (and this is just one example) that the Catholic Church itself has done is develop its own branch of aid at each parish: The Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

All to often, people are faced with a very difficult decision: buy food, medicine, gas, whatever it may be, or pay the bills to keep the utility company from shutting of the water, electricity, etc. at my house.  In other words, decide between what I need to survive and what I need to survive.  As you can guess, it's not an easy decision to make.  That's where the Society of St. Vincent de Paul steps in and opens its doors to those in need.  When people come to the branch of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul where they live (in Union's case, Immaculate Conception Church and its pastor, Fr. Joe Post), they are often, as Fr. Joe points out, "behind several months [on paying bills] and usually call for assistance when the utility company is threatening to shut off the utility."  Now, the funding for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul relies solely on the generosity of those in the parish and community (and, in the case of Immaculate Conception's branch, Vincent's Closet), so the aid that can be provided is definitely limited, but the Society of St. Vincent de Paul finds a way to give one of the most meaningful gifts this world has to offer:


In August alone, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul distributed over $12,000 to 50 families and individuals, providing a little more time for them to establish a safety net for themselves.  Aid can only be given once in a year to ensure that everyone who needs help can receive it (again, funds are limited), but Fr. Post and other volunteers of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul "work hard to take care of the needs of the most desperate and those who truly need the help."

Although this utility assistance program's main clientele is not homeless (there are other Catholic charities that focus on that), many of those that receive aid would be homeless  without its existence.  While the program is not flawless--no program ever is--the Society of St. Vincent de Paul makes an impact on the lives of both volunteers and clients.  Each client's aid is based on their individual need: if there are specific needs or cases outside of the assistance usually given, the Society forms a web of support between parishes and agencies and anyone they need to to give the recipient the help that they need to keep moving forward with their lives.

Along the way, all involved gain something that doesn't have a price tag: the gratitude that comes when we realize someone is behind us to steady our feet and guide our steps on this road that we call life.

There are so many organizations like this one that provide the amazing gifts of time and physical resources to allow those in need to rebuild their lives, but, starting now, we're going to take this in a new direction.  Starting now, we'll begin to discover what is and isn't and should be done to aid people on even deeper levels.  It's time to tackle the root of the problem.