Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dreaming of a brighter future....

We live in a beautiful part of this world, here in Whatcom County. We have mountains to ski and hike on, forests to camp in and water to boat on. We have one university, one community college and one technical college; a minor league baseball team and a symphony; parks and playgrounds, an aquatic center, more golf courses than we should need….the list goes on. The point is that this is a wonderful place to live—if you are a wealthy retiree or have a family history here with family business/land to count on.

 For a good many of our neighbors, the good life is out of their reach. Skiing, golf, ball games and swimming fees are way beyond their limited budgets, and while parks and hiking are free, their time isn’t. They spend their days working part time at minimum wage jobs, and then continue their day with standing in line at the food bank, meeting with case managers or coming to Hope House or the Salvation Army hoping to receive hygiene items, clothing, gas vouchers and bus passes. Or they pick up their phones and spend 4 hours trying to get through and get an appointment for energy assistance at the Opportunity Council. In other words, their jobs don’t end when they get off work.

To make it all worse, the cost of living in Whatcom County is 23% higher than the US average. Rents are out of control and food costs rise every day. For those who live on very small budgets, often paying the rent takes everything you make, so the rest of your monthly expenses come from food stamps, TANF and social service agencies. We see families at Hope House every day who are working but simply cannot make it through the month.

What has caused this disparity between what you can earn and what you need to live? Many factors, but the main factor is the lack of living wage jobs. You cannot raise a family on the pay at McDonald’s, not even from waitressing at an upscale restaurant like Scotty Brown’s or Anthony’s. The closing of factories, plants and refineries causes shifts all along the economic line—decreased ability of families to buy food, clothing, cars and houses; which leads to decreased jobs at restaurants, stores and auto dealerships. The housing market declines, property taxes don’t cover as much as they need to…..you get the picture.

So here is where I will probably alienate a segment of this audience. I will go out on a limb and say it is not ok to foster a NIMBY attitude in this County, to continue to insist that big business is bad, that everything must be local (and expensive), to close those factories and businesses that have traditionally paid good living wage jobs without a college degree required (think logging, fishing, oil, paper…). Those wealthy retirees and Seattle transplants who want the “green” living experience are disregarding that this is HOME to more than just those with lots of disposable income. You cannot sustain a community on service jobs alone and that is where we are heading.

In the last week alone, I have had two clients whom I have known for years come in and say they are moving. They can no longer stand the constant struggle to live each day; one of them is a single mom who states that she works full time in the healthcare industry, but still needs to come home and go stand in line at the food bank, visit Hope House, call the Opportunity Council, etc. She says her job should cover them, but in this area, it doesn’t. She has done her research and is moving to Enid, Oklahoma to accept a job in a community where she and her daughters can afford to live. The other family is a couple who simply cannot afford to ever live their American Dream here in Bellingham, so they have accepted a transfer to Nebraska so that they can start moving upwards.

If Whatcom County is such a dream place to live, why are people leaving?



Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Mental Health

Hope House has been in service for almost 14 years! Hard to believe, I know, but we have grown so much. Awkwardly, most of our growth has led to “reactive” policies and procedures being put into place, sometimes to be discontinued almost as quickly as they are formed. Not the organized and thoughtful program we would prefer. Not that it has been all bad---I often say that new volunteers and even new clients often have the best ideas of how we should do something when we are stuck in an old rut. But in our growth, we have come to the point where we really need to start planning and acting strategically and “proactively”.

So what brings this subject up? Well, I just had our second fire drill (which went quite well), we are working on a safety manual, and our staff meetings tend towards concerns about mentally ill patients and the increasing stress level of some of our clients. Some of us are going to be taking a class in Mental Health First Aid so that we may better serve those of our clients who suffer from all sorts of mental health issues. This brings me to the second subject of this blog post: lack of available mental health care.

So now I will vent. Starting with the Community Mental Health Act in the Kennedy administration, and continuing into the 80’s with President Reagan’s turning over the responsibility to the states with block grants, mental health care for those most affected has been gutted. Local communities are often unequipped to deal with the stress of those suffering mental illness and homelessness in their area. Many of our clients, both in the Street Outreach and in Hope House, are clinically mentally ill, with several suffering severe schizophrenia.

So what happens to you if you are severely mentally ill, and you have no family or you have burned your bridges with your family over the years? Well, our government says you have the constitutional right to  choose to be mentally ill and homeless, not take your meds., not understand reality, be preyed upon by others, self-medicate with illegal drugs and sit shivering in the woods in the winter because you don’t trust anyone in the strange world you live in. My question is—if you are mentally ill, do you have the wherewithal to make the decision to not take medication, seek treatment and wander the streets?

An example: Anna, a beautiful 40 year old schizophrenic woman, homeless, believes everyone is raping her, cutting her baby’s head off (we don’t think she even has a baby), stealing her fortune….on and on. She speaks loudly, often profanely and says horrific things that have brought her to be a persona non grata on the bus, at the Rainbow Center, at the Mission. We still see her at Hope House, we work with her, but she breaks our heart. Where is she sleeping in winter? Where does she think she is?

Another example: Billy, a slight, quiet man in his 30’s, who is also schizophrenic. I say he is quiet, but he is usually mumbling to himself and to the clothing and the walls, etc. Occasionally he has a bad day and gets quite loud in his talking, but will quiet down if it is pointed out to him. Billy is a nice man who would be so much better off with his medication, but who will remind him to take it? Who will help keep him safe?

My heart breaks for these wonderful and unfortunate people, and I ask myself, why am I so blessed? And why is it so hard for this world to share the blessings with all her citizens?



Friday, March 14, 2014

One thing after another.

Here is how quickly your world can start to unravel around you:
·         You nurse your mother through her final days during the summer.
·         Your sister is diagnosed with breast cancer and is scheduled to for a mastectomy in February.
·         Your significant other suffers a fatal stroke at home and paramedics are unable to save him. In the process, the front door of your home and the stovetop are damaged.
·         Six days later, your sister comes home from the hospital after her mastectomy and suddenly dies.
·         By the way, you are also disabled with Multiple Sclerosis, and live in a remote part of Whatcom County. You have now lost a significant part of your financial support as well as all of your emotional support systems.
·         You are unable to continue having a phone, due to money issues.
·         Your car dies and you purchase another one from an acquaintance. Unfortunately, the tabs are over a year old, and you get stopped by the police and your car is towed. You have no money and no one to call, so you walk a long way home.
·         You take what little money you have left to get the title and registration updated for the car, now you have to go to court for the ticket you received.
·         In the meantime, you are being charged $45 per day for the impound fees. You have come up with almost half of what you need to get it out, but if you don’t get the rest asap, the fees will become insurmountable.
At this point, the woman sitting in front of me is fighting back tears, because the totality of all the bad things is finally pressing her down. Also at this point, our Assumption Financial Assistance kicked in and paid for the rest of her impound fees so that she could start to breathe again!
What is the point? The point is that we often see ordinary people to whom bad things/luck have happened and their world started falling slowly apart. The little request for diapers may hide the despair of unpaid bills, a missing husband, a lost job, a broken down car….any of the circumstances that send lives spiraling out of control. At Hope House we try very hard to “see” past the simple request and meet the unsaid needs, if only as a sounding board (which is what the woman had asked me to be that day).
I’ve said it before, sometimes the needs are not visible nor physical, but emotional or spiritual.

Monday, February 10, 2014

What doesn't kill you...

Last year, when we spiffed up the waiting room with fresh yellow paint, I wanted to avoid nail holes in the wall as much as possible, so I found the coolest things at Home Depot—peel and stick white boards for your wall. Literally, you peel and stick them on the wall, write on them, erase, etc.—everything you do with a regular wood dry erase board. I actually bought a package of 3 bright green circles for the wall next to the check in/out desk. I use them to announce closings coming up, offer humorous sayings and sometimes to inspire with quotes I find. For a couple of months last fall, one of the circles said “Don’t let your struggle define you”. I loved it—and I left it up for quite awhile. Then recently I erased it for another saying and two different people came to me and asked me to put it back, because it did inspire them each time they come in.

 So why is this saying resonating with them, and why do I like it so much? Because it speaks to an attitude I see as destructive to a person's mental health and recovery from whatever they are struggling with. That attitude says to define yourself by what has happened to you, label yourself as a "victim",and use it as an excuse to stay stagnant where you are. Healing is hard and can take years, but if you are still stuck in victimhood, where are you going? You are letting your struggle win after all, by staying a victim. A good example is when a woman comes and immediately identifies herself as a “victim” of domestic abuse. Now don’t get me wrong—I am not denying the pain and suffering she has gone through. What I am saying is don’t let that DEFINE you for the rest of your life. Why would you want to define yourself as a victim of any kind? Let your struggle help you figure out where you need to go, inspire you to change your life, but don’t cave in to being that victim forever. Refuse to let your struggle, your abuser, your past take away all that is good and positive about you and around you--redefine yourself!

I think that is why this quote is so popular—and it works. The other day I had a client come in who identified herself as a “survivor” of domestic abuse. When I commented on how much better that was than the other, she grinned and said—“it makes me feel better and stronger each time I say it!”.

As a popular song says-- "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger."

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Cranky, cranky, cranky.....

I love my job—it’s the best job in the world, but sometimes circumstances, seasons, the economy—all conspire to make it harder and more frustrating. Then I get cranky, and I hate being cranky! It’s not who I want to be. So what is making me cranky, you might ask? How about:

·       We are coming into the Christmas season and our ability to help families is limited, as usual. Our Christmas list filled up in 3 days this year! That is unheard of and I wish we could help more. Saying no to hurting families makes me hurt.

·       Our building is too small. It always has been, but it is getting worse because we are getting busier. Seeing thirty families in a day used to be a busy day. Now seeing thirty families is a slow day—we are routinely helping 45-60 families each day we are open. This makes for crowded conditions, people standing and waiting too long—all of this makes me extremely frustrated, as does the lack of a public restroom and a space for the children to play.

·       As we are becoming better known in the community, people are finding us to donate their leftovers to. I know that may sound harsh, but often our donations lately have been just garbage—old, stained, smelly clothing, broken toys and house wares and out of date food. My volunteer staff is VERY upset about this, which upsets me.

·       The sheer volume of donations coming in is overwhelming us in several areas. We simply have no more room for storing stuff that won’t get used right away, so we are constantly shifting bags and boxes of donations from place to place. We have over 20 volunteers who work at sorting and hanging clothing and we still aren’t keeping up. This is the source of a huge amount of my crankiness!

·       I can be a little OCD about how I want things to look on the shelves, where and how food should be stored….the list goes on. My mind seems to work better with order and I have spent a considerable amount of time lately trying to create order in one small area after another. When I have spent the morning tidying up the shed or the kitchen, and come in the next day to find the area all messed up again, my crankiness quotient goes through the roof!!

So, other than venting to all of you, what am I doing about my lack of understanding and patience? Well, I have spent some time emailing back and forth with a fellow social service provider who totally understands and sympathizes with me. She made a lovely point that I then took to prayer---we are not only called to serve others by our faith, but Jesus expects us to serve with a joyful heart. Then, last night at mass, Father Scott said something that resonated with me—he said we cannot be open to receiving Christ if we are full of ourselves. I immediately, in my mind, made the change to “we cannot serve Christ if we are full of ourselves”. As anyone who reads my blog knows, the central focus of our service at Hope House is that we are serving the body of Christ in each and every person who comes through that door, and each individual should be treated as we would treat Him. So when I get caught up in my crankiness, my desire for perfection and order; when I expect others to “hop to it” and do it my way; and when I fret over space and donation problems, I am full of myself! Where is there room for Christ in all of that? The only thing I need to remember is to leave it all with Him, and it will all work out.

As for that joyful heart—how can I not have one with my great job?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Silently weeping....

She’s homeless, carrying everything she owns in her backpack. She doesn’t look like a “typical” homeless person. A lost job, lost apartment, lost relationship—who knows why she is where she is. The point is that she could be your daughter, sister, neighbor or cousin. The point is she is a child of God and she IS your sister and neighbor---and our faith calls us to take care of her. So there she stood, quietly requesting feminine hygiene of a certain kind, which she desperately needed. We didn’t have it, and she silently started weeping. Such a small thing for those with money to take care of; such a huge thing if you have no money.

Fortunately, at Hope House, the staff has what we call the “St. Anne” fund—money we find in pockets, money handed to us by grateful clients and generous donors, and money the staff quietly slips into the open-backed statue of the Blessed Mother we have on the counter in the kitchen. I collect it, turn the change into bills and lock it in a file cabinet in an envelope for when the need arises for something extra for someone. This was definitely one of those times! As I handed her the money, she threw her arms around me and held on for dear life, sobbing.

I love my job; it is very fulfilling most of the time, but today was one of the pinnacles of the last 13 years. We are all here in this world together; some of us are more blessed than others, some are at better places in our lives than others and some have more family support than others, but we all are here together, all children of the same God and He wants His children to work together.

Seldom do I feel the presence of Jesus so directly, so closely. I’m pretty sure He was smiling.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Of chairs and Jesus


Meet Ruben; tall, wearing jeans and an old army jacket, longish messy brown hair in which he sometimes wears a kerchief tied like a headband. Ruben is a nice looking young man when he actually looks straight at you—his eyes are a startling bright blue-green, and you only notice the tattoos above his eyebrows when he lifts his hair with his hands. He has a beard and mustache and he moves a LOT; restlessly touching and counting things, moving away from people…Ruben has some mental health issues, among them OCD and anxiety. But when he smiles, it lights up the room and he has been known to play the guitar for all of us at Hope House. As he backs into the intake room, I know some of the staff are watching him cautiously.

Ruben is one of many clients we have with mental health issues, and in the last few weeks, we have had some problems with some of them escalating and getting loud and disruptive in Hope House. This issue has been weighing on me, and I have spent much time in prayer about it. It is such a fine line to walk; to reach out and help those in need, while still keeping everyone safe and comfortable. After all, Jesus hung out with the mentally ill and homeless all the time (more on that later in this blog). So my new idea is to treat these clients as “normal” (whatever that is) and give them clear expectations of behavior while in Hope House. Thursday was my first chance to try this, which worked out perfectly since I was doing intake. Here’s how it went;

·       Vicky, an extremely disruptive client who is schizophrenic, came in for assistance. I greeted her warmly, told her she looked good and asked how we could help her today. When she requested housing help (something we don’t do), I was afraid she would be upset at not getting it, but to my surprise, she was fine with a referral and some warm clothing.

·       D.T., a very large homeless man with anger issues, came in wrapped in a blanket looking for clothing and food. We spent a few minutes talking about his late girlfriend, who passed away last year. After shedding a few tears, he went and shopped and left with no trouble.

·       Ann, a single mom with depression and anxiety, came in and sat with me for about 15 minutes, chatting about her life and her boys. She thanked me for taking time to just listen.

So by keeping my mood positive and firm, I was able to help these clients have pleasant shopping experiences. How I see my clients is as part of the Body of Christ, and if I always remember that, we will get along much better. I know we are all part of Christ, but I’m pretty sure that Jesus visited us at Hope House today—actually visited, not just as one of His people, but here in disguise as one of His people.

So back to Ruben: here is how his shopping went. When he was ready to get hygiene, there were too many people in that area for him. I found him in a corner of the waiting room and asked him if he was alright. He replied “yes, I’m fine, but there are too many people over there, so I’ll wait here.” A very  smart coping skill, if you ask me. Later, he seemed rooted to the waiting room (where he was rearranging and counting our chairs) and unable to continue shopping, so I stood by the kitchen door and called out his choices to him while he picked what he needed—all while moving chairs around. We packed his choices up for him and he proceeded to fidget around in the waiting room until almost time to close, at which point I warned him we would close in 10 minutes. As the last client went out the door, I said “ok, Ruben time to go”. He was actually sitting quietly reading a book at this point and he stood up and handed it to me and shouldered his bag. I told him he could take the book if he wanted. He looked straight in my eyes, gave me a small smile and said “thanks, but I’ve already read it”. As he went out the door, I looked down at the book in my hands—it was the Bible.

I’ m just saying…..sometimes He visits in person.