Count Your Blessings, Reflections on the Homeless Count
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Count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your blessings, see what God has done.
This was the tune playing in my head, as I stood and listened to Carley*, a 50-year old woman who shared with me her distrust of completing any survey counting the homeless. She said, “they lie.”
I asked, “Who lies?”
She said, “I went to a local shelter (name withdrawn), and they told me they didn’t have any beds. They lied.”
I shared how important it is for us to try to record her story so we could get more resources to help serve our neighbors experiencing homelessness. I dangled toiletry items as bait. She acquiesced.
She was extremely articulate, a God fearing and loving woman, filled with her faith. She kept praising God for being her deliverer, her salvation, her source of strength in this time of need. She feels persecuted. She’s right.
We consistently count around 1,800-2,000 homeless neighbors and have for at least the last five years or so (except the one year the numbers climbed to 17,000 when they counted folks who were doubled up, living with friends and family). When the numbers go down, 5-10% we applaud progress. We pat ourselves on the back for a self-fulfilling prophecy that has helped a handful of people. We repeat Mother Teresa’s words, if you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one. We apply it to our housing crisis.
For every individual we approached to inquire if they knew of anyone experiencing homelessness or if they were homeless, two told us no. They were distrustful of completing paperwork that asked for the last four of their social, their date of birth, their first name and first three letters of their last name. Because of this, we are dramatically undercounting our homeless neighbors even though we make a good faith effort with hundreds of volunteers willing to help. The process is intimidating, overwhelming and a geographic challenge, yet it is required by HUD to access the limited federal dollars available.
The reality is many of our homeless neighbors are struggling with severe mental health and addiction issues. I was astonished by the number who told me quite honestly with piercing clarity about their diagnoses and self-treatment with drugs or alcohol. Florida remains 49th out of 50 states in mental health spending, and a lifetime of poverty, dependency and homelessness are a few of the symptoms of untreated mental health illness.
Perhaps more disappointing though were the veterans who were on limited incomes include SSI and SSDI and still on the streets. One homeless neighbor, Nathan*, showed me the scarring on his scalp from his Gulf War tours. He shared he was diagnosed with PTSD of war and still had some shrapnel in his head. The kindness in his eyes and the matter of fact way he shared his story stirred me up. We talked with him about Tampa Crossroads and the push to end veteran homelessness; he said I’m just waiting on my check to head back to California. The income he shared (also a question on the survey), less than $1,000 per month. With the median cost of an apartment in Tampa nearing $1,000 month, you can see how difficult it would be for him to afford a home. He works as a handyman when there’s work available to get him by.
Our Program Director Cindy Davis’ group helped with the survey to count a couple who is homeless. The wife receives a disability check and the entire amount, a little over $500, pays rent for a place that has no working sink or kitchen area. The husband panhandles daily to get enough to buy them each a cheap meal at McDonalds or Burger King. He said, “The homeless are exploited like this daily. The landlord says, we should be thankful we have a roof over our head.”
We also counted a homeless man who shared that he was having trouble with his Medicaid insurance paying for his diabetes shots, which runs him $200/month. It is so difficult to afford, it’s part of the reason he was homeless.
A young man, Rob, shared he had recently used all his income to pay for his sister’s funeral expenses. He’d been working with DACCO and had been clean nine days. He shared he was taking it one day at a time, and we encouraged and celebrated that progress with him. Words offered little comfort though for the grief he was experiencing with the loss of his sister.
Equally saddening was the number of homeless neighbors who told us, yes, they’d been in foster care in the past. It made me sad that the trauma of their childhood contributed to their homelessness. I couldn’t help but think about a recent video I’d watched, Removed, and the challenge for aging out foster youth to stable housing, as well as the great work of Starting Right Now to end youth homelessness in our own community. When the victims are children, it’s almost too much to bear. Shouldn’t we be angered by this cycle and feel compelled to do something?
At the end of the day, I found reassurance in the number of community members up at dawn and continuing all day to help count our neighbors. We felt encouraged by the security officer, Rob, in Ybor City, who knew our homeless neighbors by name and helped direct us to find them. The Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative (THHI) team was well organized and exhibited great leadership. TPD Officer Whitney smiled and cheered on each deployment group as they fanned out to help count. Each of these folks made the day count.
“Never doubt that a thoughtful and committed group of citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” said Margaret Meade.
Carley’s recitation of scripture and how God would deliver her, reminded me, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you. (Deuteronomy 31:6 NIV.)
The witness of the number of volunteers who were making it count by counting serves as a call to see and not forget our homeless neighbors. Knowing and holding the stories, the sorrows, and the names of our homeless neighbors is one part of the accounting. As a community, investing in housing, health care and quality of life services to treat the dignity of each individual is necessary to make progress.
How are we treating the weakest, the stranger, the children, the ill, the weak and the struggling?
“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Mahatma Ghandi.
*All homeless neighbors’ names were changed to respect the sanctity of their circumstances.
By Mandy Cloninger, Executive Director