Being in the business of home design and always looking for ways to add nurture to our nature, viewing the growing number of homeless persons in our country is particularly painful. As an advocate and a “do gooder” making my Friday rounds in downtown Baltimore, I cannot help but see the changing countenance in the faces of the Homeless. San Francisco and Portland are in the news but the changing face of homelessness in America is very evident.
The Homeless as we came to know them in the inner cities of DC and Baltimore where I lived were a permanent underserved society, often plagued by ill health, joblessness and drugs. They were in those cities, minorities and usually elderly- misplaced by gentrification and shrinking Federal dollars: neglected by family and social services; and unable to work or even at times to accept help. They were left to die under bridges and over grates. Assistance was often stalled by lawsuits over separation of church and state and even ACLU lawsuits demanding that the homeless be left if they preferred, even if that conclusion came from a mentally unstable person. The rise in homelessness was blamed on the Federal government’ handing over of mental healthcare facilities to the States. But eventually help came.
Then the face of homelessness changed again as farmers lost farms, jobs, homes with entire families living in cars and in campgrounds. Then again in the housing crisis where banks pushed through 100s of evictions through courts everyday in every state, creating a new younger homeless population who had lost everything. The government was slow to help- ill equipped and under funded. But the economy came back and hope came back and these families once again were housed.
Today, as I make my drive down MLK Boulevard, under the Stadium and then off to the east. I see a very different set of faces. They are young, they are detached from their families and they are ravaged by drugs and mental illness. Many times in need of protection more than food. The homeless in San Francisco and Portland look the same. They are products of society more than of circumstance. The path that led them to these tent cities and to MLK Blvd cannot be undone with a shower and a sandwich. It is a political decision that must be made. I can only pray that it is done quickly before the lives of these young people cannot be reclaimed.
But connected to this growing population is the drag on the thin social services net that protects the most vulnerable. Because besides these new young faces are the old and infirm. These people cannot work. They often have dirty bandages and broken medical devices. They sleep outside or in a crowded and sometimes unsafe, overpopulated shelter. They must leave at sun up. Often they are turned away. They are unclean and so are often shooed away or threatened. The people who give their time to help them are so overburdened that they do barely enough.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a day care center for seniors. Warm in the winter and cool in summer? Yes it would…
But until that day comes, it will be the good citizen, the churches, the police, the activists and ER workers that do what they can whenever the situation arises. If enough citizens do even the slightest bit, then eventually the politicians will act.
That being said, here is my view. I believe that every person deserves to be looked at in the eye. I am always careful. I have only when absolutely necessary gone on my own. (and I always notice the police keeping an eye out). I do not carry cash when I am delivering food and water. I always carry $1 dollar bills when driving downtown on other days. I can get from my house to the train station with $15-$20. A dollar, yes, can buy drugs but it also can buy a bottle of water and be used in a pay phone. A few dollars allows someone to buy a hamburger and the use of a bathroom. I do not buy into the idea that it will always be used for drugs.
On hot days, I stock the cooler in my car with ice and water bottles wherever I am going. On some days, this can save a life. And I have become a big fan of the dollar store. On food runs, I also take a supply of socks, ointment, underwear and wipes. Fast food gift cards are cheap and can be kept in your wallet. And the local shelter or police precinct number can be easily put in your phone should you need to report a person in danger. Shelters are very generous with toothbrushes and toothpaste and I seldom have takers. If I see the same face for several weeks, I ask if there is a particular need. But most importantly, I speak to each person- if they want. The drug takers just want to get back to begging on the boulevard. But I have shared a few laughs and God Blesses with many more. Human contact is a blessing for those in need.
I don’t look for gratitude because these people barely have the strength to survive. I don’t get too personal. I smile alot. I know I can’t say out loud that I love them but I want them to see it in my eyes. I try and keep it light. And most, most, most importantly, I teach my family that after me will come them. Nothing to fear but that the faces will change again or multiply .
Solving homelessness is hopeless many claim, but designer Lex Roman is determined to prove it isn’t. During the Los Angeles Design Festival, June 20 to 23, Roman hosted a discussion straightforwardly titled “Designing the End to Homelessness” to help unpack the problem on a systemic level. High-end firms are also breaking into the supportive housing game—elite firm Brooks + Scarpa (based in Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale, Florida) designed the Six, housing for veterans, for the Skid Row Housing Trust, which builds permanent supportive housing across L.A.
So there is hope for global solutions. And in the meantime, there is us. Lex Roman also designed a great primer for those looking to help on a one by one basis.
Please feel free to share your stories here. and thank you for your time- Deb