Not Houseless Just for the Holidays
Imagine that you’re living in your car, on the street or in a shelter. You’re focused on survival, getting your basic needs met. Once you’ve obtained food, shelter and hygiene for the day, the next day will likely be more of the same. You might look for work to escape your situation, but you still have to deal with the stereotypes and prejudices people have about the houseless. People don’t want to interact with you. For social animals like humans, this can be devastating. Food and shelter are important, but belonging is almost as, if not just as, vital.
The picture changes a bit when it gets colder—November, December, the holiday season. People care more. Donations of money, food, clothes, etc. to shelters and charities go up. It seems like you’re invisible until the Christmas lights come on and people are actively encouraged to donate food and clothes. How else can the picture change?
Let’s turn to Laura Brown, who knows from experience what it’s like to be homeless/houseless, for her answer.
Laura entered an abusive marriage after a few years of being a single teenage mother. She broke free ten years later, but lost custody of her son. To cope with this, she turned to drugs and alcohol and was, she says, “suicidal, homeless, and without direction.” She was living on the streets or couch-surfing, and “pretty much just surviving.”
She needed something more than just survival. In late November, 2008, after “years of destruction,” “I found my way. I found life once again.” She began a recovery program. By 2010, she’d learned to love herself again, son by her side throughout the entire journey. Although she had a lot of trouble finding housing and employment, she was accepted into a 6-month Homeless-to-Work program that April. This program, Clean and Safe, is led by Central City Concern, a nonprofit based out of Portland, Oregon, that helps those struggling with houselessness and drug/alcohol addiction obtain housing, employment and sobriety.
Central City Concern helped her get an apartment, but she was scared of losing it, scared of not being able to make it through the six months. “I would show up to work and just do my best. Some days were harder than others, and sometimes I had to call my mom or my support system or my mentor and they’d help me through, because I didn’t know how to keep a job. I needed help. I was scared.”
Working with Clean and Safe, Laura would walk downtown Portland, picking up trash and
cleaning up the messes that no one else wanted to touch. This may not seem like much, but she wasn’t doing it “expecting anything in return.” She was being altruistic, rather than having some ulterior motive. She compares this to offering directions to a tourist; one doesn’t typically expect the tourist to give one anything in return for the directions. People would thank her, and this experience taught her what past experience hadn’t: humility and confidence in herself.
“Over these past years, I have worked very hard to create a life where I am able to help others who struggle with addiction and homelessness.” Laura says, “I do volunteer work, bringing recovery into the jails and state women’s prison. I am also active with my church.” Eventually she got the chance to train someone. “I did such a good job that [Central
City Concern] asked me to train somebody, and that made me feel like ‘Wow, I can do this, so I get to teach somebody else how to do it!’” She’d set a challenge to herself to do the job no matter how gross it got (she would sometimes have to clean up things like vomit or feces) and passed with flying colors. She was doing so well at the program that they wanted others to follow in her footsteps.
Laura was eventually offered a full-time position with Central City Concern, and today she manages the same program that trained her, giving her all to help others find their way just as she did. Every morning, she makes around 60 pots of coffee for her employees, with “every kind of creamer that you could possibly want.”
“What I want to do,” she says, “is I want to build a relationship with somebody, because maybe they didn't do well in school and they were afraid of authority, maybe they were incarcerated most of their life and they were afraid of authority. I want to break that barrier; I don’t want them to be afraid of the boss. [...] So you start building these relationships with folks, and they come in, at first, their head is down, they just want to get their coffee and go.” But they come into her office more and more, and “little by little, up goes their chin, and all of a sudden their shoulders go back. Maybe they come in [another time] and their chin has tipped back down a little bit. That’s where I can come in and I can say ‘Would you like to talk? You know, we could close the door and have a conversation.’ Maybe it’s with their children, or maybe it’s with their housing, or whatever it may be. Maybe they want to relapse. We can have these conversations.”
“That’s my day. My little saying I made up is ‘This job is about changing people’s lives. We just have to pick up the trash along the way.’ That is how I truly feel about my job, because we are truly changing lives. [...] You’re a role model when you put that uniform on, and I want you to be proud, and I want you to come into my office, and I want to build that relationship. That’s my day. I love my job, can you tell? I have the best job ever!”
In short, the picture changed for Laura when she believed in herself and had a support system to reach out to when she couldn’t. She advises that others “Get a mentor, somebody that you look up to, that you see something of yourself in. Somebody else that has been where you are and has made some growth and some changes. Have those people close to you and call them when you need to. Call them during the happy times and the sad times. Be willing to reach out to each other, because [...] We have to do this as a team.”
For those who aren’t houseless, we need to extend the same kindness to the houseless regardless of the time of year. The employees at Central City Concern didn't turn Laura away just because it wasn’t Christmas. Then and now, they offer aid every time of year. People have different amounts of disposable income at different times, and perhaps more around Christmas, but we should do our best to give the same amount of money, clothes, blankets, and whatever other gifts no matter the season. If you have extra blankets, hygiene
products, or clothes (for all types of weather, not just cold & snow), please get as close as you can to hand-delivering them to those who need them. If you’ve got the time, make smalltalk or strike up a friendly conversation and ask how they’re doing. Doing this is a great way to show that you care.
Most importantly, help them get in touch with programs, like Clean and Safe, that can help them make real change. Don’t handhold them on the way, though. People want to feel like they have agency in their lives. They want someone to talk to, a place to belong. They don’t want to be looked down upon or pitied. We need to look past what we think houselessness looks like and...