Thursday, July 15, 2004

Homeless Resources 

I know Manager wants to eventually be in a position to provide beds for homeless people, and last year would not have been soon enough.

Living as she has been in a college town, she knows that housing can be had for $400.00 a month. Not great housing, not even good housing, but tolerable.

With minimal outside assistance, she lived her college years on less than $600.00 a month - rent, utilities, food, transporation, and holiday and birthday gifts for her friends.

Some of the places she lived were made unpleasant by neighbors, but the dwellings themselves were acceptable, wind and rain-proofed, heated, cooled, with hot and cold running water, functioning toilet and shower, good lighting and working electric outlets, unbroken windows, working refrigerator and stove with oven, working smoke alarms, and doors that were sturdy and locked.

They were small. They were shabby. They were most definitely on the "wrong side of the tracks". The walls were thin, the neighbors were often drunken or drugged, or quick to be violently angry. But they were solid shelter.

A surprising number of such little places exist, but they are hard to find.

For many of the newly homeless, they are probably appalling.

These homeless people usually come from formerly middle class homes in good neighborhoods. Having their tree TP'd is the worst random violence they've probably ever seen before outside the news.

They don't know what services are available for them, how to live really cheaply, how to recycle effectively, and most of all, they don't know how they can get back to where they were just a month or two or three ago.

They often still have jobs, and are still in that mindset that tomorrow, they'll find a place, tomorrow something will happen to rescue them from their dire situation. They may even have already taken time to visit the state welfare office, only to discover that even though they are homeless, because they still have a job (often a well-paying one), they don't qualify for any kind of assistance.

They may simply need help in debt restructuring, help in finding that cheaper place to live, a little financial help in getting the deposits paid on that cheaper place, and maybe some short-term help to get past whatever it was that reduced them to homelessness.

These are the people we're initially targeting with help for several reasons. The primary one is that they are the least likely to qualify for most welfare and homeless services as they are often still well employed. Welfare kicks in only after a person has nothing left with which to rebuild their lives. We want to help before things get that desperate, while the help they need is actually quite minimal but will make a tremendous difference. They are the least knowledgeable about resources available to them because they haven't lived in poverty before. They haven't been homeless for long, so it will be easier to get them housed again. Many landlords look at previous housing history, and the longer they've been homeless, the less likely a landlord will be to approve their rental. They still have jobs so they are more likely to remain housed once they are off the streets, and the efforts we will have to expend on their behalf are, quite frankly, more in our affordability range at first.

To that end, we have been gathering information on low-cost rental properties, debt consolidation information and debt restructuring, tips on how to live bountifully on less money, compiling lists of agencies and companies that can give them short term specialized help[1], packets of coupons that can make their transition easier, and lists of places where they can indulge for very little money [2].

As an adjunct to this, we want to provide information about the homeless to those who aren't. Too many people believe all homeless people are con artists, drug addicts, mentally (and therefore violently) unstable, or are homeless by choice. We admit that this is true of some of the homeless people. But it isn't true of the majority of them. We want to provide information on how people become homeless, how to avoid becoming homeless oneself, and on ways to help those who are homeless and willing to do what it takes to get away from that.

One of the ways we plan to do this is with stories. We'll have a place where we gather the stories of how people became homeless (with photos, if they allow it), and hopefully with stories of how they beat it and rebuilt their lives. I'm thinking we'll do this as a scrapbook people can read as they enjoy our pastries and coffee. Putting faces to the homeless will make it more personal, and I know that for me, I like knowing who it is I'm helping. I have problems donating to organizations where I can't clearly identify the recipients, or where I feel too much of the money is going to administrative costs and too little of it trickles down to the recipients.

Our customers will have the opportunity to participate in the quest to reduce homelessness through a variety of means: they can sponsor a meal for a homeless person, or can purchase coupon booklets of meals to give to homeless people, they can add to the list of landlords willing to rent low-cost housing to homeless people, they can donate personal hygiene items to put in carebags for the homeless, or they can pick up information on how to make their own carebags, or to operate a Sandwich Saturday type program, or where to donate clothes for the homeless (City Rescue Mission is by far the best place for that), and other things we haven't clearly articulated yet.

By putting faces and stories to the homeless people, we hope to move them out of the faceless mass and make it personal to our customers. Homeless people aren't another species. They aren't aliens. They are people who could be our siblings, our parents, our children. They could be our neighbors. All the gods forbid - they could be us someday, just one or two paychecks from now.

Those who've been homeless longer require more active assistance, especially depending on how long they've been homeless and why.

I fully admit that helping those people who are homeless through criminal activities, drugs, or mental instability is currently beyond us, other than to list those agencies which are structured to provide help to them.

As we grow in profits at the Cracked Cauldron, we hope to expand our efforts to help the homeless, and yes, we do have expansion plans, starting with providing a mail drop so the homeless have an address for mail, and providing lockers where they can store their personal belongings while they are at work or looking for work, and offering computer access (we hope to have the Cracked Cauldron set up for wi-fi for our customers, so providing this for the homeless will only mean acquiring computers for them to use).

From the beginning, we hope to offer employment to the homeless, probably as a second income so they can get their lives back in order.

We're always open to suggestions, too.

[1] Debt management and budgeting information and counseling, how to avoid the traps of credit cards and "payday loan" places, health care management, legal aid, and assitance in any of the number of reason why they became homeless.

[2] little workshops on living luxuriously on practically nothing, where to eat out for a family of 4 on less than $10.00 (it can be done, I still do it regularly) how to pinch a penny so it gives change, that sort of thing.

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