“They offerd me a tract…but what I really needed was a cup of cold water.” – by Steve Schwartz, Brethren Housing Association Executive Director

It was late afternoon. I was hungry. And thirsty. I was wandering the city…it was a warm day, not necessarily hot, but warm enough. I’d been hoping to find something to eat, to no avail, and seriously looking for a water fountain. Do they no longer exist in this era of bottled water? I’d had breakfast at the shelter, but nothing to eat or drink since. I passed by a lady that handed me a tract. I guess I looked like I needed it. Or maybe she was handing them to everybody. This tract urged me to repent, and warned of taking part in all the evil in the world, including watching movies. Bummer. I knew I shouldn’t have gone to see The Passion!
A few corners later, some other young girls offered me a handful of tracts. I declined. As I walked on it struck me that instead of a tract, what I really could have used was a cup of cold water…or a slice of bread…or better yet a carton of juice.
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It was April 2004. I had ended my job with a computer company the day before. In nine days I would start as the new Executive Director of Brethren Housing Association, and I wanted to make this week off meaningful.

So I walked out the door of my workplace at 4:30 and hopped a train to Philadelphia. I left with no money in my pocket and no plan in mind, other than to try and find food and shelter for the weekend and return home on Sunday. I left my wallet, watch, credit cards, and money…the props I rely on daily in my normal, scheduled life. Why was I doing this? Good question. As I rode the train I jotted some goals for the weekend:

1. To experience what it’s like to need to find a place to stay for the night, and hopefully to experience spending the night in a homeless shelter.

2. To experience what it’s like to need to find food for the weekend.

I would NOT expect to understand what it is like to be truly homeless based on this one weekend away. Understanding what it’s like to spend a night in a shelter is much different than understanding what it’s like to truly not have a home. I could not understand the suffering and hardship of being homeless, or the loss of dignity. My 48 hour experiment was time limited…and even though I had no money on me and could potentially find no food or shelter…it was just that—a 48 hour experiment. I had a return train ticket in my backpack.

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I got off the train in Philly at 7:20. At least I think it was 7:20; remember, I didn’t have a watch. At the information desk in the train station I asked where there was a shelter nearby, and I was given directions. To make a long story short, after walking 15 blocks, finding out this was a family shelter (no single men), being given other directions, getting lost, talking my way onto a trolley to another part of the city (remember, I had no money…my first lesson in resourcefulness), and walking several more blocks, I found a shelter at 10pm. Here I would sit wondering whether they would take me in for the night.

The guys sitting next to me in the waiting room were eating fortune cookies. I looked down and there was a fortune lying by my foot: “You will have a pleasant trip”, it read.
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While waiting, I met Ronald. Ronald was bright, well groomed, articulate, and friendly. He was in the army reserves. Had been for 18 years. Two more years to retirement. Ronald also worked full-time as a security guard at a gated community. He was trying to save up money for an apartment, but kept making bad decisions as he put it. He’d get his check and blow it. On drugs, I believe. He didn’t state it explicitly, but he was struggling with an addiction. He knew it was wrong, but couldn’t beat it. He asked me to pray for him, which I did and continue to do when I think of him.

At 1:00 AM I got a cot, which felt pretty good to my tired body. This would be my home for the next two nights. I met many other men besides Ronald. Many struggled with addictions that led to them to being on the street, others had disabilities. It was a depressing place. And yet there were many men who held their heads high as they walked out the door in the morning on their way to work.
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What did I learn this weekend? I learned that people on the street are real people, with names and faces. Well, I knew this, but it hit home again. Many have had bad breaks. Many struggle with addictions that hold them back. Like me, they are fallen and flawed human beings. Perhaps my coping skills are a bit better, but we aren’t all that different. I learned that people without a home have the same needs that I have…to be loved, to be valued, to be talked to in a manner that conveys dignity and respect, to have something to look forward to—a hope for a better future.

Oh yeah, almost forgot, I learned that free chairs are uncomfortable. Malls and parks and sidewalks are where you find free chairs (i.e., you don’t have to buy anything to use them). I got tired of free chairs. By the middle of the afternoon I was tired of walking, weighted down by all the extra gospel tracts I was carrying, and I wanted to sit in a comfy cushioned chair like the ones in a restaurant. But you have to pay to sit in those chairs.
…..
So, about those tracts…
In hindsight, those tracts really bother me. Ronald and the other friends I met in Philadelphia don’t need condemnation, and they don’t need someone to preach at them. They need love and acceptance. They need dignity. They need support to overcome their addictions and challenges. And on a practical level, they need a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs. Wouldn’t it be great if the church could be known as the people providing love, acceptance, and a place to call home?

A week later I started working at BHA, a model of the church doing just that…coming together in the Harrisburg area to be the hands and feet of Jesus…sharing the love of Jesus by providing food, shelter, and new opportunities to get back on one’s feet. I think if Jesus were walking the streets of Harrisburg or Philadelphia, we’d find him doing this type of work: overcoming condemnation with his healing love.

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Steve Schwartz is the Executive Director of Brethren Housing Association in Harrisburg, PA.  Steve also volunteers on the Homelessness Prevention Committee, Service Delivery Committee, and the Board of Directors of the Capital Area Coalition on Homelessness.

Homeless population growing older

More than half of homeless adults are age 47 and older, according to a recent AARP blog post. This is quite a devastating fact. Older individuals are more prone to health risks and living on the streets will only increase these risks. There have been different statistics of the lifespan of homeless people, and they are quite scary. As the AARP points out, some statistics say life expectancy can be up to age 64, which is about 20 years younger than the life expectancy of the non-homeless population.

Because of these distressing, startling statistics, helping older homeless individuals has never been more important. These individuals deserve our attention as equally as the younger homeless population, but with a little extra care to their health.

This is why we are proud of the organizations we work with to get homeless individuals the medical care they need, and make sure health care is an important focus of our annual Project Homeless Connect. To see many of the service providers available for the homeless in Dauphin County, please see http://www.cachpa.org/HomelessServicesReferenceManual.pdf.

For more about the older homeless population, please check out AARP’s recent blog post: http://blog.aarp.org/2013/03/27/sally-abrahms-old-and-homeless-no-caregive/.

Homelessness and its detrimental effects on children

This young girl was one of the 42 children who attended the Capital Area Coalition on Homelessness’s Project Homeless Connect event last year. This event targets the hardest-to-reach homeless and provides them with many necessary services, from meal distribution to housing referrals.

This young girl was one of the 42 children who attended the Capital Area Coalition on Homelessness’s Project Homeless Connect event last year. This event targets the hardest-to-reach homeless and provides them with many necessary services, from meal distribution to housing referrals.

According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, more than 1.6 million children were homeless each year between 2006 and 2010, which equals one in 45 children. Last year, CACH’s annual Point in Time survey found that 127 children were homeless in Dauphin County. Of these children, 79 were male and 48 were female. According to the survey, 23 percent of the homeless surveyed were households that had children (63 households).

Many causes exist for family homelessness. The biggest cause is unemployment, according to CACH’s Homeless Services Reference Manual. The following two biggest causes for homelessness among families with children were lack of affordable housing and poverty.

According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, 40 percent of homeless children were under the age of six. Many of these children experience physical and mental health issues as a result of their homelessness. Homeless children are six times more likely to get sick each year than their non-homeless counterparts, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness.  These children are twice as likely to develop learning disabilities when compared to non-homeless children. They also have a higher risk of experiencing violence, as 25 percent have witnessed violence within their families.

Featured in this photo are a homeless mother and her two children who attended CACH’s Project Homeless Connect in 2012.

Featured in this photo are a homeless mother and her two children who attended CACH’s Project Homeless Connect in 2012.

Homelessness really impacts the healthy development of young children. According to an article from the non-profit research center Child Trends, these children are more likely than non-homeless children to develop moderate to severe health, emotional, and behavioral problems, which can range from asthma to depression.

Not only do these children suffer from poor physical and mental health, but they also suffer from hunger and missed educational opportunities.  According to Child Trends, homeless children who lack a stable living environment are twice as likely as non-homeless children to have to repeat a grade, drop out of high school, or be suspended or expelled.

We here at CACH are committed to helping homeless families with children, along with homeless individuals, get the access they need to services that will help them get back on their feet and change their lives for the better. To learn more about CACH and our work, please visit www.cachpa.org.

Domestic violence leading cause of female homelessness

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Yesterday, President Obama signed the re-authorized Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) into law, a big gain that will help protect domestic violence victims from the plight of homelessness. Reauthorization and expansion of VAWA comes after three years of advocacy on the part of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP) and its partners, according to an article published yesterday by the NLCHP.

According to the NLCHP, not only does VAWA acknowledge sexual assault survivors as a protected class, it also extends housing protections beyond public housing. These protections include all of the housing programs managed through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program.

The NLCHP stated that in order to help prevent the homelessness of domestic violence victims, over 3 million housing units will be covered under VAWA. VAWA also requires housing providers to implement policies for emergency transfers. Another requirement is that housing providers give domestic violence and sexual assault survivors notice of their rights under VAWA during any eviction process, according to the NLCHP.

Domestic violence is considered to be one of the leading causes of homelessness among women and their families. At the regional level, domestic violence was a primary cause of homelessness among 8.2 percent of 281 surveyed homeless individuals in the Harrisburg and Dauphin County area last year, according to CACH’s 2012 Point In Time survey.

At the national level, the numbers are much greater. For 22 to 57 percent of homeless women, depending upon region and study, domestic violence is the immediate cause of their homelessness, according to a NLCHP fact sheet. A 2003 study conducted in 10 locations in the United States found that almost all of the 100 participating homeless mothers had either experienced or witnessed domestic violence in their lifetimes.

According to the NLCHP, there is a significant correlation between domestic violence and homelessness. Ninety-two percent of homeless women surveyed had experienced severe physical or sexual assault at one point in their lives. Sixty-three percent of these women had been victims of violence by a partner, according to the NLCHP. Thirty-two percent of the surveyed women had been assaulted by their current or recent partner.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), domestic violence survivors often find themselves isolated by their abusers from support networks and financial resources. As a result, these survivors may not have a steady income, a good employment history, a good credit history, and/or landlord references. They also tend to suffer from panic disorder, anxiety, major depression, and substance abuse, according to the NAEH.

Fulfilling the needs of these homeless domestic violence survivors is key to helping them live better lives. According to the NAEH, these survivors have both short- and long- term needs when it comes to housing. One short-term need is for them to have safe housing away from their abuser.  A long-term need is for them to have access to safe, stable, and affordable housing away from their abuser once they get back on their feet, according to the NAEH.