Ryan Smalley: Time to take care of our own
“Home is where the heart is.” I believe this is a true statement, though it could also say “Family and friends are where the heart is.”
Having had the experience of being homeless myself, I can say with sincerity that lack of a warm, dry place to sleep and the absence of meaningful human contact made my everyday existence so miserable that I had no hope of recovery, and no will to change.
For me, my last best hope was Hospitality House. They took me in, gave me clean clothes, a place to shower, to do laundry, and to sleep, but most importantly, they had sympathy. They did not judge me, and they had compassion.
They gave me a place to have meaningful contact with others, which after some time as their guest, empowered me to piece my life back together.
I was given a gift I cannot repay, the gift of life; for that, I am eternally grateful.
But I must also recognize that I am lucky. I suffer from no serious illness, am relatively young, and am in good health.
The reality for the vast majority of homeless is not as bright. Serious, often disabling physical and mental conditions are commonplace; self-medication and drug abuse are pervasive.
Many of these people have been estranged or even ostracized from their families and friends, and by default as homeless individuals, have become pariahs in society.
They are forced to isolate, camping by themselves in wooded areas near town. I believe it is unrealistic to expect someone in this situation to recover without intensive help.
Many of the necessary services are available (though poorly funded), but lack of coordinated outreach and case management services allows many individuals, and sometimes entire demographic groups, to fall through the cracks.
Limited transportation services make the utilization of these programs nearly impossible, given that our area is widespread, rural, and mountainous. For most homeless, walking is simply not an option even in good weather, and the Gold Country Stage is expensive and time-consuming.
For those who do transition back to permanent housing, follow-up and recidivism prevention programs are rare, confined and underfunded, fostering a “revolving door” similar to the criminal justice system.
The first step is documentation. A comprehensive census of the local homeless population has been suggested, though much of this data exists in records kept by local nonprofits such as Hospitality House. Confidentiality laws in HIPAA, and CFR 42 part 2 make sharing this information between service providers difficult at best.
So where do we go from here? We need better funding for our local nonprofits, funding for coordinated outreach and case management programs, and funding for transportation services.
We need better access to mental health and addiction treatment services. More importantly, though, we need compassion, and patience. We need to understand that every homeless person is an individual, and that blanket approaches do not work in real life.
My hope is that we, as a community, will become proactive on the issue of homelessness, affecting change one person at a time. I also hope we can be thankful, because amid much rhetoric and political posturing on the subject of the homeless, the folks at Hospitality House and many other local nonprofits have remained silent, still doing their work, thereby shouldering much of the burden for the community at large.
If you want to “fix” the local homeless problem, I suggest you get out on the ground, and help a homeless person. Volunteer at one of the many local nonprofits, and encourage our governments to fund these programs.
This is our community, and these are our people. It’s time we took care of our own.
Ryan Smalley lives in Nevada City.
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