Friday, September 28, 2012

Interview: Being Homeless

Next month there are two days to remind us of people who are often forgotten—the homeless. In 2011 there were 636,017 people homeless in America. World Homeless Day is October 10 and World Habitat Day is October 1. In honor of these two days, I am featuring an interview today with Angela Smith.

Angela is the author of two books End of Mae and No Money Marketing, and the writer of popular blog Dandilyon Fluff. However, Angela also experienced being homeless on and off for five years from 1986 to 1991. As someone who pulled her way out of homelessness, she is an example of how the system works and how it doesn’t.

1.       How did you become homeless?

I became homeless as a runaway at 16.  At first I stayed with random friends but when that hospitality ran out my only choice was to live directly on the street. The first night I was wandering around in the dark confused on what to do next. A carload of teenage guys started following me around and I realized how alone and vulnerable I was. I managed to throw them off running between some buildings and was looking for a good place to hide. Being small, I managed to slip between two generators behind a grocery store.  There was just enough room for me to stand up between them and they put off warmth. The guys got bored and went elsewhere but I stayed where I was that night. I eventually fell asleep propped up. The next morning I staggered out into the pale morning sun with a feeling of victorious self sufficiency. I had an epiphany that morning and realized how little we actually need to live.

2.       Why were you homeless off and on for so long?

I kept being rescued by my parents and other well meaning organizations to be taken off the streets but in my mind it was all just interference. My parents put me in a drug rehab and sent me away to college but neither situation became a solution. I was taken into a halfway house for runaways that I was kicked out of because I escaped out their window in the middle of the night. A few church and shelter programs tried to rehabilitate me to no avail. I also ran off on a Job Corps offer and blew off an apprenticeship as a chef for a nice restaurant. There was plenty of help offered but to me it was all people trying to control me so I was having none of it. 

3.       When you were homeless what did you want the most?

Honestly, to destroy myself. I was angry about things in my past that made me feel helpless and used but somehow I also blamed myself. I hated myself and the world around me. I smiled and said thank you to the charities that were giving me handouts but inside I was seething with rage that they could be so much better than me. In my past, gifts and good deeds were always given with a price so I saw every charitable act through that mindset. Soup kitchens, to me, were simply a power play by people better off. I thought people helped the needy to receive an ego boost. I know many of us felt that way. That's why many homeless can seem so ungrateful and even cause harm to those trying to help them. From the top down it looks nice but looking up from the bottom is a whole 'nother story.

4.       What do you think is the best way people can help someone who is homeless?

Be their tough friend. Being homeless is often much more than the lack of shelter. It's about being 'less than' and feeling inferior. The worst thing in the world to make you feel better about yourself is a handout. After I'd clawed my way off the streets and made my life better, I'd go sit with the panhandlers and just talk to them about whatever came up. Once they realized I wasn't giving them anything they could enjoy the companionship and it meant more. We'd talk about what I did to get on my feet and how we'd gotten so low in the first place. I don't know what became of any of them but I hope they also managed to find firmer footing.

5.       As a society, what do you think is the best way to deal with the problem of homelessness?

Allow consequences to happen. We spend so much time and energy coddling our needy that we force them to be helpless and dependant. In the short term that seems like a good thing, but over time that seemingly good deed festers and becomes a canker on the soul. I think doing nice things and helping on occasion is a fine thing. Doing it regularly is the problem. If Jesus had started serving fishes and loaves to the masses every day he would have never gotten his message across. Turned helpless, the masses would have started demanding more like the Israelites did with their manna. When a person survives difficulty and overcomes, he stands straighter and becomes better. Be an honest friend to the homeless and you are doing the best thing you can. They are still people, just broken ones.

6.       Is there any organization that you think is doing a good job of helping the homeless? If so, what is it and why?

I once knew a pastor that would let a few of us sleep in the back of his covered pickup truck at night. It was winter in Colorado and he provided down sleeping bags for us. We weren't allowed to sleep in his apartment and he didn't feed us. If we wanted to go to his church he'd drive us there and take us back. There were donuts and coffee there for everyone. Those of us who went to his church like that were accepted for who we were: people struggling to find footing in the world. No one gave us money, food or shelter except for the pastor’s truck.  The feeling of acceptance and belonging was the most valuable thing they could give and it made a difference to me.

7.       What kinds of circumstances lead to being homeless?

Being cornered by life pushes us outside to cope alone. Whether it's abusive parents, a spouse, or us abusing ourselves there comes a time of reckoning where we make the choice to be crushed or continue on. That's almost always an ugly situation to watch from the outside but when we try to help we are often just unwittingly prolonging the pain. Like a butterfly escaping its cocoon or a chick hatching from the egg, any outside help often kills the emerging creature. The struggle is part of the healing process. I have no doubt that if I hadn't experienced so much suffering in the way of hunger and cold, I would have never been able to heal from an abusive childhood and go on to live a happy and fulfilled life. 

8.       What led to the end of your homelessness? How did you start making a living for yourself?

A moment of reckoning made me realize that the situation I was in was my own doing and, more importantly, that I had the power to change it. I was lying alone in a random bed after a night of heavy drinking and I was miserable. I was wishing that somehow I would just die and end it all. I'd already had a handful of unsuccessful attempts at suicide. My life was a shambles of shameful recollection and I was recounting to myself all those that had done me wrong. I blamed them for where I was. A voice cut through the cloud of pity I was generating and asked me the second most important question of my life, "Who's doing it to you now?" It shocked me. I suddenly realized I had no one to blame but myself.  Yes, I had had unpleasant things happen to me in my past but that was gone. The moment I had then was mine alone and I was the one calling the shots. For the first time I had a sense of consequences, of my misery being my fault. I decided to change my life.

I got off that bed and put together the most decent job hunting outfit I could find. I went door to door to all the businesses in our area asking for work. By that afternoon I had landed a job as an assistant at one of the best hair salons in the city. Celine Dionne was a private client. I had changed my life. 

9.   How do you view homeless people now?

I see homeless people as works in progress. They are the ugly chick struggling to break free of its confining shell and become part of this world. If I reach out to help too much I run the risk of killing the chick with my kindness. I can only sit by and watch, offering words of encouragement. The other day my son and I were panhandled in the library parking lot after a book signing. It was dark, everyone was gone and we were waiting for a ride. I had a few dollars that I could have given but I refused. He asked about my box and I told him it was full of books and I was a writer. He was so interested I gave him a copy and signed it over to "Service Mike, my parking lot friend ;)" He started reading right off, sitting in a pool of light on the sidewalk and forgot about us. Did it change anything for him? Probably not much... but neither would the $2 I had in my pocket.

10.   If there was one thing you’d like to share about your experience, what would it be?

Living on the streets taught me a lot but no lessons more valuable than that of how little we really need to be happy. In Montreal I once stood outside a cafe seething with jealousy for the people inside sipping hot coffee like it was no big deal. I was so frozen the flesh on my ankles had swollen into rings that cracked and bled. Fifty cents separated me from sitting inside and sharing the warmth.  I thought to myself then that for the rest of my life if I just had fifty cents I'd feel rich. I don't always remember it, but I try to keep that sense of appreciation in my life and it keeps me smiling. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Get Outta Here

It’s time to turn off the computer. Walk outside. Get in your car and go back to nature. I mean it. After you finish reading this blog, you will know the best time to get out there. Haven’t you missed feeling a real breeze on your arms instead of air conditioning? Or the way the trees look against the sky?
September is a month of loving the outdoors. Summer starts to cool down and you can get outside. Believe it or not, you can do this for free and help a charity at the same time.

Here’s your chance. Next Saturday, September 29th, is National Public Lands Day. The National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have all declared it as a fee-free day. You can check the links above to find a wildlife refuge, park or other recreation area you want to visit and make sure it is included.
As part of Serve Outside September (S.O.S.) this month the Children and Nature Network (C&NN) will get a buck for everyone who signs up to spend some time outside and take someone with them.

It’s sponsored by The North Face and you may also win free North Face gear or even a trip to the Bay area if you tell your nature visit story. Since the pledge is on Facebook, you can even say whom on your Friend list you’ll take with you.
C&NN works to get kids connected to nature and has resources for families, teachers, leaders, pediatricians and more. It also has links to grassroot events around the nation.

Want to get in on an extra free day of your choice? Just volunteer to help at a national park this month and you can get a coupon to get in to any national park as well. You can find an event at the Serve Outside September website or call your nearest national park.
The International Coastal Cleanup by the Ocean Conservancy was last Saturday. I’ve participated in the cleanups before and they’re a great way to meet some new people while making your community more beautiful. S.O.S. is another great way to do that.

Need a reason to get outside? How about health benefits for you and your kids? As S.O.S. says, you can restore your planet as you restore yourself. It’s the perfect time to do it, help your world as you help yourself, that is.

Just a teaser, next week I'll have an interview for World Habitat Day and World Homeless Day with Angela Y. Smith, who experienced being homeless and wants to share what can be done about it.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Dear God

Dear God,

I often wonder what you would have me do to help others. It sometimes seems like I can’t help someone who really needs it, for how does that person find me? And even if he did, how could I truly help in the all ways he might need it? Providing food and money only helps with physical needs when spiritual needs can outweigh those. Someone in the grips of despair has emotional needs, too.

You say that pure religion is caring for widows and orphans. That lets me know that caring for others is important to you, but I don’t have enough money to support another family. Or do I?

One thing that I have found is a way to pool my money with others by sponsoring a child through a group like Compassion International or World Vision. These organizations take the monthly amount I send them and combine it to provide services for many children in one area.

The wonderful thing is I’m not just providing for someone financially whom I’ll never know. I can write to my child and hear back from him. My sponsored child’s father died and I know my sponsorship helps him with many practical things, but I hope my letters also help build his spirit.

What is it like to be totally alone? I think the closest I ever came to that feeling happened when I was 22. I was living in Japan, in a very small town. I couldn’t just call my family any time because of the time difference and cost. I had a few friends there, but no one I had known for very long and no one close by.

Some nights I felt like it was just me. I turned to you, then, God. It’s when I truly found you for the first time. I often wonder if Abdou, our sponsored child, feels that aloneness. I thank God he has his mother. As someone whose husband has been gone for long periods of time like a year when deployed, I know in part what it’s like to be a single mother. But not really. I could still talk to my husband and he was there to help financially.

What if he disappeared tomorrow? I know that sometimes I would feel so alone, so vulnerable. I feel for Abdou’s mother as for him. She’s a widow and she needs my support. One thing for sure, when Steve is gone, I appreciate the people in my life that come alongside me and help with Christopher. He needs someone more than just me as a model. He needs mentors and friends.

I hope that in some small way, we can be that for Abdou. I pray that we will do your will in his life, God, that we will be your hands and feet, that he could come to know You through us.

Love you,


P.S. This is my first post for Compassion International.

P.S. Remember, the Paralympics coverage on NBC is this Sunday. You can also view coverage from its website.

Friday, September 7, 2012

When Life Gives you Lemons

Those of you who have followed my Working Mother Magazine blog the last couple of years know that I couldn’t get through September without sharing that it’s National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. This designation has only been around a few years, but I’ve written about it the last two because I have a son who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of five.

Thanks to a lot of prayer and two surgeries, he has been cancer free for almost six years. I’m thanking God for his remission. His great grandfather died of the kind of cancer with which he was diagnosed.

I have been volunteering for the American Cancer Society for over a year now and am also the captain of my church’s Relay for Life team Angels for a Cure.  Although the American Cancer Society is a great organization and I love Relay for Life, there’s another organization that’s dear to my heart because of my son.

It’s Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF). Alex is a little girl who was diagnosed with a childhood cancer known as neuroblastoma before she turned a year old. She began having lemonade stands to raise money to fight cancer when she was four and lost her battle with cancer when she was eight.

ALSF has a ton of things going on this month that I want to share. First of all, we all need to rock the yellow on National Childhood Cancer Awareness Day, Thursday, September 13. I look awful in yellow so I’m going to have to search for something to wear. Maybe I can find one of those t-shirts that sports a huge smiley face on it from the seventies.

This next one will be easier for me, buying a paper lemon icon for a buck at Auntie Anne’s Pretzels in September and getting a coupon for a buck off my next purchase of a pretzel and a drink. I can do that one just fine.

If you want to do the fundraiser that started it all for ALSF, register a special Strawberry Shortcake Lemonade Stand with ALSF in September and American Greetings will donate $50. You can also get a strawberry-lemonade recipe, Strawberry Shortcake stickers and a chance for more prizes.

Nearly 500 Old Navy stores are supporting ALSF with their own lemonade stands this weekend so pick up some lemonade or a paper lemon for a donation. That’s another tip I can handle.

ALSF sponsor Volvo will donate $10 for every new Volvo sold and in September will match every donation made to a member of Team Lemon. Team Lemon is ALSF’s national athletic program. Participants run, walk, bike or swim to reach personal athletic goals while raising money to help kids with cancer.

Here’s a few more ways to help out. Buy a floral bouquet from Teleflora’s Sunny Day Pitcher Collection and Teleflora will donate 10 percent of the revenue to ALSF. Rosa Mexicano locations across the country will donate $10 to ALSF for each $100 gift card purchased in the month of September.

Lastly, at Culver Studios on Saturday, September 29, 2012, Neil Patrick Harris, David Burtka and Jimmy Kimmel will host the L.A. Loves Alex’s Lemonade Culinary Cookout with some famous chefs to raise funds and awareness for ALSF.

Now, that’s a list! I’m sure we can all find one or two things we can do to raise money and awareness for childhood cancer this month. I’m also sure everyone will be wondering why I’m wearing yellow next Thursday so I’ll be able to tell them. Have a great weekend and God Bless!