You don’t know what sliding your arms into a new winter coats feel like until you’ve not had one for a while. You don’t what it’s like to nurse a single cup of hot coffee for a couple of hours while hoping the fast food manager doesn’t notice you sitting in the back until you’ve spent your last dollar to get out of the cold.
You don’t know what it’s like to read every magazine in the library’s rack because when you stop you’d have to leave and, if you were lucky, head back to that 12-by-12 foot motel room, but only if you were lucky.
Some of those folks will be at St. Peter’s Church in Morristown Thursday where the Morris County Mental Health Association hosts the annual Project Homeless Connect event.
They will be greeted at the event, held in Morris County annually since 2004, by the county’s non-profit community, county government, public health officials, housing providers, mental health advisors, social workers and volunteers from a wide range of service providers.
Some of the clients who will show up Thursday have been out of work for a long time, some are mentally ill, some are veterans. Some became homeless because they fled an abusive home, some because they liked drugs and drink more than anything else, some because paying for an illness ate up all their savings.
For some, homelessness has been an all-of-the-above experience.
Every January across the country volunteers fan out across their communities and count the number of homeless persons.
Last January in Morris County they found 281 persons without a permanent shelter, and determined that 753 others had been homeless for a time during the previous year.
That doesn’t sound like a lot of people in a county like Morris with about a half-million residents.
It might not have seemed like a lot when more than a decade ago a group of homeless men used the stoop in front of my employer’s office as a hangout. It was just a few guys and they promised they would not panhandle. It might not have seemed like a lot until that February when one of them was found frozen to death on the lawn of a nearby home.
But that number might seem like more when we realize that a number of the homeless families on the past year lost their homes to Irene’s floods, and this year to Sandy’s winds.
Kind of breaks down the stereotype of a homeless person as a loser when your neighbor spends a month at the Family Promise shelter after the Passaic River took their home.
It breaks down that stereotype when you find out that the occupants of new rental homes built by Homeless Solutions or New Bridge Services all work for a living, or the developmentally challenged residents at the Rose House work, live on their own and enjoy their community just like their abled neighbors.
The stereotypes fails to consider that new owners of homes build by Morris Habitat for Humanities contribute hours of labor to erect their new homes, have to meet strict credit requirements and work for a living, or that the armed services veterans who have fallen on hard times can get help and housing at the new facility built at the Lyons VA Center by Community Hope.
While no one was looking, the social service community in Morris County redefined how to serve homeless individuals and families. Armed with new programs from the federal government, and guided by a dedicated leadership of local volunteers, the county in 2004 set a goal to end homelessness in 10 years.
The result was more places to live for homeless families and individuals, better connections to the services they need – the sick found doctors, the mentally ill found treatment, the jobless and undereducated found training, and veterans found the services they earned when they climbed into that uniform.
So you ought to come down to St. Peter’s Thursday to see how your neighbors live.
Because every important issue that is being discussed in the capitals of this nation has some impact on the people who will seek help on that day.
Look at what is being discussed by politicians in New Jersey and Washington:
The minimum wage – ask the 36 percent of Jersey residents identified in the ALICE report by the United way of Northern New Jersey on the working poor if a few extra bucks each week might make their lives better; then ask the local stores where those dollars would be spent if they could use the business.
Health care reform – ask a family with a sick child or a worker with a debilitating illness if they really want to choose between paying their medical bills or paying for a place to live.
Transportation: What do you say to an employer who wants to hire you when you don’t own a vehicle and the local bus route stops running? Nutrition and food support: What is the best choice, paying the rent or feeding a family, paying for medication or buying food.
Make the wrong choice in any of these situations and it’s a long way down.
And that long way down slides right past you, standing there judging, standing there thinking all of this is someone else’s problem.
But you’d be wrong.
We all have a stake in this.
Which means that whether you know it or not, you will be in that room at St. Peter’s on Thursday. We will all be there.
We’ll be checking in to see how our brothers and sisters are doing.
Michael Stephen Daigle
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