Place matters

So, I have been thinking about this for years, and last weekend was talking with National Geographic Lynn about this topic – place…… Home…….. Where you hang your hat……. Where the cat lives…… And it does matter.

Look here: I call this “an unlikely nest”. Can you see her?

Here’s a zoom:

I was so taken with her, on that cold day that I saw her perched up in that cluster of electric wires, coming into and out of the industrial building on that busy street. At the time, we were living in a barn – super cool space, but not home. Just like the dove. We moved 6 times since 2005. From the house on the river bluff to the storefront. From the storefront to the stable building. From the stable to my sister’s house on Little Creek Lane. From Little Creek Lane to the cottage on the estate. From the cottage to the farmhouse. From the farmhouse to this little place in Mayberry. And in terms of place, we’re getting warmer – closer to a feeling of home. But we’re not there yet. Our little rental house in Mayberry is absolutely adequate, great fenced in yard for the dogs. Terrific community. But it’s not home.

Which brings me to the topic of homelessness. I was lucky to meet some amazing people this summer who founded the Talbot Interfaith Shelter (TIS) – a cold weather homeless shelter right here, in Talbot County, land of pleasant living. And yes, Virginia, there are homeless people here too, even in this wealthy county with all the waterfront property. How many homeless is a topic for a different day (don’t ask me), but Tom Vennerbeck can name six, right now off the tip of his tongue. And ever since my work with this group, I do think about these neighbors who are adrift, nesting in one spot or another, living in a different way than the rest of us.

We know that some people will experience housing crises this winter, right here in Talbot County, and TIS and the Neighborhood Service Center, the good folks in Queen Anne, Kent and Dorchester will have emergency shelter for them, social services too. There’s a homeless roundtable here, a consortium of all the people and agencies addressing homelessness. Right now, TIS plans to be open from Dec – March – the coldest months of the year. They do it beautifully, some dozen churches open their doors, two weeks at a time, with volunteers sharing evenings, mornings, food and laundry with those needing shelter. And it’s fantastic – the effort is growing, more churches, more individuals.

Tom Vennerbeck has a dream of a homeless shelter in the park in Easton, the park that Kelley Malone is creating. Tom’s vision is for a year round shelter with few rules about what you can and can’t do, and lots of freedom and dignity for those living there. He imagines a place that can be a real home for those neighbors of ours who choose different ways of living. A place that won’t kick you out when you mess up, a place where you’re wanted and welcome. I’m not sure when, where or how, but I am sure that it will happen, it will be built. It’s circular, and people have a room of their own with a window, and a door opening into a common area with bathrooms, etc. He handed me this sketch on the first day I met him:

We know that a certain percentage of people experiencing homelessness have mental health and addiction issues. We know that a certain percentage just choose differently – choose not the frantic lifestyle of acquisition that typifies our culture. There’s that guy who lives in his van out by the airport in Easton – everyone’s seen him. There are others living on the Rails to Trails. Some people move from one community to another, up and down the coast – south as winter approaches, north again in spring. But we know that a bunch of them live right here – they are our neighbors, and they will be here, in and out of TIS, in and out of the Neighborhood Service Center – “chronically homeless” is what the government calls them. And that’s the group for whom Tom wants to build a place.

No homeless shelter that I investigated this summer allows an individual unlimited use year after year. That doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be a creative response to need. We know that there’s a big push for permanent supported housing and for many of the chronically homeless, this works well. Most shelters insist on a move toward self-sufficiency, but we know that not everybody wants to or is capable of – moving in a linear direction toward some independent lifestyle. De-institutionalization of the public mental health systems in the 1970s released tens of thousands of people with mental illness on the streets and they are protected by civil rights to stay out in the community, on the streets, as sick as they “want” to be or end up getting as a result of the nature of their illness. You can’t “make” people go get “help” and its’ debatable how much any hospital can ever “help” someone with a debilitating mental illness anyway. It’s difficult – as any parent of a child with a mental illness can tell you – to prove that someone is dangerous to themselves or others, and even if you can prove that, in most states, they can only be held for evaluation in a mental health facility for 72 hours. This is where Tom Vennerbeck gets angry and uses the wheelchair analogy – we don’t ask the guy in the wheelchair to just get up and go walk across the room to take care of his problem – why would we ask someone who is not capable of sustaining independent living to go yet again, try one apartment after another? We don’t ask the friend with breast cancer to just go try to go to work today….is that so different from expecting someone chronically homeless to just buckle down and try to want to work and keep an apartment and a job?

Many claim that people using emergency shelters over and over are “abusing the system” – especially social workers say this. My gut reaction to that is the same reaction I have when I hear people complaining about “welfare cheats” – irritated. I think the point is being missed entirely. Neither welfare nor a cot in a homeless shelter are cushy enough to really be such a fantastic thing to “steal”. Unscrupulous mortgage bankers, some credit card companies and payday loan originators are the real cheaters, as far as I can see.

Place matters. And a place where I can feel at home is as important as a place where our neighbors with such a different way of living in the world can feel at home. And our little dove, crouched in the electric wires, found a space with warmth, afternoon sun and wind protection. Who am I to judge whether that’s a decent home for her or not?

~ by kbosin on October 18, 2010.

2 Responses to “Place matters”

  1. I’d like to meet this Tom Vennerbeck fella – he sounds like something special!

  2. Your words are so true, and so heartfelt! Thank you Kathy for all you did for TIS, and continue to do in your daily interactions with the interesting people you meet. We’d love to post this on our website, with your permission. And yes, everyone should know Tom V!

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