By Mark Smith and Rev. M. Christopher Boyer
Dec. 20 is National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day. This is the day designated to remember all those homeless individuals who died this year. While death certificates cite various diseases and conditions as the cause of death, those who work with the homeless know that the primary cause is simply being homeless.
This year, many of us will be grieving the passing of a gentle man named Scott Frost who died on Oct. 7 cold and alone in a Lynnwood park. You might have shied away from Scott had you met him on the street. His clothes were worn and dirty and he often wore more than necessary simply because he had no place to store what he didn’t need immediately. But if you’d spoken to him, you would have been greeted with a warm smile and a soft voice. Scott was a friendly and compassionate man, but he couldn’t forgive himself for what he saw as his own failures, primarily an addiction to alcohol.
On any given night, there are more than 1,900 homeless people in Snohomish County. If that number doesn’t shock you, this one should: Almost 800 are children under the age of 18.
These numbers come to us from the 2013 Point in Time Count, an annual one day survey in January that sends volunteers out to physically count Snohomish County’s homeless population. These volunteers find people living in the woods, under bridges and overpasses, in cars and doorways, at emergency shelters, and in a myriad of other places.
The stories they bring back are heartbreaking. Women and children who have fled domestic violence and sexual abuse. Veterans that can’t get the edginess of war out of their heads. Formerly middle class individuals who lost it all to a medical condition or the recession. The mentally ill, the addicted, the lonely and the sad. All of them unable for one reason or another to manage a job, relationships and housing stability.
Homelessness seems to be an intractable problem. American culture is imbued with a “can-do” attitude and an identity that values problem-solving. Unfortunately, when the problem isn’t immediately solvable, we have a tendency to blame the victim.
This is especially true where those experiencing homelessness are concerned. “He made bad choices.” “It’s her fault for getting pregnant.” “They should have saved their money.” These kinds of comments are heard all too frequently when talking about the homeless.
The truth is that the homeless don’t have choices in the way you and I think about choices. Their lives and their “choices” are most often defined by circumstances that you and I can only have nightmares about. Indeed the vast majority suffer from mental illness and addictions, and were never taught the emotional and life skills needed to cope with life.
But for just a moment let’s imagine that it is simply a matter of “bad choices.” The question we have is, “Does the punishment fit the crime?” Should someone be condemned to a lifetime of misery and an early death simply because they married the wrong guy or got sick? Doesn’t it shred a little bit of our very humanity each time we turn a blind eye because we blame them for using alcohol or drugs to dull the pain of their existence? Aren’t we all better off when our common humanity is affirmed through outreach and action?
Fortunately, there are many things we can do to help those experiencing homelessness, and this is why more often than not we wake up with hope in our hearts. As an individual you can donate to your local food bank, volunteer at a shelter, buy a hungry person a meal, or tithe a little extra at your house of worship the next time the offering plate comes around. Indeed, churches and synagogues, temples and mosques are already leading the way by hosting tent cities and funding other programs to help those in need.
Government and our tax dollars also have a role to play. Government agencies are the only institutions with the breadth and scope of resources to really make a permanent difference. Although the problem seems intractable, maybe, just maybe with all of us pulling together, one year in the not too distant future there won’t be a need for Homeless Person’s Memorial Day.
Mark Smith is the Executive Director of the Housing Consortium of Everett &Snohomish County.
Reverend M. Christopher Boyer is the pastor at Good Shepherd Baptist Church in Lynnwood.
Resources: If you are homeless or about to become homeless, or know someone who needs housing, call 211.
You will be given information about housing options in Snohomish County.