Oct 29, 2008

Who is helping?

"Isn't there someone helping already?" "Aren't there people who can help more than me?" "Isn't the government doing something about this problem?" These are questions that get asked all the time. The answers are not easy.

There are many people helping with homelessness directly. In Austin, we have two large organizations that probably do more of the heavy lifting in the area of homelessness: the Salvation Army and the ARCH. Both offer beds nightly. And both run at near capacity. There is clearly a shortage of beds, but the issue is broader than this. The beds are all in one spot. Rightly or wrongly, many homeless youth (an older homeless as well) say that when they stay at these two places, they are too temped to do things they know are not good for them. Of course, neither shelter wants anything going on that will hurt their clients so they are very proactive against destructive behavior. All in all, many homeless youth choose not to use the services of the Salvation Army and the ARCH. There is also a new effort by Mobile Loaves and Fishes to create affordable entry level housing for homeless. Some youth have expressed interested and even begun to use this option. The youth say they like it because they can have their own place with privacy and dignity and because it is not downtown where they tend to get into trouble. They say drawbacks include the difficulty of making a transition from living on the street to paying modest rent and difficulty in dealing with upkeep of a place of their own.

There are many organizations that help with feeding of homeless. In Austin, homeless people state plainly that it is hard to go hungry if you are well enough to get around, but you have to get around. Meals downtown tend to be heavily oversubscribed with long lines and waits. Youth state that they don't want to wait in such crowded environments, surrounded by older people. They tend to go to meals where there are fewer people or meals that cater to younger people. And the youth say they prefer to avoid the crowded meals and ask for handout food, from local restaurants and from restaurant patrons taking home leftovers. Pizza is, of course, a favorite. The describe that it's difficult to seek out scarce food pantries in the downtown area so they can take food back to their camps for the night and weekends.

Physical health, dental, and mental health care are very hard to access for all homeless in Austin. The youth know that the county health system provides a MAP card, although they say the process of getting one is very confusing. This gives access to free clinics, dental clinics, and even mental health care. The services are spelled out in a 20 page booklet of what you can and cannot get. The youth talk well about services received at People's Clinic, RJ Dental Clinic, a city operated mobile dental van. Local emergency rooms end up providing a lot of health care to homeless youth, just as they do for many of America's people living in poverty. It's expensive and often leaves the youth with bills they simply don't know what to do with.

Government programs also step into assist homeless youth, although few are targeted for them. Some have disability insurance and Medicaid. Some have food stamps. Some use Texas Workforce. MHMR services many homeless young people. Federal supported housing it available to some youth, although the waiting period (months) is so long that most youth say they feel it's not a real option. Homeless youth will often ask for help get establish and maintain government benefits because they feel they are confusing or challenging to access alone. Expert case managers who keep up with the way things work in the local are with government agencies are crucial to this process.

Many churches help homeless youth. As well many non-profits. And even some for-profit businesses are well-know for helping street youth. These organizations often provide food, clothing, vouchers for work clothes, vouchers to help pay for ID replacements, backpacks, blankets, leftover food packaged to go (with dignity), access to animal care for their pets. They serve meals on certain days, operate food and clothing pantries, open buildings as overnight cold weather shelters. One non-profit targeted for youth is Lifeworks Street Outreach. It has been in operation for more than 15 years. It is known within the street culture as a safe place to go. It admits youth up to age 24. However, many youth have not moved from the street by this age, and they recognize that there is no similar service for older youth.

And there are missionaries, both from Austin and from around the world, who have come specifically to help with homeless youth in Austin. These missionaries meet the youth where they are in the streets, come to know their lives, help with individual crises, and share the Gospel with them. One such group is Help for All Nations, a group sent from an international organization based in Germany that focuses on youth recovery, currently operating in 7 countries. Their strategy is to equip the youth who are ready to live better lives to help spread the gospel in the more dark places that makes up the overall street youth culture in America.

All these sources of help are wonderful. Please understand that I am describing the help as it is often described to me the youth. I say again, all these sources of help are wonderful. The sources of help are constantly reinventing themselves and reacting to funding and governmental policy changes. This means they are constantly the services they provide and how they provide them. The youth often perceive the changes as difficult to navigate and inconsistent.

So, with all these sources of help out there, what should you do? I have three suggestions:

1) Start looking for homeless youth. Observe them. Smile at them. See them.

2) Start noting what services are available in your area for homeless youth. There are probably more than you think or know about.

3) Begin to see where your heart breaks because there isn't enough service available. This is your clue, your call, to action. Begin by volunteering with an established organization to learn the ropes and see firsthand what is being done.