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Thursday, April 29, 2010

HomeFree: Homeless In America


Rod Woods

Copyright 2010

I sat staring out the windshield of my car. I could hear the words coming out of my mouth, “this isn’t happening to me, this isn’t happening to me…”, as I sat there immersed in over whelming fear, shock, and disbelief. I was homeless. Everything that I had worked for and valued in life was lost- my job, house, car, savings, fiancĂ©, friends, and family. All gone. I was 59 years old.

I had no previous experience with “homelessness”. I remember seeing the occasional person holding a sign asking for help on a freeway off ramp or pushing a shopping cart down the sidewalk in Orange County, California as I grew up. I would think to myself, “How sad. I wonder what happened to them to get there”. On the occasions that I drove into L.A., I remember driving through “skid row” and I knew alcohol was the cause of their plight. However, these were never more than fleeting thoughts. I never gave it much thought until it happened to me

I’ve been homeless now for 15 months. During that time I learned as much as I could about homelessness in America. The causes of homelessness a various and the solutions are complex. I am well educated, articulate, mentally and emotionally sound, and have no history of drug or alcohol addiction. I represent the “new homeless” that have appeared over the last 2 years in America. Most of us are “baby boomers” that have been employed for decades, saved our money, raised our children, and looked forward to a reasonably well-funded retirement. None of us saw what was coming even while it was happening- “The Great Recession”.

We had made it through several recessions in the past but they were not comparable to what has become known as the worst economic collapse since the “Great Depression”. We became victims of a phenomenon that was totally out side of our control. We were laid off our jobs and no one was hiring. Millions of us lost our jobs. We went through our savings trying to hang on to everything we had worked for over the last 35 years. Many of those had family and friends that would help them get through until things got better. I did not.

I arrived in Santa Barbara on April 13th, 2009 with a promise of a job. It never materialized. I had slept in the front seat of my compact station wagon for eight nights, just as I have for the last eight months, when I decided to seek shelter. A number of people on the street told me that Casa Esperanza was the best shelter in town. I became a resident of Casa Esperanza on April 22nd, 2009. It was here that I would painfully learn about the “chronically homeless”.

The lights came on at 6am in the men’s dorm every morning. It was required that you make your bed and go down to the “courtyard” by 7am. It was there in that courtyard that I learned about the chronically homeless. I endeavored to get my bearings that first week. I remember at the end of that week while sitting in the courtyard suddenly thinking- I might have said it out loud. I don’t know- “This isn’t a homeless shelter, it’s a mental institution!” Some of the residents were constantly talking to imaginary people or to themselves. Many of them just sat there waiting for Godot. The scene reminded me of my earliest childhood in Oklahoma. Cattle were corralled in “holding pens” and they had no hopes, dreams, or ambitions. In that courtyard I felt their pain, suffering, meaninglessness, hopelessness, and despair. It was overwhelming. I was determined not to end up like that!

Two months later I landed a job through the senior’s resource coach. It was only 20 hours a week at $8 an hour, but it was a job. I was placed at Catholic Charities of Santa Barbara as an administrative assistant where I am still employed today. Five days a week I could escape the courtyard! I spent a great deal of my time at work researching new career choices. I narrowed those down to four- wind turbine technology, solar energy technology, nursing, or entrepreneurship. I will enter the Scheinfeld Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation program at Santa Barbara City College in the fall. I have plans to start-up a business consulting service- SilverBack BCS- and a clothing store- Riviera SB- in the near future here in Santa Barbara. I lived at Casa Esperanza for four and a half months. I left of my own accord on September 4th, 2009.

It would be easy for me to be harshly critical of the management and staff of Casa Esperanza. It would not be fruitful. Instead, I will point to a new and innovative model that I’m convinced will eventually solve most of the problems related to homelessness in America- The San Antonio Model. This month in San Antonio, Texas a new and innovative facility has been opened. It occupies a 37-acre site outside of San Antonio. It is completely self contained and is comprised of apartment-like dorms for men, women, and children, modern medical and mental health facilities, a college campus, drug and alcohol recovery facilities, dinning facilities, laundry rooms, day care centers, and marriage and family counselors. All of the staff are credentialed and certified professionals in their respective fields. The underlying philosophy there is: “Sensitivity, Respect, and Compassion”. That’s a good start.

Fifth teen months ago I had lost my faith and all hope. Today I have faith in myself and hope for my future. I hope. I hope. I hope.