I write with a heavy heart. A cold wind blows out of the north and the temperature is dropping. A few nights ago, when RI did it’s “Point in Time” count, 996 people were homeless. So far this year, 214 families, with 385 children, have been sheltered – up from 159 last year. Last year, in Massachusetts, 16,664 were homeless when that count was done. (Click here for images from the RI Press Conference on homelessness, including photos of Harrington Hall.)
And Congress sits on its hands about continuing to offer long term assistance (instead of just 26 weeks) to people who are unemployed. If they fail, thousands of people in MA and RI will lose what little income they have and be even more at risk of homelessness.
There is political will (appropriately) to respond to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy – yet little or no political will to respond to the disaster of thousands of people, including children, homeless in the winter in RI and MA.
And Congress dithers over the so called “fiscal cliff”, putting funding for homelessness and affordable housing in jeopardy instead of showing a small bit of courage to slash funding for the boondoggle F-35 plane (that flies so badly some pilots refuse to fly it, is way over budget and willcost over $1 trillion dollars over the next 10 years) .
Nor do they seem to find the will to return tax levels to what they were a few years ago (still way lower than what they were 30 years ago) so that the wealthiest can help alleviate the suffering we see all around us in our communities.
We were all painfully reminded of the fragility of life with the shootings in Newtown last week. We could so easily place ourselves in the shoes of the people of that community. We are asking important questions about gun control but also about mental health care in this country. I am grateful at that new energy and you will hear more on this in coming weeks.
But tonight it is homelessness that tugs on my heart. Until homelessness and/or mental illness touches your family, the urgency of addressing the utter inadequacy of mental health care and assistance for those who are most in need in this country remains just an abstraction. But standing in an old gymnasium with row upon row of metal bunk beds housing about 100 men every night breaks my heart every bit as much as the tragedy in Newtown and carries its own urgency. With both situations, the tragedy is felt more acutely because we know that it doesn’t have to be this way. We know how to fix these problems.
Our task is to use our voices to insist that the manufacturers of tools of death and war are put in their place and the resources shifted to support life and true security.
Here are some ways you can do that:
· Call your congressman or senator and insist that they stop dithering and put people before the profits of the weapons (from guns to F-35s to nuclear weapons)makers and fund our communities not war and guns. Or use the AFSC action page for this.
· Sign petitions in support of tax increases for the wealthiest, cuts in military spending, gun control, funding for mental health care, etc.. Any one of these may not mean much, but together they are creating public noise that is getting harder for Congress to ignore.
· Donate to your local shelter or food pantry or food bank. Some places look for volunteers, others just need money to keep the doors open.
· Donate to AFSC-SENE so that we can work with you to change our country’s priorities.
I want to end with a story. During the press conference today I was handed a brochure that had the photo of a man who died this past year when his camping lantern caught the tent he lived in on fire. Tears unexpectedly welled up in my eyes as I thought of all the homeless men and women in NH whose funerals I had presided over. A man standing near me gently touched my arm. He had been friends with the man and told me about him. He always worked, just never had enough to rent an apartment. He never asked for help – he was proud. And he was ashamed of the fact he couldn’t read, so he just did the best he could. As for himself, he had finally accepted shelter. He said he is clean and sober. Just couldn’t find work. When he lost his job several years ago in the recession, and his marriage fell apart, he left his wife with the house. “I got sisters. I wanted her safe.” He said that staying there was hard (imagine trying to sleep in a big open room with 100 other people!) but he was grateful for it. And trying to keep hope alive that he can put his life back together.
Please do what you can to help. Thank you. And may your holidays hold fellowship and renewal.