1 Year Later: Remembering my mom & a call for action

guest columnThis post was contributed by Solid Ground Board Member Lauren McGowan and was originally published on July 15, 2014 on her personal blog, Now is the Time: Ending hunger, homelessness, and the cycle of poverty…in heels. Lauren has served on the Solid Ground Board since 2006, including four years as Board President. This piece is a followup to When homelessness hits home/Love you, Love you more, which she wrote when her mother passed away a year ago.

LaurenMcG-MomPlaqueIt’s been exactly one year since I received the worst possible phone call. My mom Fran, who struggled with homelessness for many years, died on the beach in my hometown of West Haven, Connecticut. For much of my childhood my mom was like any other mom – she struggled to balance work, family, and bills. She proudly volunteered for field trips, hosted sleepovers, and beamed with pride at dance recitals and strikeouts. She carried a deep love for my dad, her high school sweetheart, with her day in and day out.

And then something happened.

A combination of stress, anxiety, depression, chronic substance abuse and mental illness led her world to crumble. Instead of enjoying the wisdom and balance that comes with middle age – she spent her 40s and early 50s battling demons, bouncing between hotels, rehab facilities, shelters, transitional units, couches, apartments and – more often than my heart can admit – the streets. Her favorite resting spot was behind the church where I made my confirmation – she thought god would keep her safe.

100ILoveYousI’m not a religious person but my mom was. She believed the church would save her when nothing else could. Since she passed I’ve said the “Our Father” every time I see a pink sunset. I like to think she’s watching over us. Since July 15, 2013, there have been more than 100 sunsets, 100 reflections, 100 “Our Fathers,” 100 I Love Yous.

When I first shared her story, I could count on one hand the number of people who knew about her struggle. Homelessness is deeply shameful, embarrassing, and isolating – both for the individual and the family. I carefully protected that secret because talking about it – naming it – made it real. It meant talking out loud about the things I wrestled with…

Do I move her to Seattle where there are more resources for people who struggle with homelessness?”

“Should she move in with me?”

“Should I buy her a place in CT?”

“Isn’t there one more social service agency I can call, one more wait-list to be on?”

“Why can’t I fix this?”

Sharing her story was a leap of faith – a quest for a better outcome for other moms. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by the best possible friends and family, and what I’ve learned over the last year is that there are many people in my circle who’ve carried their own secret black cloud. The stigma of depression, substance abuse and mental illness keeps too many people quiet. The shame and blame of poverty, job loss and homelessness too often rips families apart.

But it shouldn’t be this way. No one should die on our streets alone. No one should struggle alone. No one should go from provider to provider, hospital to hospital, treatment center to treatment center, and walk away empty handed or land on a wait-list miles long. Despite years of interventions, tens-of-thousands of dollars and a lot of system knowledge, I couldn’t fix my mother’s situation. And for too many friends who’ve lost siblings, parents or partners, they couldn’t fix it either. No, we can’t fix it alone, but together I believe we can.

Significant policy reform at a national level is needed to create a more robust, effective, and compassionate safety net. To get there, we must engage and mobilize people experiencing homelessness, business leaders and caring neighbors like we’ve never done before.

Everyone deserves to have a safe and decent place to call home. When people fall – and it can happen to anyone – they need holistic resources that will help get them back on their feet. When moms need treatment for mental illness or substance abuse, level of need – not financial resources – should drive treatment options. We need to break our silence.

I look forward to the day when the voices of people who have struggled with homelessness and mental illness are as strong as the NRA lobbyists, because that is what it will take. Yes, it takes resources. So does ignoring the problem. So does funding a war. For the 600,000 Americans who struggle with homelessness – many due to mental illness – every day is a struggle, every day is a war.

Homelessness is solvable. Big foundations and local governments – even the Veterans Administration – are providing that it can be done. So let’s take it to scale and make sure no man, woman or child goes without a roof. As taxpayers, voters and engaged citizens, we make choices every day. Today we must choose to stop being silent and help move the most vulnerable in our community to Solid Ground.

When homelessness hits home

Chalkboard art by Sand Point Housing resident children

Chalkboard art by Sand Point Housing resident children

While all of us who work and volunteer for Solid Ground are deeply committed to ending homelessness and addressing its root causes, few of us have had to face the trauma of it directly – either through our own experiences or those of family or close friends. Solid Ground’s
Board President, Lauren McGowan, is one of those exceptions for whom homelessness has hit home.

Lauren lost her mother on Monday, July 15, after years of struggle with untreated mental illness that led to addiction and homelessness. The heartbreaking irony is that Lauren serves as Associate Director of Ending Homelessness at United Way of King County (UWKC), and despite her and her family’s ongoing efforts to connect her mother with the support she needed to be safe and well, the systems failed them.

Lauren shares her mother’s deeply personal story in a UWKC blog post, “Love you, Love you more,” published on 7/19/13. It provides insight into her commitment to end homelessness and her dedication to Solid Ground, and is a poignant reminder that there is much, much work to be done to fix the holes in our community safety nets.

Love you, Love you more

I first learned that my mom was going to become homeless while sitting in a hotel room outside of Venice. I was traveling across Europe with my best friends and celebrating my new job on United Way’s ending homelessness team. I thought it would be a temporary situation that I could quickly fix (I like to fix things)…little did I know that it would be almost 6 years before it would end. At the time I could not have imagined that it would end like this:

“A woman’s body was discovered behind 1 West Walk, in the area of Captain Thomas Boulevard and Campbell Avenue, at 8:51 p.m., police said. Police have identified her as Francis McGowan, 56, who was known to police and had no known address, according to police. Police said there was a liquor bottle near her body and no obvious indications of foul play.”

Tragic? Depressing? Heartbreaking? Yes. But her story isn’t unique. Too many people die on the streets each year as a result of inadequate services and systems to help people with chronic mental health issues and a breakdown of our social service system.

My mom, Fran, was a soft spoken CT native who would do anything for her family. She chaperoned school field trips, made the most amazing cupcakes, and designed elaborate Halloween Costumes for her quirky kids. Among them, a Pepsi Can, KFC Bucket, and Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall. My mom was a stellar list maker, creative problem solver, and an avid reader. She loved her kids and was our best advocate – at school, in the dance studio, and on the field.

Unfortunately my mom suffered from depression, anxiety and a host of other severe mental health issues. They went undiagnosed and untreated for far too long. She used vodka to cope with the pain and this grew into a chronic substance abuse problem. By the time she became homeless, she was already a “frequent flyer” in the emergency room for various incidents related to alcohol abuse.

While my mom was homeless she went through dozens of rehab programs She always excelled in them – she was a gold star student. But the transition to housing never went well. She couldn’t maintain sobriety as required by most transitional housing programs. She bounced from program to program, wait list to wait list, all the while using the jail and hospital systems as places to sober up.

I knew that she needed housing first. A program model that would provide her with a stable roof over head – even if she continued to drink. But CT doesn’t have enough of these programs and I met many case managers along the way who didn’t believe in the “housing first” philosophy. We were stuck with Band-Aids to a problem that required delicate surgery.

My mom spent too many cold winter nights behind a church because she hated the shelters. The bugs, the screaming, the fighting…she couldn’t deal with it. She felt safe outside as long as she could end the night with a text or a call to say, “Love you, love you more.”

At this point in the story many people ask, “What about the family?” We did what we could of course (although there is more I wish I had done). I always made sure she had a phone so we could maintain connection. My Springwire friends taught me that a connection is among the most important thing someone has when they struggle with homelessness. There were hundreds of hotel rooms, bank transfers, an apartment, and even a search party when she went missing one Christmas. But we were losing the battle against mental illness and substance abuse.

Early in 2013 things got pretty bad with my mom. The alcohol abuse had taken a toll on her and her loved ones. She was staying outside again. I called case managers and outreach workers with little success – “She doesn’t want help,” they said. I even tried but failed to have her committed to a Mental Hospital. (CT has very strong patient protection laws). She ended up in a Women’s Prison for several days because of outstanding warrants – largely related to being homeless.

It is too late for my mom but not too late for thousands of others who are living outside and struggling with mental illness. It is simply unacceptable for this to continue happening. We need to raise awareness and empathy for individuals and families who are struggling. We need to band together and fight for better policies and practices. I hope to start a dialogue and welcome your ideas.

The good news is that my mom spent the last few months of her life in a rehab program that seemed to go quite well. I saw her over Memorial Day weekend and she was tan, confident, and optimistic about the future. I was too. While that didn’t last, I am glad it is my lasting memory of her.

Love you mom. Love you more.

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