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.

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Seattle employs financial empowerment to help families thrive

Financial Fitness Boot Camp's Coach Judy

Financial Fitness Boot Camp’s Coach Judy

Seattle will be the first city on the West Coast to open no-cost Financial Empowerment Centers. Solid Ground will partner with Neighborhood House to provide a satellite center, likely at Sand Point Housing at Magnuson Park, in order to offer easy access to financial counseling for families and individuals in our transitional and permanent housing programs. 

One-on-one counseling will help people reduce debt, build credit, guard against predatory lending practices, understand foreclosure, and protect against fraud. Asset development coaching and budgeting will lower monthly costs, increase income, buffer against sudden crises, and prepare people for retirement.

Seattle’s program is modeled after the first financial empowerment pilot, launched in 2008 by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The original pilot, according to the foundation, has helped over 19,000 families reduce their debt by more than $9 million.

Six Financial Empowerment Centers will open in 2014, with the main full-time site stationed at Neighborhood House in Rainier Vista. Each center will be positioned close to or within social service facilities that can offer additional resources for those living on low-incomes. Additional offices will be located at NewHolly, the Jim Wiley Community Center, YWCA Opportunity Place and North Seattle Community College.

Paul G. Allen Family Foundation provided a three year grant for the project, and is partnering with City of Seattle, Neighborhood House and United Way.

Breaking the cycle of poverty involves more than just helping people living on low-incomes make ends meet. At Solid Ground, we want people to be healthy, happy and build the skills they need to thrive.

In the coming year, we will implement our own plan to integrate financial empowerment into social service delivery at Solid Ground, developed during a six-month financial empowerment Learning Cluster hosted by the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED). And with the support from CFED through an 18-month Learning Cluster that began this month, our plan will provide the education and tools people living on low and moderate incomes need to move beyond just surviving to a place of stability, self-sufficiency and financial health.

Tenant Tip: Secondhand smoke in apartments

Smoke-free housing signNinety-two percent of renters in Washington State have indicated that they prefer smoke-free housing. As a response to more landlords choosing to convert their buildings to smoke-free properties, the Washington Department of Health created some helpful resources for landlords and tenants to make this change, called SmokeFreeWashington.com.

Living in an apartment building where the smoking policies are not clear or are not enforced can be frustrating at best. The landlord-tenant laws do not specifically address smoking policies. These policies are generally included in a rental agreement. If a landlord has designated the property as smoke-free, then they would be responsible for enforcing the policies that are in place. However, it can be frustrating when those policies aren’t enforced and there is secondhand smoke in a non-smoking building.

Our Tenant Services website has some tips and suggestions for working with roommates or neighbors in these situations on our Roommates & Neighbors webpage.

In order to make a policy change in an apartment or rental unit, as with any rule change, a landlord must provide at least 30 days’ written notice to tenants who have a month-to-month agreement (where there is no fixed time period connected to the contract). With a lease agreement which has a fixed time period attached to it, such as one year or six months, a landlord cannot make any policy or rule changes during the lease period. However when the lease term is up, for example at the end of the one-year contract, a landlord can institute a policy change such as converting a building to non-smoking.

If you would like to talk to your landlord about smoking policies, or if you are a landlord considering a change, check out these videos, sample letters and resources related to making your building smoke-free: www.smokefreewashington.com. The e-learning course for landlords, owners and residents provides information about the business and health benefits of going smoke-free, and how to do so. The course includes easy-to-use sample downloadable documents to support the implementation process.

If you are a person with a disability and experiencing health problems as a result of secondhand smoke, you may consider contacting a local civil rights office to ask about Fair Housing laws and requesting a reasonable accommodation. For information on how to contact your local civil rights office, see our Renters’ Resources page.

For more information, check out the resources available on our Tenant Services website on Rental Agreements, Rule Changes and Neighbors & Roommates. You can also call our Tenant Services Line to speak with a tenant counselor about brainstorming ways to resolve your situation. The phone number is 206.694.6767 and the line is open for messages on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10:30am-4:30pm.

The tenant information contained in this article or linked to the Solid Ground Tenant Services website is for informational purposes only. Solid Ground makes no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information contained in or linked to its website. Solid Ground cannot act as your attorney. Solid Ground makes no representations, expressed or implied, that the information contained in or linked to its website can or will be used or interpreted in any particular way by any governmental agency or court. As legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, and laws are constantly changing, nothing provided here should be used as a substitute for the advice of competent counsel. Solid Ground Tenant Counselors offer these tenant tips as generalized information for renters. People with specific questions should call our Tenant Services hotline at 206.694.6767  Mondays, Wednesdays & Thursdays between 10:30am and 4:30pm.

Families of the incarcerated coming together for change

JustServe AmeriCorps is inspired and supported by many grassroots organizations working for justice and safety in our community. One of those groups is the Black Prisoners’ Caucus, a group of incarcerated men organizing within Washington State Reformatory, Monroe.

“Men of Vision” by Monica Stewart, from the Black Prisoners’ Caucus website

Founded in 1972, the Black Prisoners’ Caucus leads workshops and dialogue inside the prison for personal and community transformation. The BPC also hosts an annual Criminal Justice Summit at Monroe, bringing community leaders into the prison to discuss the root causes of crime and violence, and solutions and alternatives to incarceration and recidivism.

On Saturday, August 14th, 2010 the Black Prisoners Caucus will bring families of the incarcerated together at the Evergreen campus in Tacoma, to connect with each other and with others who are working for social change.

The Families Summit will…

  • Bring loved ones and families of the incarcerated together with community leaders and organizations for available resources, so they can begin to collectively organize and unify as one.
  • Offer a platform for families to address personal issues and experiences with other families, community leaders and organizations in order to raise awareness.
  • Educate families and the community on issues that exist within the criminal justice system that affect the lack of treatment services, rehabilitation programs, proper education and job training availability – all of which contributes to a high recidivism rate among newly released offenders, while connecting families to organizations that provide resources, support and family assistance.
  • Establish an online network (I.C.O.N.) comprised of families, support groups and organizations to assist in their efforts to unite, organize, advocate and collectively work towards a more humane justice system that works for families of the incarcerated and the community as a whole.

Food, childcare and transportation will be provided.

Here are three ways that you can support this work:

1) Spread the word about the Families Summit to your contacts in the community.

2) Get involved in the August 14th organizing committee, helping to get food, drink and other supplies donated for the event.

3) If you have access to a car, sign up to be a volunteer driver helping to transport families to the event.

For more information, please email bpc@blackprisonerscaucus.org, call Cammie Carl at 206.619.4655, or call Sherrell Severe at 206.937.2701.

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