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.

It Gets Better with Disability Lifeline


Editor’s Note:  This story is courtesy of the Statewide Poverty Action Network’s Network News. It’s an interesting follow up to the presentation Dan Savage made at our recent luncheon about the It Gets Better Project. Dan promotes personal outreach as an antidote to bullying of LGBTQ youth by peers in schools, families, etc. Kytty’s story chronicles political engagement to counter the way budget cuts to Disability Lifeline would be a kind of state-sponsored bullying of marginalized people.

Kytty, a 24-year-old former Disability Lifeline (DL) recipient and new Poverty Action member, shared her story with lawmakers and spoke out against budget cuts. After years of childhood abuse, Kytty was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety, making it nearly impossible for her to hold down a job. Stressful working conditions, such as angry customers, sometimes triggered flashbacks of her abuse. Left without a source of income, Kytty survived three episodes of homelessness before learning she was eligible for DL.

The DL program provides a small monthly cash grant and medical coverage to people with very low incomes when they’re temporarily unable to work due to a mental illness or physical disability. This program has endured a 40% reduction since 2009. Now, the Senate has proposed the total elimination of the DL cash grant and a $51 million cut to DL’s medical coverage. If adopted, these cuts will take away the only source of income for over 20,000 individuals and cause 6,000 people living with disabilities to lose access to health care.

Kytty, who is transgender, describes her experience of homelessness as extremely stressful because she feared her identity would cause her to be targeted on the streets. “People discriminated against me and treated me like a second class citizen.” Having aged out of other transitional housing and homeless prevention services, DL provided the necessary support for Kytty and her partner to move off the streets and into a rented room. “I literally used every single penny on rent.” DL’s medical benefits provided Kytty with insurance and enabled her to access medications and counseling services. Kytty is currently working through her PTSD and dreams of earning a college degree in music technology and becoming a professional musician.

Kytty met with her lawmakers for the first time last month in Olympia through Poverty Action’s Lobby Tuesday program. She said that she felt like she made a difference and that the trip was fun and productive, “I felt like Harvey Milk – like an activist!” Her advice to first-time activists who have never shared their stories before is to “research your lawmakers as much as you can beforehand and know their names, districts, and what issues they care about. Speak with confidence, even if you’re nervous.” Kytty encourages other current and former DL recipients to speak out: “There is a huge need for this program – it prevents homelessness.”

Washington State legislators continue to wrangle over the state budget. To let them know how you feel about Disability Lifeline or other issues, use this handy online tool.

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