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Changing the Face of Homelessness

Posted by Sofia Michelakis

changing-the-face-of-homelessness.jpgOn Wednesday 34 adults and children gathered at KidsQuest Museum in Bellevue for an SVP Family Service Project and some fun time to explore the museum.  Families put together over 60 individual toiletry bags with personal notes and drawings for clients of Operation Sack Lunch, a Seattle nonprofit that serves hot meals each day to hundreds of people experiencing homelessness.

As I was sitting on the bus traveling to KidsQuest, I started thinking about our project and the clients who would receive the toiletry bags.  Immediately, stereotypical faces of people experiencing homelessness appeared in my head.  People I didn’t know, nameless faces.

Then, it suddenly dawned on me that I do know someone who is experiencing periodic homelessness, and it’s someone much closer to me than you might imagine.

My mother.

For decades my mother has lived with mental illness, which means I’ve lived with it too.  There are years when my mom was so depressed that she wouldn’t pick up the phone, barely ate, never bathed, and would dwindle to under 100 lbs.  I refer to these as “the dark years.”

Beginning last summer, my mom entered a new phase.  She’s full of energy, can’t sleep through the night, goes on shopping binges, and craves constant attention and interaction.  She simply can’t sit at home.  At the same time, she is highly paranoid, regularly accusing me and complete strangers of stealing things from her that she’s misplaced.

While my mother is fortunate to have an apartment where the rent is paid every month (I handle this as legal guardian), there are at least 4 nights a month when she doesn’t make it home at all.  She gets suspicious and resists advance planning that interferes with her social activity of the moment.  Sometimes she is just out for one night, sometimes it’s two or three nights in a row.  She’s developed many strategies in these situations.

  • Sometimes she stays on a friend’s couch, which is nice because it’s out of the cold.
  • She used to take refuge at an all-night diner on Aurora in Shoreline, nursing a refillable coffee cup for hours.  The servers now kick her out for loitering after an hour.

  • A couple of times she’s wound up at a casino, with no money to gamble, but they’re open 24 hours and she wanders around inside until 5:30am when the busses start running.
  • Sometimes she calls 911 and heads to the hospital, where she’ll ask for treatment for a chronic leg problem or a new heart condition that she has mysteriously developed.When this happens, she can often use HopeLink to get her a taxi home in the morning.
  • A few times she’s just moved around the streets until daylight, pushing her red walker and keeping her trademark black & white gatsby hat pulled low over her eyes.

So my mother is resourceful and smart.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t worry and agonize.  I remember the sense of utter panic the first night she didn’t make it home.  And the second.  And the third.  More recently, I’ve given up trying to come to the rescue each time, because the next night would be just the same.

Have I become hardened, unsympathetic?  Am I doing all that I can to help her?  I’ve consulted with numerous social workers and other experts, and all have told me the same thing – there’s little they or I can do because my mother is not a danger to herself or others.  Apparently homelessness (temporary or otherwise) for a mentally ill person is not a danger to them in the eyes of the law.  Nor is neglecting one’s health – unless it reaches a situation where death or grave harm is imminent.  My mother does not enjoy being in the cold all night, but she also believes there’s nothing wrong with her behavior or her decision making processes, so she won’t seek help willingly.  Thus goes the cycle.

One thing is for sure, now, when I imagine someone who’s homeless, I picture my mother’s face first, and that makes everyone on the street feel a little more personal to me.

The next Family Service Project is February 5, working in the Wearhouse, a store where foster children can shop for clothing and other items, run by Treehouse for Kids.

– Sofia

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