I don’t like cold weather. Drops in the mercury cause my joints to ache and my skin to get dry and itchy. Most of my favorite hobbies are outdoor ventures, so cold winter days leave me feeling restless. For these and so many other reasons, I simply don’t like the cold.
The cold, for most of us, is really not much more than an inconvenience. We enjoy the shelter of heated homes. We have relatively easy access to coats, scarves, gloves, and hats. We generally take for granted our level of luxury; if we really don’t want to get out in the cold, we often don’t have to. But this is not the case for a growing number of our neighbors. Churches and human service agencies throughout the Riverbend area have observed a steady increase in the number of local persons and families experiencing the troubling realities of poverty and homelessness. For them, bitterly cold winter nights can yield debilitating frostbite, hypothermia, and even death. My own experience as a pastor has opened my eyes to the astounding prevalence of homelessness right here in Wood River. Sadly, though, much is misunderstood about this increasing social reality.
The National Coalition for the Homeless describes three basic types of homelessness, each with its own challenges and circumstances:
- Chronic Homelessness – These individuals are the stereotypical “skid-row” homeless most people envision when discussing homelessness. Usually older adults, these persons have been homeless for a considerable amount of time and have learned to adapt to life on the streets. Sometimes mental illness and/or substance abuse contributes to their circumstances. These individuals rely extensively on homeless relief resources and will often remain homeless regardless of efforts to provide them housing/relief. Though they are the most visible to passers-by, the chronically homeless represent a mere 10% (approximately) of the homeless population.
- Episodic Homelessness – Some individuals experience regular periods or episodes of homelessness. Many of the persons in this category endure mental illness and/or substance abuse. A cycle becomes noticeable: The individual will experience a mental health or substance abuse episode/breakdown resulting in loss of employment and/or housing. The person enters treatment and/or temporary shelter and begins to recover/rehab. Improvement continues, employment is gained and more permanent housing is established. Then the cycle repeats itself. Social researches estimate this category to represent roughly 30% of the homeless population.
- Transitional Homelessness – The largest segment of the homeless are individuals and families who find themselves without permanent residence, usually as a result of circumstances beyond their control. Some examples: Sudden loss of housing (due to catastrophic weather events, fire, etc.), sudden loss of income (unexpected loss of employment, death of the family “breadwinner,” sudden and significant medical diagnosis, etc.), sudden change in employment or living situation (veterans returning from combat, political refugees from war-torn countries, etc). These folks represent more than half of the homeless in the United States but often go unnoticed. They frequently live, short-term, with friends or family, in their cars, or in other short-term/temporary shelters until they can begin establishing long-term housing.
The most effective way to combat the homeless epidemic in our area is to try, as hard as we can, to prevent the transitional homeless from becoming episodic or chronic homeless. It is also essential to help struggling families – those who are on the verge of transitional homelessness – from becoming homeless. Our food drives and efforts to help the Community Hope Center and Riverbend Family Ministries are examples of our church in action! Our monthly benevolence offering helps ease the burdens of individuals and families who might otherwise have to choose between paying the utility bill or buying groceries.
The frigid air of winter is a good reminder of those who are less fortunate and struggle with homelessness. As you enjoy the warmth of your home this winter, I hope you’ll join me in remembering those forced to sleep in their cars, in temporary shelters, and the most unfortunate who find themselves sleeping outside. Any additional food items you donate to the church will be collected by the Community Hope Center for immediate distribution to local families in need. Any clean blankets, coats, gloves, hats, scarves, socks, etc you leave at the church will be also be immediately distributed.
May you remember the blessings God has provided, and may these blessings not blind us to those we are called to serve.