In 2012, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center on Children, Families, and the Law found a staggering 125 homeless persons to be without any form of shelter or aid in Lincoln alone. Today? The number of chronically unsheltered homeless has been reduced to just 32. On a national scale, between 2010 and 2016 the number of families with children who experienced homelessness decreased by 18,000 households. That’s a factor of 23%.
These trends take time to take hold. They take tremendous sacrifice and effort from a great number of individuals and their communities, from grassroots organizations to larger, load-bearing partnerships. For many out there, the struggle is far from over—but if you’re going by the numbers, there’s real hope on the horizon.
That being said, we should never stop at the statistics or ignore the human elements at play in the issue either. These are real people, with real hopes, dreams, desires and emotions. And while it might sound simple, to begin truly healing, talking goes a long way. Compassion and respect are vital.
We sat down with the executive director of the Matt Talbot Kitchen & Outreach program, Susanne Blue, to talk about what they are getting done and how each of us can do our part. As Susanne puts it: “I want to be proactive.” It’s a mantra you really can feel—she’s about action and empowerment, and it’s infectious.
One of the first steps toward that empowerment, she says, is overcoming the deeply-ingrained social stigmas, and often misplaced blame, surrounding homelessness. “I always ask people to keep an open mind and an open heart, because we never know someone’s story,” said Susanne. “We (at Matt Talbot) refer to the people we serve as our guests. We try to uphold their dignity, and often they share those stories. So you hear what their situations are. It helps you to actually understand, which eliminates some of that blame.”
There are more stigmatic barriers than homelessness itself, too. Problems of and surrounding mental health and sobriety play no small part in much of the community. “We all know someone who is struggling with substance-use issues or mental health issues,” Susanne tells us, “but often they have resources, they have health insurance or family support. They get by and they’re not blamed. But for the homeless who encounter those exact same medical issues, they live in poverty and they can’t seek the help they need.” It’s a gut-wrenching double-standard to consider. Susanne reminds us that “once you open the door, once you see that they’re lonely, that they’re just down on their luck, all it can take is a conversation.”
With that in mind, it’s no wonder that events like the Lincoln Homeless Coalition’s Project Homeless Connect, hosted this October 11 at the Pinnacle Bank Arena, are extraordinarily important. In fact, they’re so well received that this year’s event alone saw 300 volunteers serve, feed, and provide information and outreach to nearly 450 guests. This would not be possible without the support of sponsors, like Fiserv that sponsored the event both monetarily and sent 35 volunteers to serve as navigators. United Way was there this year providing personal care kits from items donated at its campaign kickoff event.
We met Cynthia, a rosy-faced mother. We asked her what she’d like people to know about homelessness that we might not otherwise consider. “Sometimes,” she said, “it’s not just because someone doesn’t want to get a job.” Here, her friend Tamara jumped in. ”Sometimes it could be anything: a disability, something hinders them, but they just need help in certain areas where they need to go—” to which Cynthia excitedly chimed, “To be successful!”
Crystal, another guest told us, “(Homeless people) do need help. It’s not like they want to be homeless. I know they need help, and if there’s people out there like there are in here, then that’s amazing. That’s incredible.”
Coming together as a community for a common cause makes a difference. You can see it in the numbers but, more, you can hear it in the voices of the people who are getting the help they deserve. Says Susanne, ”Community partnerships like United Way are great advocates for people in need in general. They’re resources for people in the community to give to support agencies and to actually address their needs.” At the end of the day, it’s about real involvement. “That,” she adds, “is what makes our communities stronger.” Compassion is where it has to start. A conversation, breaking the ice, can break down barriers.
One guest at Project Homeless Connect summed it up nicely: “Each individual, whether they’re homeless or not, needs a helping hand sometime.”