Homeless a familiar face
Local. That describes the vast majority of North Idaho's homeless population. For some reason, that would surprise many.
"The biggest misconception is that all homeless just need a bus ticket out of here. Unfortunately over 80 percent are from here. They went to school here; are multigenerational North Idaho residents. I'm not sure the community understands that," said Jeff Conroy, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Coeur d'Alene.
Why would people assume the homeless are vagrants and travelers? Perhaps within all of us is a desire to keep homelessness at a distance, to believe not only it could not happen to "us," but that home-grown homelessness isn't the "type" of community we foster. To believe that is reassuring, but not honest.
"We" are far from immune; in fact Idaho sadly ranks in the top 10 states for rates of homelessness according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Many of those are children, including those enrolled in school and without a home. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, the known (and that's a big caveat) number of homeless Idaho children is around 3,200; 1,339 of those are younger than 6.
St. Vincent de Paul reports 866 homeless children live in North Idaho. One in 25 Idaho children does not know when their next meal will be.
The homeless have had famous company. Halle Barry lived in a shelter and Drew Carey lived out of his car (like a local teen I knew who shied from help so she wouldn't be separated from her mentally ill mom). Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Chaplin, and Nobel winner Harry Martinson were homeless as children.
It can happen fast. Factoring in North Idaho's cost of living, NCFH statistics show a worker making minimum wage and working full-time only earns only 54 percent of income needed for a two-bedroom apartment. Child care adds an average $4,410 per year for one child. We all know costs just keep going up.
Here's the scariest statistic that reflects recessionary times: Between 2010 and so far in 2011, the homeless population in North Idaho has seen a 165 percent increase. In other words in a year our homeless population has more than doubled, approaching a tripling.
Many of these men and women were working when they became homeless. Some still do, not that it's easy without your own shower or fridge. Thousands represent families.
The best thing I've learned about this community is that it is still one big, small town. We still band together to help others. It's cold. Times are tougher than they were. We do more with less, but most of us can find a way to help a neighbor in need.
Fundraising events for this Homelessness Awareness Week include last night's candlelight vigil at Independence Point, a soup-off at 11:30 a.m. Thursday ($10 buys soups served by mayors and police chiefs) at the fairgrounds, and Hoops for the Homeless on Saturday (three-person teams, advance registration).
Volunteers, donations, and help with food, toy, and blanket drives are needed year-round. Make easy online donations and get more information at http://stvincentdepaulcda.org, or call (208) 664-3095. Their multi-agency H.E.L.P. Center is in the old library building at 201 Harrison in Coeur d'Alene. At the very least, please buy a thermal sleeping bag or warm coat and a toothbrush and take them to the center.
"People who are homeless are not social inadequates. They are people without homes." - Dame Sheila McKechnie
Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone Newspaper Network. Email email@example.com