06 January 2017

Well-meaning Christian

I'm supposed to be writing an essay for Friday but am so happy about some news that I have been waiting for that I'm having difficulty sitting down to write.

For the past two years we had a friend living with us. He was on the edge of becoming homeless after extended under/unemployment. A group of our friends chipped in so he could finish out his lease at his old place. There were an even smaller number of folks in that group who had homes that were large enough to fit one more person into. Of those, the only one in an area with transit and access to job opportunities was ours.

When we got into to this I thought it would be for 6 months or so. Our goal was to give our friend time and space to get back on his feet. He found a job within a month of moving in. At the end of the first year we set up an agreement that he would pay rent and plan to find his own place by the end of year 2.

Today it is almost 2 years to the day since he moved in with us and my husband and son have spent the day helping him move into his new place. To say I am thrilled is an understatement.

Part of my desire to help my friend came from my faith. I believe that those of us with more have a Christian duty to help those with less. I don't believe in a 'prosperity gospel'. I do believe that God calls me to help make earth Heaven for those who share it with me and not to help create a hell-scape of unending poverty and despair while I look on.
Also, my luck could change in a moment. We are all just an accident, illness, economic recession, or natural disaster away from losing everything. The only thing that can help us through the bad times is other people.

I would rather their was a reliable safety net so my friends and family did not have to face poverty and homelessness if luck turns on them. But, aside, from a few overstressed programs, that is not current reality. The stress of poverty, unemployment and unstable housing can make it very difficult for people to climb back up to economic stability after a crash.

After consulting with my family, we agreed to be the support network for our friend. We offered him a stable place to live while he re-built his life.

There are differences between being a well-intentioned Christian and providing effective help that prepares a person for re-entry into having their own housing. Here are a few lessons we learned along the way:

If a person is really down to their last dime, it is going to take at least a year of stable employment and minimal housing expenses in order to start saving. Plan on at least 18 months (and that only if they have good credit). Two years is really the minimum for someone with no resources left.

Folks who are near-homeless frequently have debts run-up during the time they tried to hold it together. Something I would do differently is insist from the get go that the person moving in get some sort of financial counseling and tell someone (it doesn't have to me) all of their outstanding debt and make a plan to repay it. This back-debt will affect things like the ability to get a new place even after they have had a job and built up savings.

It is difficult to know how long the person will be staying with you. However, make sure that the person knows from the get-go that this is only temporary, and once the immediate crisis is past, make a plan (in writing) for how long they can stay and what your expectations are. Expectations can be: saving a certain amount, getting financial counseling, taking steps to connect with agencies that can help. Offer to help with networking and time consuming research.

It is important to have a written agreement because, depending on where you live and your housing laws, you could accidentally create a tenancy agreement with the person. While many housing laws favor owners who are renting out a room in their home, it can be messy and expensive to get someone out if they refuse to go. We didn't consult a lawyer but that is because of circumstances in our background and our relationship with the person who moved in with us. At the beginning of the 2nd year we did have a written agreement that stipulated that it would not be renewed and set a move out date.

Working with agencies that help low income, disabled, or seniors takes time. The have a lot on their plate and response time is slow. Start finding and working with them as quickly as possible. Be firm with the person moving in that this is a requirement. Things that take a week in the commercial world will take 4-6 weeks in the non-profit world. Adjust expectations and time-lines accordingly.

Be clear in your expectations with the person moving in. In our case he was joining a complicated household with 3 adults and one teen. We have a lot of 'house rules' after 20+ years of living together. I wrote them up when he moved in and was surprised to find that they covered 5 full pages. These 'rules' were really the unwritten agreements that evolved over the years we have lived together. It was eye-opening to write them all down. 

Expectations for living with you can include: quiet times in the house, cleaning responsibilities & standards, what areas of the house the person has access to without having to ask, how appliance work (especially if you have any ones that need special treatment to keep working), how trash and recycling should be dealt with. It sounds like a lot, but if you are up front with the person it will be more helpful than if you keep springing 'but we always do it this way' comments on them.

We are very glad we could help our friend avoid homelessness, but it took work and active effort on everyone's part (not just our friend) to make it happen. My husband in particular did a great deal of networking to try to find resources.

Well-meaning Christianity can provide an opportunity to "Seek the Lord while he may be found" in our actions towards our fellow beings, but having a plan and following through will make that well-meaning Christian impulse that much more effective.


All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway

This essay was originally published at The Episcopal Cafe on 6 January 2017.

03 January 2017

Clearing the decks

The readings for 3 January didn't speak to me this week. They are at Mission St.Clare for those that are interested.

What I have been thinking about is clearing the decks, physically, mentally, spiritually. This is fairly typical of me, I harbor deep impulses to get rid of things when I am stressed. There is no doubt that 2016 was a stressful year for me personally, medically, and professionally. The details of that stress are less important than there effect. I'm ready to start the new year with a clean slate.

I want to let go of books I've been keeping because I might read them someday. The reality is that I do most of my reading in short form on electronic devices these days. I used to be an avid long-form book reader, but that part of me is gone and keeping the left-overs adds unneeded weight to my mind. My mental inventory of my stuff becomes clogged with such items.

Un-read books* are just one category of physical things that weigh heavily on my mind and cause me to think "I ought to do X" and then feel bad that I'm not doing X. I suspect the coming year is going to be difficult without X in it.

What I am really doing when I clear my physical space, is clearing my mental space of outworn ideas, things I thought I wanted to learn, or concepts about myself as a person that no longer fit who I really am.

My self-concept used to include being a voracious reader. Years ago I couldn't imagine not being that person, but here I am in 20167 and I read two hard-copy books and a small handful of e-books. That was it, from someone who used to read a book a week and could devour an entire book in a night. Some of that shift was cultural and some internal to me but the net result is that my habits and what I enjoy are different than they were when I was in my 20's. My 20's reading self is, for all intents an purposes, dead.

One of my on-going projects has been to encourage people to get their estates in order. As part of the work I have done on that topic I have learned how little our personal possessions mean to the friends and family we leave behind. I am the person in my family who is the most into family history and all of the objects I have from various grandparents and great grandparents would fit in one small room with space to spare. That is multiple full households of belongings boiled down over the years to a few keepsakes. Most of what they owned may have meant something to them, but without the web of their life the meaning falls away.

If I have things in my own life that no longer hold meaning for me, letting go of them will make more space both physically and mentally for the things I want to do and the ways I want to think.

If the present is a boat in the rough seas of the past and present, it behooves me to think about packing only that which will nourish me on the journey.

So for 2017 I want to pack in daily prayer for my spirit, yoga for body and mind, political action for the future, and knitting, baking, and music to feed my body and spirit. Hopefully these things will give me strength to do the work I have been given to do personally and professionally in the year to come.

What do you want to pack on your own boat and what would you choose to leave behind?

* And if I do feel the need to read a physical book, I have a physical library within 3 blocks of my house with amazing inter-library loan options (and ebooks!). So not only can I read all the books I want, I can do it for the cost of the taxes that support our library system-- for which I pay anyway.

Originally published at The Episcopal Cafe on 3 January 2017