Charles Darwin proposed the theory of natural selection, and Herbert Spencer paraphrased that theory into the phrase “survival of the fittest.”
I like one of the Red Bull commercials as a way of explaining what Darwin meant. In the ad, two gazelles are talking, with a lion lurking in the background. One is drinking a Red Bull. “That won’t enable you to outrun that lion,” says the one. “Don’t have to,” says the other. “I only need to outrun you.”
One way of looking at Housing Forward is that its mission is to take care of the losers in this high-stakes, competitive game called American society. Kim and Anthony are two of the homeless people the nonprofit has gotten off the street and into an apartment, but the funding that subsidizes their rent is about to end. The Housing Forward model assumes people living on the street need a handout for a while to recover, and then a hand up to find jobs with the goal of getting back to living independently.
In other words, if life is like an ocean and you’re drowning, what Housing Forward does is throw you a life preserver to help you catch your breath, but after a short time they insist that you start swimming on your own or, if you don’t know how, they will teach you, but either way eventually they will take the life ring away so they can throw it to another person who is going under.
That model, declared Housing Forward’s executive director, Lynda Schueler, has been successful 70% of the time.
The problem for Kim and Anthony is that they’re among the 30% for whom the model doesn’t work. It’s as if even when they try to let go of the device keeping them afloat in order to swim on their own, the weight they’re carrying drags them down no matter how hard they try.
Even in the Housing Forward model, clients need a certain level of “fitness” or resilience in order to benefit from the hand up.
Take Kim, for example. She’s in her 30s and has never had a job. In addition if she doesn’t get her medication on time every day, she falls apart. Whenever she’s in social situations, like a job for example, her anxiety level soars and she has to get away from the crowd. Good luck finding employment.
Anthony had jobs before becoming homeless, but right now he’s carrying several burdens that make his chances of outrunning the lion slim. For one, he has his own mental-health issues. Another is that he has a felony drug conviction on his record, which prevents him from getting many jobs.
Then a year ago while he was driving a friend’s car, he was pulled over because of a tail light not working. When the officer ran his license number, he found there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest, a warrant Anthony didn’t know about. He insists he’s not guilty of the burglary charge, but the public defender assigned to him lacks either the time or desire to do the work required to get the judge to throw the case out.
So even though he is talented and experienced in working with computers, when he applies for a job at a business that requires he handle money — Best Buy, for example — the burglary charge ends the interview.
Housing Forward is limited in the amount of money they can provide. In addition to hefty rent subsidies, they have given the couple Link and Ventra Cards but at this point the nonprofit has no money in their budget for medication or electricity.
Financial help from family is limited and sporadic. Friends have given the pair literally thousands of dollars but that well is beginning to run dry.
They say America is the land of opportunity. For many, of course, it is. But way back in 1962 Michael Harrington published a book titled, The Other America, which points out that we’re not just a place where you can become anything you want to be.
Many of you have volunteered at a Housing Forward shelter and vote for political candidates who promise to help the poor. You’ve helped make the glass 70% full. My question is how far are we willing to go? How much are we willing to give to help Kim and Anthony and the other folks in the 30% to enable them to just stay afloat?
When some people see them panhandling on an expressway ramp and holler, “Get a job!” they reveal their cluelessness about “the other America.”
It’s the season of Lent, a time for soul searching. Are those of us, who have up till now outrun the lions, willing to turn around and come to the aid of those who have fallen behind, even when it puts our own comfort and even safety in jeopardy?
Are we willing to make it part of our mission statement to help our neighbors like Kim and Anthony?