Thursday, September 1, 2016


I am always thinking about water -- not because it's hot outside, or because I forgot to water my plants (yeah, they're dead already), but because I know so many with a lack of it. 

You can spot them easily. Hair looks unwashed; clothes are stained; there's an aura of smell, sure. But mostly they look exhausted. They are, of course, dehydrated, but I'm betting they're equally exasperated and frustrated with a system that seems to work against them.

Like residents of many countries, citizens in the United States pay for water through local public utilities and water companies. In some areas, the charge is minor and most people can pay with just a few falling behind on their bills. In other areas, the charges can be high, and a major proportion of the population falls in arrears. Take Detroit for example. Last year, 1 in 9 city accounts were shut off last year. Over 10%!

I don't know the rate of shut-offs in the Jefferson City area, but I've been seeing enough to make me question our system. Should we provide water to everyone as a free public service?

On our recent trip to Ireland, I asked some of our new friends how their country handled water. Little did I know that water had been a heated argument for the last few years on the Emerald Isle. Until a new law took effect in 2015, water had been provided free to every citizen as a public service. For the last year and a half, however, everyone was having to pay a yearly amount (with a cap based on adults in the household). Water was still relatively cheap by European standards, but the new law has been so contentious that the country has suspended it for a period of nine months to review its practice. The government argued that the fees were needed to pay for a dilapidated system and replace lead pipes. The people said water was a basic right and should be provided to all.

I have to admit, I see a water shut-off as one of the most degrading events a family can suffer, especially when children are in the home. Water is a necessity. How do you reconcile the public need to maintain services through imposed fees with the basic human right of access to clean water? (Interestingly, under the new Irish law, families are never disconnected for a lack of payment on a bill. Rather, debts are tallied and court proceedings initiate only at a minimum debt level of 500 euros, with the legal enforcement being a reduction of payroll or social welfare payments. I've had clients who have been disconnected here for a late payment on a $15 bill.)

I don't know what the solution is. Certainly we could increase local taxes and wrap it into our public system. Because we are such an anti-tax culture, however, I fear that the service would be underfunded and fall into the same disrepair as Irish plumbing. Maybe we should initiate alternative solutions to non-payment like the example above, or create social safety nets that ensure water is provided despite inability to pay.

Or, as is the growing case in our cities, what we really need to do is address some deep-seated systemic problems that prevent even the hard-working families among us from paying for basic necessities: low wages, a lack of affordable housing, and gaps in health insurance coverage. As the Detroit-area CEO of United Way says, it's time to "question[] the American dream, and if we're setting up families to acheive it."

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


We humans can't help it. We judge. It's ingrained into our deepest selves. We've evolved to make decisions (sometimes life-saving) after a split-second of internal debate: Does this water look safe to drink? Can I get through the intersection before the light turns red? This food truck hot dog looks great, but will I regret eating it five minutes later? Does this person walking behind me in the dark mean me harm? And so on... (yep, I should not have eaten that hot dog...).

We've become so good at judgment, it's sometimes hard to turn off.

I certainly find that true at Common Ground. In fact, sometimes I feel that I am expected to sit in judgment of others. As a donor-dependent organization, we feel a responsibility to use our benevolence funds as wisely, fairly and judiciously as possible. We carefully track client services; we abide by strict rules regarding returning clients; we verify information as thoroughly as possible without invading privacy. We encourage personal responsibility and goal-setting.

And yet, if we let judgment rule the day here, we would miss a lot of the truth. Judgment only opens a window. It doesn't buy us a ticket into someone's true story.

Peter is a good example of when judgment can fail. Peter visited us recently to ask for help with his
rent. Like some of our clients, Peter was neatly dressed and groomed. Some would say he didn't play the part of "person in poverty." Why is he here? He doesn't look like he needs help...

Peter explained that he came to Jefferson City from another state with a good job waiting for him. The company even paid moving expenses. He worked that job for four years making a good salary, but was fired because he did not meet company quotas for performance. He suddenly had no income. (Like half of Americans, he was unable to save enough for an emergency. See the Atlantic article here). He had applied at numerous other businesses since losing the job, but found it difficult to get a job with his qualifications, because a default on his student loans was preventing him from accessing his transcript. He was currently doing the only job he could find -- part-time janitorial work -- but it wasn't enough to pay all the bills.

Peter's story is not unique. We see numerous middle-class individuals and families who hit a snag and suddenly find themselves in trouble. On the outside, they don't look the part. But inside, they are hurting. They are embarrassed to be here. We've also had low-income individuals who don't fit the role description: Coach handbags can be bought at yard sales; nice cars are sometimes hand-me-downs from relatives who want to help; cell phones are provided free of charge to food stamp recipients (because cell phones are a lifeline to jobs...ask one of our clients who lost a job because he didn't have online access to a work schedule).

And, judgment can fool us the other way around. I'll never forget a conversation I had with a gentleman in a homeless shelter during my college days. He looked like a "typical" homeless individual -- bags in tow, unkempt hair and beard, layer upon layer of unwashed clothing. I asked him about his past, and he spoke eloquently about serving in the armed forces during Vietnam and later, teaching English at a university.

We can spend all of our time asking the judgment questions. Does he really need our help? How can she afford that phone? Why is his car even nicer than mine? The questions are easy. The prepackaged answers are even easier.

Listening and a slow discernment of the overall story is much harder and requires compassion. We need to save quick judgment for those important moments when our life is at risk (learn from that last hot dog, girlfriend!).

Simply put, the life of someone else may depend on you turning judgment off until you see the whole play.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


Because of my involvement in projects aimed toward people experiencing homelessness, I think people see me as a kind of advisor, or expert, in the area.  Let me say straight out -- I am far from it! In fact, I hold more guilt and shame surrounding my encounters with people in this condition than I do for most other interactions. Why? Because homelessness is messy. It's complicated. It's different for everyone experiencing it, and there are currently no easy solutions. Just when you think you have a situation figured out, it explodes in your face and people suffer for it.

This past year, I worked hard to help a particular person escape homelessness. This person was homeless because of an exacerbation of mental health issues that sent him into a spiral of distrust and withdrawal. Plus, the very condition that caused him to pull away from people also led him to believe he had no mental health disorder. He refused to seek treatment or medication. Therefore, without a definitive diagnosis, it was impossible to access the small number of services available to him through mental health providers.

So, I decided our community center and churches needed to step in. He had applied for Section 8 rental assistance. We would pay his rent until the voucher came through. It was a long waiting list (five years in our area), but I determined we could manage it as part of a new transitional housing initiative.  He also had a small part-time job which could help toward utilities, providing he could keep the job in the midst of the deepening darkness. 

I called around to a few landlords with my plan and explained our commitment to help this person until his Section 8 was approved. The first few said "no." Undaunted, I kept calling.  More "nos." One yes, but this landlord casually mentioned he would be selling the property soon and could not guarantee a long-term residence. He just wanted some easy cash for a few months. More "nos." Finally, one maybe. I spoke with this landlord at length, but as it became clear they would be housing someone who was homeless for many months prior, they backed out as well.  "We've had homeless individuals move in before. It never works out."

Desperation and bewilderment set in. We were willing to provide rent for an extended period of time, but no landlords were willing to take on the risk of housing a homeless individual in cooperation with a church. What was I doing wrong? 

I was willing to keep trying, but weeks had passed in the effort, and my friend started to distrust me. I felt I had kept his trust longer than most, but because of the repeated denials, our relationship began to sour. I was just one more let-down in a long string of let-downs. Reluctantly, and in consultation with friends in the area who help others in similar situations, I decided I needed to back off. It was undeniable. Everyone agreed he needed professional help. Without treatment, he would continue to quit jobs, break leases, cut off others. But I felt -and continue to feel - like pond scum, and he no longer speaks to me. 

We are still trying to move a family into our transitional housing program, but we are now working in connection with a local shelter who can identify a family ready to move forward and can provide the much-needed support the family needs after they move in to their new home. I learn from my mistakes.

I'm asked all the time, "How can I help someone who is homeless?" By this question, I've discovered most people mean, "What stuff can I give a homeless person to help them out?" Socks? A warm meal? A tent or blankets? Hand warmers? Batteries? A hug and a prayer?

All of these things are wonderful expressions of unconditional love, but none of these get someone off the street. If our society truly wishes to end homelessness, we need to work toward providing the one thing that works: a home. It's not the easy answer, and I can't do it alone. A few well-meaning churches can't do it alone. We all must decide together that no one needs to live outside like an animal because of mental health battles, physical ailments, PTSD, or even poor financial choices. 

Then we need to put our money where our hope is. Support increased funding for mental health services. Support transitional housing programs facilitated by experts in housing. Support increased funding to local shelters so they can add the staff they need to provide thorough case management. In other words, support solutions that offer lasting results.