This post was contributed by Solid Ground Board Member Lauren McGowan and was originally published on July 15, 2014 on her personal blog, Now is the Time: Ending hunger, homelessness, and the cycle of poverty…in heels. Lauren has served on the Solid Ground Board since 2006, including four years as Board President. This piece is a followup to When homelessness hits home/Love you, Love you more, which she wrote when her mother passed away a year ago.
It’s been exactly one year since I received the worst possible phone call. My mom Fran, who struggled with homelessness for many years, died on the beach in my hometown of West Haven, Connecticut. For much of my childhood my mom was like any other mom – she struggled to balance work, family, and bills. She proudly volunteered for field trips, hosted sleepovers, and beamed with pride at dance recitals and strikeouts. She carried a deep love for my dad, her high school sweetheart, with her day in and day out.
And then something happened.
A combination of stress, anxiety, depression, chronic substance abuse and mental illness led her world to crumble. Instead of enjoying the wisdom and balance that comes with middle age – she spent her 40s and early 50s battling demons, bouncing between hotels, rehab facilities, shelters, transitional units, couches, apartments and – more often than my heart can admit – the streets. Her favorite resting spot was behind the church where I made my confirmation – she thought god would keep her safe.
I’m not a religious person but my mom was. She believed the church would save her when nothing else could. Since she passed I’ve said the “Our Father” every time I see a pink sunset. I like to think she’s watching over us. Since July 15, 2013, there have been more than 100 sunsets, 100 reflections, 100 “Our Fathers,” 100 I Love Yous.
When I first shared her story, I could count on one hand the number of people who knew about her struggle. Homelessness is deeply shameful, embarrassing, and isolating – both for the individual and the family. I carefully protected that secret because talking about it – naming it – made it real. It meant talking out loud about the things I wrestled with…
Do I move her to Seattle where there are more resources for people who struggle with homelessness?”
“Should she move in with me?”
“Should I buy her a place in CT?”
“Isn’t there one more social service agency I can call, one more wait-list to be on?”
“Why can’t I fix this?”
Sharing her story was a leap of faith – a quest for a better outcome for other moms. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by the best possible friends and family, and what I’ve learned over the last year is that there are many people in my circle who’ve carried their own secret black cloud. The stigma of depression, substance abuse and mental illness keeps too many people quiet. The shame and blame of poverty, job loss and homelessness too often rips families apart.
But it shouldn’t be this way. No one should die on our streets alone. No one should struggle alone. No one should go from provider to provider, hospital to hospital, treatment center to treatment center, and walk away empty handed or land on a wait-list miles long. Despite years of interventions, tens-of-thousands of dollars and a lot of system knowledge, I couldn’t fix my mother’s situation. And for too many friends who’ve lost siblings, parents or partners, they couldn’t fix it either. No, we can’t fix it alone, but together I believe we can.
Significant policy reform at a national level is needed to create a more robust, effective, and compassionate safety net. To get there, we must engage and mobilize people experiencing homelessness, business leaders and caring neighbors like we’ve never done before.
Everyone deserves to have a safe and decent place to call home. When people fall – and it can happen to anyone – they need holistic resources that will help get them back on their feet. When moms need treatment for mental illness or substance abuse, level of need – not financial resources – should drive treatment options. We need to break our silence.
I look forward to the day when the voices of people who have struggled with homelessness and mental illness are as strong as the NRA lobbyists, because that is what it will take. Yes, it takes resources. So does ignoring the problem. So does funding a war. For the 600,000 Americans who struggle with homelessness – many due to mental illness – every day is a struggle, every day is a war.
Homelessness is solvable. Big foundations and local governments – even the Veterans Administration – are providing that it can be done. So let’s take it to scale and make sure no man, woman or child goes without a roof. As taxpayers, voters and engaged citizens, we make choices every day. Today we must choose to stop being silent and help move the most vulnerable in our community to Solid Ground.