Our Eyes Were Opened


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The Christmas Strawberry

I’m excited to announce that my newest book is now available on Amazon and at Fiction Addiction in Greenville, SC. The Christmas Strawberry and Other Stories is a collection of stories and poems that reflects on the inherent contrasts of Advent and Christmas: joy and sorrow, traditions and just getting through, religious emphases and secular aspects, loneliness and love, wealth and poverty. Some people live more on one side than the other but in reaching out, all our lives are enriched.

I hope you will join me at a book signing on December 4, 5 pm-7 pm at Fiction Addiction, 1175 Woods Crossing Rd #5, Greenville, SC 29607.

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Is Donald Trump an Abbot?

How timely is this?

Thomas Merton, October 20, 1962
 
“People demand that the government ‘interfere’ in nothing, just pour money into the armament industry and provide a strong police for ‘security,’ But stay out of everything else! No interference in medicine, mental health, education, etc., etc. Never was a country at once shrewder and less wise–shrewd in nonessentials and lunatic in essentials.
 
I have no doubt the world feels toward America the way many monks feel toward an abbot who wants to exercise total power, to receive unquestioning obedience on the basis of slogans about which he himself ceased thinking twenty-five years ago, and who above all else wants to be loved, so that he may never, at any time, to himself, seem to be exercising power, or loving it. Nobody denies him the power he has: few give him the love that he needs in order to be safe and content. And therefore he uses his power, from time to time, in unpredictable, arbitrary, and absurd ways in which he defends his own ends and makes everybody miserable.”


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Hidden Voices (#6 in a 6-part series)

One other group of people whose voices are hidden are those who deal with severe mental illness and addiction issues. We’d like for people with mental health issues and severe addictions to stay hidden. They are scary to us. They also are some of the biggest users of community services. They tend to go to the emergency department at the hospital a lot. An average visit costs $2100. They tend to get arrested a lot. The state of South Carolina spends over $19,000 a year to incarcerate someone.  They tend to use agency services a lot. We may only hear their voices of delusion while their voices of truth are often hidden.

Greenville has one Housing First model of shelter and that is Reedy Place, on Hudson Street, right beside new condominiums that are selling for $600,000 to $800,000 depending on the number of bedrooms. The residents of Reedy Place must have severe addiction and/or mental illness. The idea of a Housing First residence is that when someone with a severe addiction or mental illness receives housing first and feels safe and secure, then he or she is more likely to deal with the issues of the mental illness or addiction. Reedy Place has 23 one-bedroom units. The first building had 15 units. Greenville Mental Health staff followed those original 15 people. Last I heard, five are still living there. The second group of five moved to better places, a couple of those were to nursing homes but they could not have gotten in had they not been in Reedy Place. Of the last five, one died and they lost track of the other four. That’s a 66 percent success rate.

There’s a large Housing First shelter in Charlotte. The universities there received permission to pull the medical records of the first year’s shelter residents for the year prior to coming into the shelter. Those residents’ medical bills totaled over $2 million. During the first year of residency, the medical bills of those same people totaled just over $700,000.

The state of Utah decided to go totally housing first and the last official number I saw was that they had reduced their homelessness by 75 percent.

Hearing the voices of our neighbors is challenging but we must if we want to be a community that models the God we worship and the faith we proclaim.  There are others whose voices are hidden. I hope we all will being listening.

 


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Hidden Voices (Part 5 in a series)

If we were watching live theater now, we’d see a crowd behind a scrim mumbling softly and then getting louder and louder. In the wings, we would hear the sound of buildings coming down and new construction going up. We’d hear the crash of metal against metal and the constant beep-beep-beep of vehicles backing up to deliver their materials to the construction sites.

The voices behind the scrim are the voices of people whose homes are being taken away. The communities where they have lived for decades are now prime real estate for people who had no use for their neighborhoods previously. The old neighborhoods, often segregation neighborhoods, were seen as blights in our community. Some of us knew not to go into “those areas.” Now, however, those same neighborhoods are hot commodities. Now people with resources want to live near the inner city. Former segregation neighborhoods are being gentrified and houses are being flipped.

People who have been long-time residents in some of the neighborhoods are being pushed out because the home they have rented for years has just been sold to a developer who most likely with tear down the home and replace it with high end properties. Whereas the long-time residents paid less than $500 a month for a place which may have had some construction and plumbing issues, the new buildings on the sites start with rents of $1000, $1250, $2500. When your home is taken from you, where do you go? You lose your neighborhood contacts and you cannot find rent at the same level as your long-time home. Or you cannot sign a long-term lease because you have a criminal record or poor credit or mental illness or spotty income, and so you cannot find a landlord who will rent to you. Even if you own your home, you may be forced out of the neighborhood because the property values have gone up so high that you can no longer afford your property taxes. Or you were offered $50,000 cash which sounds like a lot of money if you’ve struggled your entire life. But then you discover that your home is torn down and a house worth $500,000 is now in its place. You hung in when your neighborhood was a place that people with resources did not want. And now when they do, you do not reap any of its rewards in any kind of just way.

People who have had little, who have learned to live with their heads kept low, who have had promises made and broken by people in power learn that their voices are hidden. They are invisible, unseen, until someone wants what they have.

The people whose voices are hidden and are about to lose their homes do not even realize that for decades people with resources have been living in subsidized housing. The bigger the mortgage, the larger the tax deduction. Buying a home is a huge government subsidy that people with resources enjoy. In 2015, the federal government spent $71 billion on the mortgage interest deduction with households earning more than $100,000 receiving almost 90 percent of those benefits. However, 60 percent of people who use the deduction say they have never used any government program. But let someone who is financially challenged ask for a housing subsidy and all kinds of negative comments float up. They’re lazy, they’re just out for what they can get, I worked for mine, why can’t they work for theirs?

Matthew Desmond, Pulitzer prize winning author of Evicted and who was here this past spring writes, “a 15-story public housing tower and a mortgaged suburban home are both government-subsidized, but only one looks (and feels) that way.”

We are 2500 housing units short for people who can pay no more than $500 a month.  Whose voices are hidden?


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Hidden Voices Part 4 in a Series

One way I identify hidden voices is from the comments I receive through my work with Our Eyes Were Opened, Inc. I’ve heard: “He committed a crime. Why should I help him?” 

Formerly incarcerated people have a hard time after they have paid their dues for their crime. Landlords often will not rent to them and employers will not hire them.

Reentering society brings real problems for real people. If we as a community do not recognize these issues and find ways to address them, then the likelihood of the ex-offender returning to incarceration is high indeed, as high as 65% within three years.

I have been fortunate to be part of redesigning and then facilitating a ReEntry Simulation. This simulation allows participants to experience the challenges of reentering society after being incarcerated. So far, simulation participants have been probation and parole officers, employers, a few newly released ex-offenders, and agency staff people who work with a high percentage of former convicts. In this simulation, there are challenges of getting and paying the fees for identification papers within the month, of finding a place to live, and of having money for regular, required drug testing, paying child support, and buying food and transportation tickets. Participants also juggle going to AA/NA, employment or the Career Center, and/or Vocational Rehabilitation. The only quick money in the simulation is using the pawn shop or selling one’s plasma.

Being part of this process, I have learned more about how hidden are the voices of people who have as part of their history their criminal record. I have wondered even more deeply why can’t the time in prison be used for constructive, life stabilizing, life re-creating activities and opportunities? Why must the voices of these human beings, these our brothers and sisters, be stifled and thereby limit the God-given potential in each person? Why must their voices for hope for a new life be so hidden?


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Hidden Voices Part 3 in a series

One way I identify hidden voices is from the comments I receive through my work with Our Eyes Were Opened, Inc. I’ve been told: If they’d stop having children and were responsible for the ones they have, we’d all be better off. This was a recent statement posed as a question in a group I was leading. A slightly different version of this same idea came from a group that wants to help young women have choices about when they begin parenthood. The people I was working with really did not see the need to talk with the males.

One hidden voice is the mother’s.  Some people believe that she had that baby just to get more welfare money. If we listened to her, we might learn that yes, the first child might make her eligible for certain services but a second child certainly does not double that stipend. So let’s listen to why some women have babies when, if we were in their circumstances, we certainly would not bring another child into the world with its lifelong financial costs.

In order to prevent pregnancies, a woman has to go to a medical professional to get a prescription or a birth control device. Making and keeping that appointment may in itself be challenging because the medical hours may not align with the work schedule of an hourly worker. Transportation issues may mean that when she is more than 15 minutes late for her appointment she is told she must reschedule.  If she takes a birth control pill, that means remembering to take it on schedule which may be impossible when she has other things to think about…things such as food and shelter. Using birth control, unless she uses something such as an IUD, requires a level of commitment that may necessarily be focused elsewhere.

The man may not want to be responsible for preventing pregnancy because he believes that’s the woman’s thing to do or he wants to go, shall we say, au naturelle.  So, prevention itself may be a challenge.

Add to that that when she has a baby, she might qualify for subsidized housing—if she can find it— housing that would not be available to her as a young woman alone or even as a childless married couple. But when she has a baby, she can go back to the daddy and say, “You owe me. I had your child.” The baby daddy becomes a kind of insurance policy she hopes she can depend on when necessary.

You may be interested that in South Carolina, about half the babies born are born to single mothers. This does include fathers who readily claim paternity. Many couples today cohabitate without the benefit of marriage. Just look at any celebrity magazine while waiting in line at the grocery store.

The fathers also have a stake in the birth of a son or daughter. I once heard a male say that he was proud that he had a lot of children because his kids proved that he had lived on this earth. He had no expectations of a long life or any kind of legacy other than his kids. His voice has been hidden to us because he sees no validation of his life other than to have had children.

What kind of world are we accepting?


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Hidden Voices (Part 2 in a series)

One way I identify hidden voices is from the comments I receive through my work with Our Eyes Were Opened, Inc. One comment that I hear is: “If they’d just get a job, everything would be okay.”

Maybe we need to listen to why some people do not work. In order to get and keep a job, you have to have transportation, good health, adequate and safe childcare, and good people skills.

In the poverty simulation that I facilitate, I ask during the debriefing session how people who had a job in the simulation would now respond to that comment: “If they’d just get a job, everything would be okay.” The participants report that yes, they had a job but they didn’t earn enough to pay the family’s bills. Yes, they had a job but did not have enough time when they got off work to take care of all the family’s responsibilities or to supervise their children. Yes, they had a job but lost it because they did not have enough bus tickets to get to work. Yes, they had a job but were tardy because of issues out of their control and so their pay was reduced. Their already stressed budget could not absorb the ongoing costs of transportation tickets to continue the job.

The hourly self-sufficiency wage for one adult and one preschooler in 2016 in Greenville, SC, was $15.67/hour. I’ll remind you that minimum wage is $7.25/hour. The annual self-sufficiency wage for two adults with a preschooler and a school age child was $46,030. The self-sufficiency wage includes housing, child care, food, public and/or private transportation, health care (if the employer pays for health insurance), taxes and tax credits, miscellaneous things (figured at 10% of all other expenses), and emergency savings.

I’ll expand just a bit about transportation. Greenville pays $3.76 per capita for its public transportation system whereas Charleston pays $17.79 and Greensboro pays $40.70. Our low per capita expenditure is not a fact to be proud of. Transportation is a huge hurdle for employment.

Many people want to work but the required infrastructure to get and keep a job is just not there.