Our Eyes Were Opened

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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?