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February 2: Flash Fiction Challenge

february-2Hills old as dirt. Rocks ancient as time. Mesas drawn from memories of dinosaurs. It’s old around here. Solid as a rock.

And yet…

Hillsides mess with our sense of time and solidity. Geologically speaking, the wrinkled hills of debris at the foot of mesas and canyons in Zion National Park are newborns. Water carves rivulets into canyons so deep and serpentine that many of these winding features miles long went unnoticed by surveyors for years. If you believe the canyons rock-solid, I have some alternative facts for you. But before we get to fiction, let examine a few facts from science:

  • Zion’s geological features are indeed old: 250 million years old.
  • The sandstone features with cliffs over 3/4 of a mile high were once sand dunes. Sand dunes!
  • Water shapes the area’s stunning geology, including hidden canyons and the winding Virgin River.
  • Water is also trapped in sandstone, forming a weeping feature that takes water 1,000 years to emerge.
  • The park’s 229 square miles includes wide mesas, narrow sandstone canyons, seeps, springs and waterfalls.

The Zion features are not alive with music; instead they pulse with mud-pushed rocks, reshaping debris heaps. The process accelerates any time water joins the mix. Mud becomes a powerful sludge, and sometimes entire hillsides calve like a glacier. Other times a trickle of rocks tumble across trails and roads.

And some times there’s a rock big and brown in the middle of the road.

Geology reminds me that life is not static. We never have the same day. We never truly have an ideal image of ourselves in the mirror. We never fix the meatloaf exactly the same way as last year. Even the institutions we believe unshakeable are not the same from year to year. Everything shifts and sheds like Zion rubble.

Mostly the process equates to the movement of sand. It’s over the years we notice the ravages of grain — the days’ activities are noticeably different; the face in the mirror has aged; meatloaf had a makeover; governments erode. Sometimes, though, the rock crashes down in an instant and we are shaken by the change. We prefer the illusion displaced sand gives us. Sand seems easier to sweep away. And we do. But that rock — that rock in the road cannot be ignored. It calls us to change or be changed.

Rocks always take us by surprise. We know they exist in the sludge of life, but we always believe we can dodge the big ones. We do what we can to avoid the dangerous slopes where we know rocks lurk. One might acknowledge vulnerability. How often I’ve heard many people say, “I know, I know, we’re all just one paycheck away from being homeless.” But that’s just a fear many use to stay in an unsatisfactory job, town or relationship. We settle and take our chances with the sand, avoiding rocks.

When it does happen to someone — that rock of homelessness — we shore up our own crumbling edges with notions that the person struck by the rock of unexpected change must have done something. “That’s right, they asked for it. They were digging where they shouldn’t have dug.” People say those things to justify walking past a panhandler on the street. They justify not giving money because it would be spent on drugs or drink, without thinking to buy a meal or a blanket. They justify dehumanizing the homeless.

Let me introduce you to a few faces besides mine. There’s the divorced woman whose husband hid the assets and at 62 she has no employability. There’s the man and his wife and their two sons who can’t come up with first, last and deposit on a rental so they camp while raising the money that never seems to be enough. There’s the woman kicked out of a motel room after the landlord beat her. He. Beat. Her. She lost her room and now sleeps in a tent a church gave her. There’s the veterans in their trucks, belongings piled in the passenger seat and a bed in the back beneath a camper shell.

And the boy with the big grin blowing out seven candles on two cupcakes for his birthday. He’s in his third shelter, or transitional motel room. The rock that hit his parents was an unrenewed lease. The apartment complex preferred adults to seven-year-old boys with no where else to go. Once you have no where else to go, the complex web of family homelessness awaits like Shelob’s lair. More rocks dislodge — most shelters separate men from women and children; shelters have rigid rules that interfere with jobs; some shelters have a lottery system. There’s long-term motels with their own set of dangers and frustrations.

This boy’s mama dreamed of a kitchen. She dreamed of cooking. I know, Sweet One, I know. I miss my kitchen most. I miss everything that a woman creates in a kitchen —  meals and memories. Sweet One is a daughter to me. I’ve known her for nine years, ever since she was a teen working where I worked. I respect her privacy, but I want you to know this is a good woman, a good mama. She and her family got hit hard by one rock after another and they do not have the normal familial safety net. Adult orphans.

That can be hardest, which is why I asked her if the Hub and I could be Nana and Papa to her boy, Our Boy.

After six months, Our Boy, his Dad and Sweet One got an apartment. Our Boy has been doing well in school, although he had some scary days when he was taking public transportation to school, arrived late and got locked out. A seven-year-old alone in the city! Sweet One nearly lost her mind over that one and the school worked with her to make Our Boy safer in his transitions. Think about the dedication of these working parents to get their son to school every day. Together we believe in him going to college.

Carrot Ranch is hosting a Welcome Home J-Family house-warming for Sweet One and her family. Between now and February 28, there will be a Wish List on Amazon for the family. When families become homeless, they often lose most their possessions. I’ve heard people say, “It’s good to purge.” But unless you’ve had to get rid of your personal and household belongings, you couldn’t know the sorrow. Or the frustration when you want to cook after getting re-homed and are missing what’s needed.

At first Sweet One was modest and asked for three items: microwave, muffin pan and a crock-pot. After some nudging she got into the spirit of dreaming! She and Our Boy dreamed of waffles, zucchini zoodles and omelettes shaped like hearts. Then she thought out how to set up her kitchen, and I added cookbooks. Could I ask you to share this house-warming far and wide? If you can, and are moved to help one who got hit by the homelessness rock, consider buying her an item on her list. Her son is seven if you want to send him books, too. Let’s give them a landslide of a house-warming!

It was hard for me to think about my character’s homeless event this past summer even though I knew I wanted to hit Danni with that rock. I had already written a scene where she is unable to access Ike’s account right after he leaves for Iraq. Often these banking issues arise and when the spouse is deployed, they can be tricky to sort out. Using my own experiences and understanding of how easy it was for banks to foreclose on military families, that becomes Danni’s event.

Seeing what is happening in our government seems like a catastrophic event in the US, but some of us had earlier hits to know the whole thing had become unstable for those not billionaires many years before the orange rock hit DC. Although why those hardest hit would elect a demolition man to office seems counter-productive. Maybe they just wanted to see a rock-slide hit everybody else, too.

February 2, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rock in the road. It can be physical, adding to a plot twist, or it can be metaphorical for a barrier or hardship. Go where you find the rock.

Respond by February 7, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published February 8). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

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Midnight Rock (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Michael knelt at the bumper, shining his flashlight. “Hell of rock you hit, Danni.”

“It was an easy target, squatting there in the middle of the road like a legless grizzly.”

Michael shined the powerful light up the canyon wall. “Can’t see anything else unstable.”

“A rock just for me.” She slumped her head on the hood. “Ike loved this truck.”

“He still does.”

“Yeah, Ike’s in some hell-hole, pining for his truck!”

“He’s enduring because of what he has back home, Danni. You, the truck, the dogs.”

“Too bad he won’t have a home to come home to.”

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August 24: Flash Fiction Challenge

August 24Hot sun heats the metal beyond touching comfortably. The playground equipment squats at the mouth of a giant coulee, as if poised to be devoured. No children run across the taupe grit where soap suds lap at the water’s edge. Soap Lake gets its name from those minerailzed suds, and a few adults wade out into its tepid waters. What do they hope to be healed of?

The town of Soap Lake is as gritty as the sand. Houses built of black basalt are void of green lawns. Small businesses based on an alternative healing niche line a short main street. A few resorts boast of healing waters piped to rooms. Locals 30 miles away in Moses Lake warn me of biting red bugs in the water and tweakers in the desert.

It looks as inhospitable as a homeless shelter must feel to a child.

That we even have homeless shelters for children in a country where a free-market system reigns puts to question the value of profit over people. In America, you can own a Boeing Triple 7. Or you can watch your child sleep in a homeless shelter and despair of how to afford $20 a week to put him on a city bus so he can go to first grade. If you want to make yourself feel better, google “help for homeless families” and breath a sigh of relief as listing after listing scrolls to reveal lots of aid. It’s a facade. It’s as fake as a spray-on tan.

Two months ago I could not admit this — but I’m fortunate. Two months ago, I felt as if I won a lotto ticket to hell. I mourned the loss of home, office, writing stability. I panicked in tight spaces, felt no joy in the wilderness and wondered if I’d ever feel normal again. Ironic for someone who has never felt normal. However, I’ve witnessed first-hand the normalizing of homelessness in America. It’s the new normal for many, and I’m not talking street people or panhandlers on busy corners.

Many uncounted people exist among you. We are the invisible homeless, the fortunate ones. The ones with tents or camp trailers. The ones with kitchenettes or motel rooms. The ones who are independent and have access to work and means, if not to a permanent address. We have complications, including mail, schooling and voting. For a valid ID, bank account, debit card, car insurance, health insurance and VA benefits you need an address. What do we do? We lie. Most ask a relative or friend to help and use their address. Then that mail proxy forwards to a General Delivery address.

That’s really where I live — General Delivery, Moses Lake 98837. But to keepTodd going through the VA, we have to have an address. To vote in the presidential elections, we have to have an address. To maintain my health insurance, I have to have an address. So we have simply kept our old one. It’s not like anyone else is currently living there. We forward our mail to GD and pick up our mail with identification that says we live somewhere that used to be home.

My husband is better at normalizing our experience than I am. When asked where we live, he answers, “We’re in between homes.” We are surrounded by others who do the same. Here I thought we camped among retirees. Some are, but many are “in between homes” like we are. There’s the engineer in town, advising on Air Japan’s entry to a facility in Moses Lake. His work makes it better for him to travel in an RV. Our neighbor five spots down from us is a plumber and has no where to live but his trailer. The family across the way recently admitted to us that they’ve lived here in this RV park with two sons and two dogs since last November. They can’t find a house they can afford, but he works and she home-schools the kids.

Don’t donate to those charities. They are nothing more than what my husband calls trust fund repositories. They give money in the way of grants. Call them up and say, “Hey, I have a young mother in need” and they’ll tell you they don’t ACTUALLY help the homeless; they fund grants for those who do. Okay. Who would that be? Seriously, I know a young mother in need. Her son starts first grade August 28 but they are living in a shelter.

Shelters are a crap-shoot. They reduce the number they serve by being specific: battered women and children; single men; families; veterans. Oddly enough, there are few shelters for single women. One homeless woman we see on our way to VA appointments stands on a corner with a cardboard sign that reads, “SMILE.” We do. We smile and wave; she waves back. I’m no longer hesitant to sit with homeless people on the streets. I buy us McDonald’s Sausage McMuffins and coffee. If I have change I empty my wallet. I’m lucky. I have client work and friends who care. My husband works. Our expenses are reduced except when we have emergencies. Fortunate or not, all homeless dread emergencies. We can’t afford to have them.

That’s when it hits you — there is no help. The safety net broke long ago. The charities are full of bullshit and only work to get grants or government funding. We worked with one specifically for Homeless Veterans. They took our time, cost us money to drive to appointments and never did a damned thing. I began listening more carefully –“might be able to…” When I told them to remove our case, they fought hard to keep us. They made several more “might” promises. As long as we were counted as being serviced, they got paid. We didn’t. They did.

Some shelters, despite reducing their numbers by serving specific sectors of population, have a lottery system. This sickens me most. Imagine the uncertainty that comes from being homeless. Now add to it that you have to gather with others and wait to see if your lotto number is drawn. If yes, you get a bed for the night. If no, well, there’s the street. What angers me is that the visible homeless have risen in numbers. In NYC alone, the number of homeless single adults has risen 95 percent. Rough sleeping is on the rise in the UK. In January 2015, 564,708 people were homeless on a given night in the United States, and of that number, 206,286 were people in families. Children. Nine percent of US homeless are veterans.

Why? Actually, the answer is the same here as it is across the pond. Circumstances, mental health and addiction issues might vary, but the core cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. As a writer working from home, 75 percent of what I earned went to rent. My husband’s contracts were sporadic and his service-related disability was barely enough to cover groceries. We received no assistance and we simple went without to live in an rental. When that rental was no longer available to us, we had no where to go. The rental shortage hurt the already tight market. It hurt people like us. We are among the rural homeless which often displaces people from place, as it has us.

Children suffer because their parents are caught in circumstances they can’t help. A young boy sleeps in a shelter tonight because his parents lost their lease and couldn’t afford the rent elsewhere. His father has battled addiction but before getting clean, he was evicted from a place. That means he’s not eligible to rent. If he stays with his family, his family is not eligible to rent. Where is the incentive to stay together? To stay sober? Where is the hope for this child? How is his mother to find work without an address? Where can she leave her son to go to an interview? Most shelters separate families.

We are fortunate. We have a camper, each other and no young children. I have office space. I no longer have shame to yell at practitioners who refuse VA insurance for my husband and I can say the homeless word with a spark of rebellion in my tone. I dare you to change things in this world. If you don’t want to look, I’ll draw your attention anyway. If over 500,000 people aren’t sleeping in a bed tonight, I don’t want us sleeping easily on distance from the issue. I worry for the children. I dream that one day, this boy in the shelter will go to college.

One day at a time. Spend your kindness on others. Validate their humanity. Smile. See what needs noticing around you. I can’t solve 500,000 problems. You can’t either. But I can take 10 extra minutes and $5 extra bucks to have breakfast with Andy on the street corner. Yes. He has a name. He even has a truck. Find your own Andy. Or Mindy who just wants smiles. If it concerns you to give a panhandler cash, give a food or gas gift card. Better yet, share a meal. Give your time. Support charities that do actual work, not just intake and head-counting. Serve soup, serve on councils.

And we all need to work together to find real solutions to affordable housing.

This is where most people stick their heads in the sand. What can you really do? In the US most homeless, including the fortunate RVers like we’ve landed with, are temporary. It’s estimated that about 82,000 are chronic. But all face affordable housing issues. Another estimate is that there are only 29 affordable homes per every 100 people in need of one. And other barriers to chronic homelessness include mental health and addictions. This group can’t even navigate the paperwork required to get into linear programs that they most likely will get kicked out of once they have a mental episode or addictive relapse.

But Utah has a solution for the chronically homeless facing deeper issues. It was based on the idea of a NYU psychologist:

“Okay,” Tsemberis recalls thinking, “they’re schizophrenic, alcoholic, traumatized, brain damaged. What if we don’t make them pass any tests or fill out any forms? They aren’t any good at that stuff. Inability to pass tests and fill out forms was a large part of how they ended up homeless in the first place. Why not just give them a place to live and offer them free counseling and therapy, health care, and let them decide if they want to participate? Why not treat chronically homeless people as human beings and members of our community who have a basic right to housing and health care?”

And the rest of us? We help each other. I’ve asked the mother across the row if there’s anything I can do to help with her sons’ education. Mostly, she just wants another woman who understands to chat with; someone who won’t judge her or make her feel like crap for living in a camp trailer with two boys and two dogs. The homeless man we met at Soap Lake just wanted to talk about cameras. The veteran who now helps other vets with their dogs wants a woman who won’t be ashamed of his struggles with PTSD. His wife left him when he sought help because the stigma embarrassed her.

I know this is temporary and I feel as though the worst has passed and it was survivable. We have decided not to move back to Sandpoint and passed on the affordable rental we had found. Instead we have developed several plans of action around what care my husband needs from the VA and how much longer his knee will hold out working in aviation on the floor. He’s looking for office work in aviation and has applied for a VA education program he’s eligible for, but will take months to find out if he’s entitled. No surprise. This much needed veteran program is underfunded and understaffed.

For now I office in a caravan. I live in 161-square feet of space with two big dogs and a former soldier. I’m fortunate. I’ve seen what lies across that line of fortune. I hurt most for the children and their parents who lack support and means.

August 24, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about an empty playground. Is it abandoned or are the children in school? What is it about the emptiness that might hint of deeper social issues. It can be a modern story, apocalyptic or historical. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by August 31, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

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First School at Rock Creek by Charli Mills (from Rock Creek)

A rope swing dangled beneath a cottonwood branch where Cobb stood, puffing a pipe. Mary walked across the short-lived school-yard to stand next to him.

“No teacher, no school,” he said.

“I know it was important to you. Lizzie was excited to come west and teach.” Mary glanced at the freshly turned earth.

“We need another teacher. What will Da say?”

“He’ll be sad. He saw to her education at Normal School.”

“Bad enough our teacher died, but she took half the students with her.”

Diphtheria. Mary counted five graves and then counted her blessings. None were her children.

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Where a Schoolhouse Once Stood by Charli Mills (from Miracle of Ducks)

Danni rolled the clay marble in the palm of her hand. While Ike picked cherries, she scratched at the dirt. According to Forest Service Records, Spring Creek School stood across the narrow creek bed from Carter Station. Danni looked for evidence of foundations, but nothing remained. She studied the land and imagined where the school would have been. Though she didn’t know, she applied logic – proximity to water, flatness of the terrain, evidence of fruit trees. If her hunch was right, she’d be standing in the empty playground where children of homesteaders played. That’s where she found the marble.

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