Carol never could catch up financially. Before she could pay for rent, food and child care, her purse was empty. As we became friends, I often found her staring into an empty refrigerator and crying over her broken marriage. Although she was a teacher, she didn't manage money well, and she was too devastated by her divorce to care.
In the summer, she taught summer school. But when it was over in July, she couldn't find a temporary job that coordinated with child care and bus schedules.
I tried to help. I paid her to watch my children. I brought her food. I encouraged her to study for a state teaching-credential test so she could get a job in a higher-paying public school. Beyond that, I was stumped.
Then I read in the newspaper that single-parent families were the fastest-growing category among the homeless, and I suddenly realized Carol and her children were likely candidates. There are at least a half million homeless children today; some statistics suggest up to a million. How could I be concerned enough to write a check to a downtown mission but not enough to recognize a friend who soon could become a resident there? I had stereotyped the down-and-out person as someone living on Skid Row, but that's not so.
Typical scenarios leading to homelessness include a family who can't find affordable housing after their older building is torn down and a waitress who goes on medical leave and can't survive on sick pay without tips.
My friend Marguerite didn't understand how desperate her neighbors were until someone bought their house at a foreclosure auction.
"I remember the husband lost his job, but I never dreamed it was that bad," she told me. "I've tried to find out what happened to them, but no one knows."
The problem of homelessness can be so overwhelming that we think that only specialized organizations are equipped to deal with these problems. But a friend who works at Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles says she believes that the church is the highway around Skid Row. "It's that committed network of people who already know potentially homeless persons who can help the most -- before they get down here."
Carol's problem opened my eyes to prevention as well as cure in the problem of homelessness. Here are some suggestions on how we can help.
Be a resource person
People with financial problems can get so discouraged that they aren't good at digging up job-training programs or subsidized child care. We can make some phone calls and search the Internet.
Ask friends if they know someone who's selling a reliable used car or who rents inexpensive apartments. They may know about employers who offer child care, such as universities and hospitals. A needy person may not qualify for a professional job, but these institutions need clerical and custodial help, too.
Ask potentially homeless friends to rethink their family options. Can an aunt or in-law move in and trade room and board for child care? Jan McDougall, formerly of Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles points out that many times people in this situation are estranged from family members who would help if they knew there was a problem. Probe to see if they could patch things up with their families.
People who work regularly with the homeless can direct us to resources. You can call large churches in your area that have staff who specialize in this area and can answer telephone requests about available programs. Some churches publish their own classified ads or bulletin boards that feature used furniture, jobs and quality day care. Ask your local council members to supply you with a social-services resource list.
Be an encourager
There are other ways you can bring hope to those feeling discouraged by their situation. Be a friend. View this person as a peer instead of a "needy person." On Carol's birthday, my husband watched her children while I took her out for cheesecake. It seemed frivolous in light of her serious needs, but she loved it. "I feel so special," she whispered and hugged me.
Validate them. McDougall says she believes that lack of self-esteem is a major problem. "Almost every woman I work with has been emotionally, sexually or physically abused by a family member." One way we can help is to point out this needy person's good qualities.
When I admired Carol's tall, slim figure in her class picture, she looked shocked. Between the breakup of her marriage and her own self-doubts, she'd forgotten that anyone could think she was attractive.
Don't expect miracles. Understand that some days a potentially homeless person may want to work on problems and other days may feel hopeless. Carol studied for her credential test sporadically. I learned to praise her for her confident moments and walk with her through the discouraging ones.
Find support. A family's personal and medical problems may be more than you can handle. Shelters and self-help groups for alcoholics, spouses of alcoholics and battered women often are listed in the telephone book. Some missions offer free clinics. Some churches offer free counseling.
Share your faith. "Drug pushers are bold and courageous," says McDougall. "We need to be. I always tell people that God loves them and then give them further teaching as needed."
Helping others doesn't have to drain you -- it can help you. After talking to Carol about how God always provides, I received a car insurance bill that had doubled. "We can never pay this," I stormed. I thought about Carol and rehearsed my words on myself.