Lately I’ve spent an awful lot of time in church. See, as a woman who runs a homeless shelter, I’ve been invited nearly every Sunday for the last two months to different worship services to explain how we care for the homeless, who the homeless are and what others might do to help. Consequently, our shelter looks like Santa’s workshop right now with presents piling up waiting to be distributed to the folks in our care.
When I speak I usually tell a story. I talk about the men, women and children we serve. This year, for example, we had a family come to us consisting of a mom, three kids and a dad who had just lost his job. The mom was still working, but the dad had colon cancer. You can probably figure out how they ended up homeless. Sometimes you don’t think you’re living on the edge, and then circumstances move the edge closer and you fall over it anyway.
Let me tell you a story that I haven’t told anyone else yet.
A senior citizen — I’ll call her Miriam — who recently became homeless for the first time in her life has been living with us about four months. Miriam works at a local fast food restaurant. She’s old enough for Social Security but hasn’t filed yet. Our caseworkers are helping her with the paperwork now. Elders often have good reasons — illiteracy or ignorance of availability — for not filing. We often run into folks who can’t navigate the system, so we help.
The plight of homeless seniors is often different from their juniors.
Statistically, older homeless folks are newly homeless. That’s because chronically homeless people don’t get old. The National Coalition for the Homeless cites that “on average a homeless person’s life is 36 percent shorter than a housed person’s life,” making “the average age of death 48.1 years, falling short of the 77.2 years” the rest of us can hope to live.
Anecdotally, I have to agree. The last person who died where I work was 47 years old. As a culture we’ve grown used to the fact that people live on the street; people dying on the streets still shocks us a bit.
Anyway, back to this woman’s story. She, like most homeless older people I’ve met, doesn’t want to burden her children. She’d been independent all her life. Additionally, she’s been a member of society’s working poor and consequently so are her kids. None of her children has the resources or the room to take her into their homes. In fact, many of the residents of homeless shelters get there because the relative they lived with got in trouble with their landlord for “doubling up” — a term used in my business when individuals and families take others in from the street.
So Miriam can’t or won’t make herself a burden to her children. It’s sad that even though Miriam has lived the “American dream” — raising her kids, making sure they stayed in school and never got in trouble or went to jail — her 40-plus years working for minimum wage has rendered her without a nest egg and homeless. But that’s not the saddest part of Christmas this year for Miriam.
The other day I asked Miriam what she wanted for Christmas. I knew that one of the kind folks buying toys might also get this older woman a new watch or winter coat.
Miriam’s eyes filled with tears and she said, “For the past eight years I’ve tried to save the money to put a headstone on my daughter’s grave. I’ve never been able to put very much aside. And with losing my apartment I’ve had to use the last of the money I had saved.”
In 2003, Miriam’s youngest daughter died of the stomach cancer she had battled since her diagnosis at age 11.
Miriam’s one of hundreds of thousands of folks who will spend Christmas homeless this year. But this is far from the saddest Christmas of her life.
If you’ve helped a total stranger this holiday, thank you. If you’ve yet to do so, you have a few days left.
Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.