In the cruel fact of homelessness, kindness is welcome

During the last two weeks, we have used this space to highlight organizations that serve animals and children, respectively, as a way to show people how they can help the less fortunate during the holiday season. This week, the focus falls on homelessness, which becomes an even more urgent problem in the winter months.

The falling dominoes of the hurting economy – the lack of spending, the loss of jobs, the shortfalls in government revenue, the cuts in social services – have resulted in a precipitous rise in homelessness in Maine.

Homelessness is a problem that is most visible in Portland, but only because residents of nearby communities migrate to that city, where most of the services are based. According to Melanie McKean of Preble Street, which serves the homeless and hungry throughout most of Cumberland County, the group has seen a 30 percent rise in the number of people served compared to the last year or two. And she doesn’t expect it to get any better any time soon.

“At our women’s shelter, we anticipated serving 35 women, but now average 57,” McKean said. “At our breakfast soup kitchen last week we served 400 meals in one hour. … By March 2010 we will be serving over 500,000 meals a year and will need many more volunteers to help prepare and serve.”

It is easier on our conscience to dismiss the homeless as a population apart, to be kept under wraps and out of the way by organizations such as Preble Street. It is easier on the heart to decide that the homeless are suffering because of some personal failing or a few poor decisions. It is easier to put out of mind the man or woman hunkering down for a cold night on the street.

But the fact remains that people are homeless for a multitude of reasons: mental illness, substance abuse, lack of job opportunities and affordable housing, eroding social service support, domestic violence, and generational poverty, among others.

It seems likely that many people who will warm themselves tonight within the walls of an apartment or house may have been at a point in their lives a bad break or two away from being homeless. Without family support, without the means or knowledge to access social services, or with debilitating illness, mental or otherwise, it is a much shorter fall to the bottom than most people realize.

If we can agree that but for a little luck and grace we may find ourselves seeking help in a way once thought unimaginable, then we can agree that homelessness as a problem belongs to all of us. Money can help – money almost always helps – but volunteerism and community involvement are necessary, as well.

Preble Street has numerous opportunities, from serving meals and gathering donations to helping in the office. While they serve more than just the homeless, food pantries in communities throughout Cumberland County can always use volunteers to distribute food in order to help families keep costs down, a key to preventing homelessness in the first place.

As McKean says, “It takes all of us – businesses, faith communities, schools, civic organizations, and individuals – pitching in, volunteering, reaching out, speaking up.”