One of the people I follow on Twitter is Pastor Shaun King, of Courageous Church in Midtown Atlanta. He’s becoming well-known nationally for his use of social media for connecting with his congregation and performing outreach work. This past week, he was advocating on behalf of a family on the verge of homelessness. The parents are struggling to make ends meet, and the mother recently gave birth to a preemie who is still in the hospital. The mother needs to be at the hospital as often as possible, and can’t work. The father works in construction and hasn’t been able to find regular work because of the weather.
This is an all-too familiar situation for many families. All it takes is one adverse event to send them spinning into financial crisis. This family was on the verge of eviction and they couldn’t pay their gas or electric bills. They were doing without many basic things. Pastor Shaun’s approach is like triage; he works quickly to stop the bleeding. This is certainly necessary and I wish there were more people out there who listen to the cries of the suffering and act to relieve it as soon as possible. It’s part of what I believe we are called to do as members of the Beloved Community (see my blog post about this, published for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.)
However, the bigger issue remains: what happens the following week or month after the initial crisis passes? When I saw the story, I immediately began a search for services this family could contact for emergency assistance and ongoing financial advisement. I served on the board of Decatur Cooperative Ministry and know all too well how many individuals and families are only a paycheck away from homelessness (including what is known as functional homelessness – drifting from relatives and friends’ houses temporarily.) There are many reasons for this, but the most obvious one I’ve seen, even from friends I’ve advised, is that people either don’t know what services are available to them, think they aren’t eligible or are afraid/ashamed to ask for help.
I was able to find a local non-profit organization that functioned very much like DCM in this family’s town, and contacted the mother directly to give her this information. If she has done so, I’m confident that she and her husband will have access to some services to help them get back on their feet and keep a roof over their heads while they deal with their newborn’s fight for survival. The short-term monetary and personal item donations provide immediate help, but they need something more consistent while they get their life back on track. Otherwise, the well-meaning help is simply a small bandage covering a gaping wound.
At some point, either you or someone you know will find themselves in dire financial need. A job loss may put you or someone else at the risk of losing a home. A sudden unexpected catastrophic expense could throw a family already barely getting by into a tailspin. Or there may be one or two wage-earner family making the rent and utilities but finding themselves struggling to put food on the table. Many people don’t know that they qualify for aid, whether it’s food stamps, WIC, assistance with utilities or donations from a local food bank or co-op. It pains me to think of so many people suffering needlessly when there are government, social and ecumenical services out there who can lend a helping hand.
The simplest place for someone in need to start is by contacting their local United Way. A phone call and interview will help get the process started. The state, county or city you live in also may have certain social services available. If you or the person you know belong to a church or other spiritual community, the pastor or leader can recommend services sponsored or run by the church or community.
The Internet is the quickest way to access this information, even though it may not all be in one place. If you or the person you know doesn’t have one at home, the local library provides free computer services. You can do what I often do, which is conduct the searches online and give them the information (addresses, phone numbers and email addresses.) People who are under dire financial stress are in fight-or-flight mode and may not have the focus required to do the research. They may also feel ashamed of their inability to support their family or having to ask for a “handout.” Many people with legitimate jobs think that food stamps or WIC only apply to people on welfare. That’s simply not true. You qualify if your household only reports up to a certain amount of income and also takes the number of dependents into account. Given the state of the economy, more people qualify for these forms of aid than ever before.
I’m not advocating that people cheat the system. But there are many hard-working people who need the assistance and aren’t receiving it because it never even occurred to them that they were eligible. Instead, they hit up family or friends for cash, depleted their retirement savings, ran up credit cards or just avoided paying rent or utility bills until they got the eviction or termination of service notices. Before the situation is dire, find out what services (including financial management services, which help get debt under control and set a budget) are available. Everyone deserves to have a roof over their head and food to eat.
(Photo credit: JElliott on Flickr)