At the intersection of tragedy & triumph
The following remarks on the issue of homelessness were delivered by Health Care for the Homeless President & CEO Kevin Lindamood at the Waterfront Marriott on February 15, 2014, during The HCH Chocolate Affair. This followed a keynote address by Brandon, an HCH client and participant in the “Faces of Homelessness” Speakers’ Bureau. Brandon ended his presentation with the Maya Angelou poem “Alone.”
Alone in community. What a contradiction. Except for having each other Dee and Reggie woke up every morning feeling alone in community.
Dee and Reggie. Reggie and Dee. We rarely saw one without the other. The couple had lived with Reggie’s mother to care for her during a lengthy illness. After her death, the house was taken over unpaid ground rent. And Dee and Reggie turned to the streets, unwilling to separate to find shelter.
Four years. That’s how long they subsisted on whatever they could chase down from local service providers, moving their bedroll from one location to another. You might have seen them on the front porch of Health Care for the Homeless. If you commute downtown the way I do you might have passed right over them without even knowing they were there as they slept against the concrete columns that hold up the Jones Falls Expressway.
Once I saw Reggie without Dee and it was such an alarming sight that I asked him about it. Reggie, where’s your wife? “Oh, she’s real sick,” he replied, pointing across the street to their bedroll under the expressway where Dee’s foot emerged from an enormous pile of blankets. She wound up in the hospital later that day.
After years of outreach and a housing voucher from the City of Baltimore, Dee and Reggie moved into their own home last year on the first day of spring. Now, I promise you we’re just a few weeks away from spring again – and Dee and Reggie are still housed today.
We celebrate these triumphs tonight – Brandon’s triumph. Dee and Reggie’s triumph.
But in this Health Care for the Homeless community we must never forget that our work exists at the intersection of triumph and very real tragedy.
You’ve heard us say that people experiencing homelessness are sicker than their housed counterparts and die prematurely because of it. These are far more than mere slogans and statistics.
Late last month a U.S. Military veteran who slept, hidden, in the supportive beams of a bridge, who was working, saving for a place to stay, came into our clinic in the days after that first polar vortex with severe frost bite of both hands and both feet.
Two weeks ago a nine month old girl living with her family in a homeless shelter passed away in a local hospital from the flu.
We stare into the face of preventable tragedy every day. We can be deterred by it. Or we can be motivated to change what we find. Already, our staff are seeking ways to ensure that all kids experiencing homelessness have flu vaccines every year. And the veteran? He’s safe in shelter, his condition has improved steadily with nursing care, and he’s been connected for ongoing treatment with the VA.
We stand together at the intersection of tragedy and triumph in full defiance of two widely held misconceptions about homelessness. The first is that homelessness is complex and difficult to solve.
Look, human lives are complicated. Congress – I think we might all agree – is a bit baffling. But understanding homelessness and how to end it? Surprisingly simple:
Four things: Affordable housing, comprehensive health care, an income, and a supportive community. Every transition from tragedy to triumph that comes out of our work has these four things in common.
Secondly, we must all reject the notion that some tragedies are simply too far gone. That we can actually label a person as a “lost cause.” Let’s all agree on this:
- No one who served our country in uniform is a lost cause.
- No child is a lost cause.
- Brandon was not a lost cause.
- Dee and Reggie were not lost causes.
- Of the 10,000 people you helped us serve last year in Baltimore and the surrounding counties – people struggling to support themselves and their families: not a single lost cause among them.
Let me leave you with this: Last week, I saw Dee on our front porch. I was heading out to a meeting; she was coming in. We stopped to greet each other and I asked her how she’s been. She said what we all say these days about this never ending winter, mentioned that she’d had a bad cold, and, pointing to the person next to her, said that her neighbor kindly drove her down for her doctor’s appointment. As we parted ways, I called back over my shoulder: “Hey, Dee. Where’s Reggie?”
“Oh, he’s real sick,” she said. “He’s got whatever I had.” And then she said five simple words I’ll never forget. This is what she said:
“He’s home in bed, resting.”