Homelessness: What I’ve Learned
An Open Letter to All Upper Valley VT/NH Friends
Author's note: A few days ago, during a conversation with an educated, intelligent, and really nice guy I met, I was reminded how much I’ve learned about people experiencing homelessness these past few years while volunteering for The Upper Valley Haven’s “19 Days of December” program. It prompted me to write this letter to share some basic information about homelessness, its root causes, and how personal it is to each of us — that’s right, to you and to me, our friends and neighbors, families, and the communities and towns in which we live, right here in the Upper Valley.
Dear Upper Valley friends and neighbors,
Who are those people experiencing homelessness among us? You might wonder why I ask? It’s because the line between being able to afford a mortgage, a rental, property taxes, food, clothing, and healthcare is a fine line that can strike and entangle the least likely. Many people, our neighbors included, live from paycheck to paycheck. An interruption in that revenue stream for just a few months can spell disaster.
Where do those who are homeless live? Here in the Upper Valley, they live in every single town. That’s right, even the communities that think they take care of their own, or towns whose median income is well above average, or towns where people don’t see others on the streets who look like they might be homeless by dint of dress or how they walk.
Why are there so many people experiencing homelessness people in the Upper Valley? This is a difficult question. It can be the loss of a job that leads to homelessness. It can be the threat of fear or violence on the home front that forces someone to seek shelter. It can be a divorce, or a separation with a spouse. It can be a mental health problem that suddenly arises. It can be an unexpected expense, like medical expenses due to the illness of a child. There are many reasons why people who might have been living comfortably suddenly can’t afford to live at all.
Remember Maslow? That’s right, the guy many of us leaned about in Psychology 101 in college, or in high school psychology class, or maybe even in a biology, science, or sociology class somewhere in our past. He developed a chart called “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” It looks like this:
Take a look at the very bottom section of the pyramid in purple above. These are the physiological, or basic bodily needs, we have as humans. Without these most basic needs fulfilled, we cannot live. It’s that simple. Of course, having more than these basic needs can lead to a happy and full life, but if food, water, warmth (shelter), and rest are not available, it means we’re homeless and without what we must have to simply survive.
So, what can we do about others, including our own community members, who have entered the realm of homelessness, or hunger, or both?
Well, the first thing to know is, it’s most likely not their fault. Nobody sets out in this world to become homeless, just as nobody sets out not to eat or drink, or to be warm, or to have a place to sleep each night. But it happens to many by virtue of circumstance outside their control. There is no “typical” profile of a homeless person. It can strike anyone at any time. The next thing to know is that here, in the Upper Valley, The Upper Valley Haven serves people in every single Upper Valley town and even its fringes — yours and mine, and more. From Bradford to Barnard, Lyme to Littleton, White River Junction to Norwich, Haverhill to Hanover, Lebanon to Thetford, Claremont to Canaan, Windsor to Wentworth, Strafford to Sharon, Bethel to Fairlee to Norwich to Newbury, homelessness and hunger know no geographic boundaries.
Loss of a job is the #1 reason why people lose their homes.
Last year when I helped with The Haven’s “19 Days of December” program, some of my community members and friends told me they didn’t think there were any homeless people in our town. And, if there were, they believed our town took care of their needs via the parish nurse and other programs that helped with firewood for heat, food supplements, town food shelf, etc. What I learned from The Haven staff, all anonymously of course, was that there were a host of people from my town who used The Haven’s food shelf and other services. They sent me a simple chart of the numbers of people they had helped during the previous year and the Upper Valley towns from which they came. That surprised many in my town, who then decided to contribute generously to The Haven. I thank them to this day for their willingness to listen — and to give back to help others.
Why do people living in a town with resources to feed and shelter them choose to go to The Haven instead? In a word, “anonymity.” Would you feel comfortable going to your church, library, school, or even local community food shelf to seek food or shelter? Many people much prefer the anonymity and professional care The Haven offers them. They don’t have to feel like they are special in a town that might whisper about them. They can come and go anonymously through The Haven’s front door to get a loaf of bread, or more, if they need it. Here in the Upper Valley, there’s a certain pride people take in caring for themselves and their families that just doesn’t fit with the visibility (real or perceived) that asking their own townspeople for help might suggest.
Can we end homelessness? Maybe not, but we sure can make a large dent in it here in the Upper Valley and in each of our towns by making a gift to The Upper Valley Haven, volunteering at a food shelf, or simply telling our friends what’s in this article.
The Haven also has professional staff members who help people on an individual, case by case, basis. These staffers work with Haven clients to get them into job training programs, find them shelter, offer places to go for healthcare, and work towards getting people back on their feet so they can again support themselves. It’s a strategy that has worked for many years, and one I’ve seen work first hand with several people I’ve steered towards The Haven. Advice like where to go for a bad tooth that offers affordable or free dental care. Advice like how to get a room for the night out of the cold, harsh winter weather. Advice like how to apply for a job. Advice like how to find a mental health professional. Advice on how to take the bus if you’re new to town. The Haven’s staff are trained and knowledgeable about how to work with a host of issues and people from all backgrounds. They understand and they care to help, keeping anonymity at the center of their relationship with each client.
Certainly, there’s more to The Haven and its staff, including the fact that they dedicate their cafeteria space to emergency overnight shelter for people in need. As the weather grows colder, more and more people turn to The Haven for shelter in frigid Vermont and New Hampshire winters. When I asked recently if The Haven could offer its cafeteria as a meeting space on a weekday evening, I was told it’s filled up with folding cots after dinner so people in need can have a place to sleep for the night. They’re bursting at the seams helping people who come from all around the Upper Valley.
I’ve also walked in through the back door of The Haven to drop off food items and have seen, first hand, how the shelves can be full one day, and the next they look like they’ve been raided by an army of hungry teenagers. Most everything is gone, the shelves are virtually empty, while volunteers wait for more food donations to arrive so they can get it to the cafeteria for breakfast and lunch for the day.
While The Upper Valley Haven’s reach is broad, its touch is highly personal and very local, right down to the town in which each of us live here in the Upper Valley. More to the point, it may be as personal a touch as your next-door neighbor, or a teacher in your child’s or grandchild’s classroom, or the library volunteer you so enjoy speaking with, or the person you just saw getting on the bus who picked up a glove for you, or the man or woman in the grocery store food aisle next to you, or your next-door neighbor, or a work colleague whose partner has fallen ill. Homelessness touches people from all walks of life. It knows no geographic bounds. And it doesn’t discriminate based on background, gender, skin color, culture, or creed.
When you see signs like these in shops and storefronts all around the Upper Valley, please walk in and do your shopping there. You’re be helping the homeless and hungry, and your patronage will encourage, excite and enable people who care to give back to The Upper Valley Haven.
This year, during this season of giving, and all throughout the New Year, please remember that the basic human needs of food, water, warmth (shelter), and rest never go away. For those less fortunate for a host of reasons, please encourage your friends and neighbors to think of The Haven and the many services it offers to people in our local communities. And for each of us reading this, please do feel a sense of obligation to reach deep and make a gift to The Haven, as well as to share this article with your community members, family, and friends so they, too, can learn what you now know about homelessness and The Upper Valley Haven.
Thank you, and may you be among those who can reach easily up into Maslow’s tip-top triangle of his Hierarchy of Needs pyramid.
Note: Donations to The Upper Valley Haven may be made online at: https://uppervalleyhaven.org/donate/ I gently suggest you schedule a monthly gift payment, every month, that works for your budget. If you’re capable of making a larger gift, please do contact The Haven directly at (this from The Haven’s website): “For monetary donations, including gifts of stocks, bonds, securities, and planned giving, contact Laura Gillespie or 802-478-1803. For any other types of donations (i.e. in kind, [food,] etc.), contact Jennifer Fontaineor 802-478-1850.” (Gifts of stock are welcome and a wonderful way to get a tax deduction for the full value of your shares while avoiding capital gains taxes in most cases. Check with your tax advisor to be sure.)
Your help is needed now, and you’ll feel good knowing you’re helping the most local of causes that supports the most basic of human needs. The needs of those experiencing homelessness and hunger don’t discriminate based on month, or the season of the year. Hunger and healthcare, shelter, advice and guidance are ongoing and needed all year long by many people we see every day close to home.
Most sincerely, and appreciatively,
PS: THE HAVEN"S TOP 5 MOST NEEDED ITEMS
2. holiday baking supplies
3. tuna fish
4. peanut butter
6. toothpaste & brushes
7. personal care items for women
The above list is from The Haven’s website. Getting your children and grandchildren involved to bring items to The Haven is fun, rewarding, and highly educational. Making a monetary donation along with a gift of food will make your holidays that much more satisfying!
Dave Celone writes the Poetic Licence blog here on dailyuv.com. He enjoys writing about all things Upper Valley-related, as well as unusual and interesting aspects of life. Dave manages Long River Gallery & Gifts in White River Junction which participates each year in "The 19 Days of White River Junction" to help The Upper Valley Haven fund its many important programs to help the homeless and hungry. Please Click Here if you'd like to follow Dave and get an email each time he publishes a piece here.