Calling Attention To Homelessness

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By: Laura M. Reckford
Published: 12/30/11

Billy Bishop, a commercial fisherman whose alcoholism relegated him to a life on the streets for 10 years, said things began to turn around for him after an offer from a friend.

Mr. Bishop was coming out of the NOAH homeless shelter on Winter Street in Hyannis when he saw Alan Burt of Centerville, a homeless advocate, coming out of the Salvation Army nearby.

Ashamed of his circumstances, Mr. Bishop did not want Mr. Burt to see him, and he crossed to the other side of the street.

But Mr. Burt did see him and called out: “Hey, fisherman, let me throw you a line. Take hold of it. Let me pull you ashore.”

“That was the first person I listened to,” Mr. Bishop said. And with the help of Mr. Burt and countless others, Mr. Bishop was able to get sober and begin a new life. He is now the president of Homeless Not Hopeless, a four-year-old nonprofit that provides housing and support. Homeless not Hopeless now runs three houses in Hyannis, housing 26 people.

Mr. Bishop was the last in a string of 17 speakers who talked about the issue of homelessness at a press conference last week at Calvary Baptist Church in Hyannis.

While speakers made presentations under a white tent, others set up camping tents on the church’s lawn on West Main Street. About a dozen people were planning to sleep outside as a gesture to show solidarity with the homeless. The sleep-out is in honor of National Homeless Persons Memorial Day, which takes place annually on December 21, the first day of winter and the longest night of the year.

But Mr. Bishop made sure everyone was aware that sleeping in a tent for one night is not like being homeless. “Those are condos compared to what we lived in,” Mr. Bishop said about the tents out on the lawn. “If you’ve never been homeless, you have no idea what it is.”

He talked about the embarrassment and the inability to ask for help. “That’s how homeless people live. They live in shame,” he said. “I had five sisters and a brother. I shamed them all. I had to hide.”

Mr. Bishop said homelessness comes in phases. First it feels almost like a joke, to end up without a warm bed.

Then desperation sets in. “You have no clothes, no food. It’s cold out. Where are you going to get warm?” he said.
The final stage is survival mode. “That’s when a homeless man will do anything. You would too, you get cold enough.”

Besides Mr. Bishop, there were other speakers on the front lines of the homelessness issue.

Tom Naples, outreach worker for the Cape Cod Council of Churches, sets out to find people living deep in the woods on winter nights to try to bring them in from the cold. He said he is blessed to be doing the work he does with the homeless, “people who have touched my life and made me feel human day after day.”

He urged those gathered for the press conference to remember those out on the streets. “Take a moment to think about the people out there,” Mr. Naples said.

There was also news from policymakers. Estella Fritzinger, CEO of Community Action of Cape Cod & Islands who is also a co-chairman of the Regional Network to Address Homelessness, said her group was now focusing on prevention.

She said a new regional plan to address homelessness will be announced next month. The plan is the culmination of a 10-month process and it targets five populations: chronically homeless, veterans, families, young adults ages 18 to 24, and seniors.

“In addition to the cost effectiveness of prevention, the Network believes prevention is a more compassionate and better practice of addressing the needs of those who are either at risk of or experiencing homelessness,” states a policy paper on the issue.

To show the cost-effectiveness of this approach, Ms. Fritzinger presented data that on average prevention costs are $1,500 per household, compared to an average of $4,500 for a three-month shelter stay per household.

The group is asking for $250,000 from the state, with $200,000 to be used to prevent families from becoming homeless; and $50,000 to assist individuals to access affordable housing.

Another speaker was Brianna Juaire of East Falmouth, a senior at Sturgis Charter Public School. The school is on Main Street, Hyannis, and students get a firsthand look at homelessness from the people whom they see every day. Because of that, a group of students from Sturgis wanted to “lead by example” and be a part of National Homeless Persons Memorial Day. At the ceremony held at the Federated Church of Hyannis Wednesday evening, Sturgis students welcomed people and handed out programs for the event, which honored the nine people who were homeless or formerly homeless who died this year on Cape Cod.

Brianna said homeless people “cannot and should not be ignored” and the community must work toward solutions. She said she hoped the community would be more proactive on the issue of homelessness.

Heidi Nelson, CEO of Duffy Medical Center, said her agency is focused on helping the homeless through providing health care and housing. Duffy’s caseworkers have steered 200 homeless individuals to housing this year, she said. A total of 2,600 people were provided medical and other services through Duffy last year, she said.

Since Duffy’s new building was completed in April, the organization has seen an increase in their clients by 15 percent, she said.

Ms. Nelson explained that studies show that people who are homeless die early and homelessness contributes to those early deaths. While the average person in America lives to 75 to 80, the life expectancy of homeless people is on average 44 to 55.

Besides the harsh conditions of life on the streets, contributing factors to early deaths of homeless people are effects from mental health issues and substance abuse, she said.

She said, Duffy is working now focusing on the issue of trauma with homeless people by promoting the principles that recovery is possible; healing can happen through relationships; and integrated care is necessary.

Later on Wednesday, at the Homeless Persons Memorial Day ceremony, Paul Hunt, who was formerly homelessness, remembered the small act of compassion someone once showed him when he was living on the streets. The stranger gave him “a warm smile and a cup of coffee.”

“For that brief moment in time, someone gave a crap about me,” Mr. Hunt said.

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