On Monday evening, I attended the Whidbey Homeless Coalition conversation, “What Does It Mean to Be Homeless on Whidbey Island?” Like many communities, homelessness has been growing in recent years, due to many factors, including lack of affordable housing, life-changing events (i.e. bankruptcy, foreclosure, job loss or divorce), domestic violence, poverty and inability to work due to health, mental issues or addiction.
Throughout the evening, participants shared their perceptions, personal experiences, and recommendations for providing housing and the support necessary to help someone move up the social ladder, and enjoy what most of us take for granted: Regularly taking a shower, brushing your teeth, washing your clothes (or having clean ones to change into), and knowing where you’re going to sleep next month.
Also discussed was the stigma of homelessness, an “invisible” population who are easy to ignore, much like litter on the ground. A momentary discomfort as you pass.
The reality, however, can’t be ignored. It was startling to hear there are approximately 250 homeless students who attend Oak Harbor High School. They share housing, live in motels, campgrounds, cars, abandoned buildings and emergency or transitional shelters. Some are homeless, along with their families. Others are on their own.
It’s frightening to think how many homeless people in Oak Harbor are the parents of children, who during the day attend school, but at night are scrambling to stay warm and dry, while upholding the pretense that everything is going to be “okay.”
Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we replace the word “animal” with “homeless,” can we honestly say our moral progress is exemplary? With nearly 554,000 homeless in America, and over 43 million living in poverty (12.7% of the population), we’re a long way from the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, whereby the word “happiness” inferred “prosperity,” “thriving” and “well-being.”