Saturday, January 6, 2007

Arbitrary Numbers and the Damage They Can Do

It's funny how people feel like they are experts on things that they really don't know a lick about.

After Christmas, Charlie Brown's dad took us out for breakfast the morning we left town. Somehow, the talk at the table turned to my work. I related a story about a man in Loveland who meant well, but was fast making enemies with the City leaders. He'd demanded an inclement weather shelter be designated for the city's homeless - oh, and it needed to be up and running within 12 hours of his request as there was a storm moving through. And, he was somewhat hostile. And he kept running his mouth and ending up in the paper. I told of how I totally agreed with the man's concerns, but was frustrated. Where was he when I was working this summer for the homeless count? And, perhaps, if he knew of my involvement with that project, along with my past work experience, he might see me as an ally instead as an enemy. The bottom line was that I am a municipal employee, though, and not an elected official with the capacity to make these types of calls.

And then he said it.

My father-in-law said what several of my good intentioned, upstanding, fine, but altogether ignorant community members have echoed:

"Well, and then there's the fact that 95% of the homeless are in that situation by choice."

(emphasis is mine, not his)

My hackles went up as I heard arbitrary misinformation being presented as fact. I'd kept my mouth shut over the long holiday weekend as politics came up at the dinner table and my brother-in-law had said to my more liberal understanding, "That's just ridiculous." But, you know, copier techs know everything about the cost-savings of preventive programs, so I let it go. This, on the other hand, I was not going to let go, regardless of the Meyer male ego that tends to flare up angrily when being called out.

"So, uhm, did you just say what I think you did?" My question was accompanied by an expectant look, which inspired back tracking. Charlie Brown shifted, uncomfortably, in his seat.

"Well, in my opinion - you know there are a lot of people..."

"In your opinion, it's a fact that 95% of homeless people choose to be so? What's your basis? And tell me, just how many homeless people have you actually known to be able to make such a determination? We'll see what the hard numbers say when the count is published. In the meantime, let me just say that my professional experience with homeless people has shown me just the opposite. Even among the chronic homeless I worked with, none of them WANT to be out in the elements, or in the shelters. Some have mental illness so severe, they are not even capable of choosing a lifestyle. Some don't know that there's an alternate choice to be had. But even then, they are the minority. The majority of homeless people are families with children and most of the time, you can't even tell they are homeless."

And, what I desperately wanted to say, but didn't: You are an expert of cars and body work- why don't you stick to that, and quit muddying the public perception of social issues?

That is not to say that I have all the answers - heck, I don't even know if I have some of the answers to our social problems. But, I'm schooled in dealing with them, I work on the frontlines with them, and am a critical thinker about them - versus accepting spoonfed stereotypes into my mind.

Part of this problem is that he wasn't hearing me. Instead of hearing my agreement, albeit with many frustrations, my father-in-law heard a me versus him kind of story, and was trying to show me his support. I get that.

And, people think they know. They want to be right, because their ideas make it easier for them to accept that they maybe aren't doing all that they could to help, and because, the real realites are very painful to face.

But folks, arbitrary numbers do nothing but lend credibility to, and further establish, stereotypes. And that's not good. Not good at all.

So, here are some real numbers. More will come later this month.

Preliminary findings on the Colorado Statewide Homeless Count say that at a minimum, 11,890 homeless persons live in the state.

60% of them are families with children. This translates to 7,134 men, women and children. SIXTY percent! This means that the stereotype of a single man or woman is the exception to the rule of majorities.

25% of these people are experiencing homelessness for the first time. Translated, 2,972+ people are in a situation they have never before had to deal with. Anecdotally, a lot of the service agencies I work with report that this group of people is not only homeless for the first time, but now"low-income" for the first time, thanks to layoffs in recent years, and not at all familiar with assistance programs and local resources. In addition to this inability to navigate "the system," there's a strong disdain for it, and people in this group are waiting until their lives have completely unraveled before seeking help.

Hmm....that could be little-ole-now-upper-middle-class me/(insert someone you know here).

Not exactly the face you pictured, now is it?


  1. This is an important topic, it'll be interesting to see if you elicit a conversation out of this. The numbers are very interesting, I had no idea that families constituted the majority of the homeless population.

  2. That's a rough conversation to have with anyone. It's particularly hard with in-laws because it's the whole respect vs. you're out of your fuxxxxin mind syndrome. You want to say that they don't know crap, but then they raised your husband. Which could lead to a whole other ball of wax about just how fxxed up he can be at times, too. Or maybe that's just me. Hang in. And remember: it's going to be so much more fun when you're working full time and going to school! Just saying. With love. From Los Angeles. In the warm evening with the window open.


    I just hit myself for you.