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Even the Best Band-Aid Is No Cure

DormitorioLast week, Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless accepted the invitation from Austin’s CultureMap to contribute to a special editorial series called “Imagine Austin’s Future.” The best thing to do is just read “How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan” in Richard’s own words. His theme is:

My vision for Austin is a community without homelessness.

There are about 4,000 people experiencing homelessness in Austin now, and that includes plenty of women and kids. Also, there are just over 600 emergency shelter beds. As a wise man once said, “You do the math.”

At a rough estimate, it sounds like there’s a place for only one out of six: 1/6th, more or less, give or take. Yes, the emergency shelter beds that exist are very excellent, but here’s the bottom line. Society has to come up with either (a) a way to create more beds or (b), shocking as the idea may seem, a way to bring the homelessness statistics way, way down — by creating conditions where there are not so many people experiencing homelessness. Maybe not even any.

Until then, House the Homeless continues to set aside a month every Autumn to raise money for thermal underwear, which is better than no shelter at all. Austin’s Thermal Underwear Drive happens in November, right after the annual memorial service for those who have died on the streets, both recently and in all the preceding years.

Of course, Austin isn’t the only city ever to hold a collection drive for winter gear. But it may be the most dedicated. This year, $20,000 in donations bought 3,500 items of clothing to keep people warm. Well, warm-ish. Warmer than they would have been without these welcome additions to their wardrobes.

Now, think about this. Suppose you’re a person experiencing homelessness, and you receive a set of thermal long-johns. You need to strip down to your skivvies in order to put on the new stuff. And it would be extra nice to have a wash in the process. Where can a homeless person do that? In surprisingly few places.

Okay, suppose you’re lucky enough to have a shelter bed for the night, and even the opportunity to catch a shower. So you sleep in your thermal underwear and get up the next day and go outside, and guess what? It’s a little bit too hot to be wearing a layer of insulation all day, outdoors. But, say, the shelter is closed during the day. Where can you go to take off your clothes, remove the thermal underwear, stow it in your pack, and get dressed again? Probably nowhere. Even in a seemingly remote place, there’s always the danger of an observer or a camera, and then you get arrested for indecent exposure.

When the afternoon turns really hot, suppose you can find a place to remove the underlayer. A few hours later, you have to find somewhere to strip down again and get into the warm clothes. This means taking off your shoes and removing the outer layers; preferably in a secluded and not-too-cold place. You have to set down the pack and other belongings, and, of course, a state of undress always puts a person at a disadvantage. In other words, just to prepare for the cold night, you would have to put yourself in an extremely vulnerable situation.

But cheer up, there is an alternative. You can resign yourself to just wearing the thermal underwear all the time, even throughout a warm winter day. It’s extremely uncomfortable to roast in too many clothes, especially if your day includes a long walk to some office to fill out some papers. Of course, you will perspire, and suffer the consequences of offending the noses of the housed citizens who have access to toilets and showers any time they wish.

The message here is, YES, it is a great and important thing to help by providing winter underwear! We will all keep on doing it! But it helps to bear this in mind: Thermal underwear is not a solution. It’s a band-aid for a gaping wound in the body of society. There’s still a bunch of people out there in the cold! Nobody who is reading this needs to be reminded — it’s not enough to give to the Thermal Underwear Drive, and then forget about the homeless until next November.

Remember the part about creating a city and a world where few or no people would experience homelessness? If you haven’t done so already, please see Richard’s solution. His article is titled “How to end homelessness in Austin” for a reason.

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Source: “How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan,” CultureMap.com, 02/08/12
Image by Daquella manera (Daniel Lobo), used under its Creative Commons license.