Keys: Completely Ordinary, Right?

Keys. They are central to our life but often over looked. They are the sign that we own or rent a car, a home, a mailbox, items in our life we deem central to happiness, but never really consider. Items taken for granted. Items you don’t appreciate until they are gone. For the homeless, a key is something they will never overlook because a key is way to a new life, a better life. When asked about his keys, Will, who was formerly homeless said “I have three keys here…These keys are to my new life. I love these keys. I cherish these keys. These keys are going to be part of my life for the rest of my life.”

Yes, you will probably always own a key to some place. You will probably never be homeless. But the key word is probably. It is easier than you may think to find yourself without a key, without a home.

Today, I’d like to talk to you about first, how easy it is to become homeless, second, the state of homelessness in St. Louis and why you should care, and finally, how you can help without donating money or large chunks of time serving at a shelter.

The prevailing attitude is that the homeless are on the streets because of substance abuse or mental illness and therefore cannot really be helped or to some people’s minds don’t deserve any help. While much of the homeless population do suffer from substance abuse and mental illness, that is by no means everybody. There are a large number of people who find themselves homeless because they lost their job, became sick and couldn’t afford the treatment, couldn’t afford rising housing costs, were abused and had nowhere to turn to for help, or just ran out of luck.

According to the National Coalition on Homelessness, over the past 20-25 years it has become harder and harder to find affordable rental properties. This along with a rise in poverty significantly contributes to the number of people homeless in the United States. The National Low Income Housing Coalition is reporting that the fair market rent in every state is higher than minimum wage and in 30 states more than two full-time minimum wage jobs are required to rent a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent.

During my time volunteering at St. Peter and Paul Community Services, a non-profit that fights homelessness here in St. Louis, I usually get a chance to talk to the people there. Many have told me about how they grew up in a well-off or middle-class family, have a college education, and never would have thought they could ever be homeless, until they were. Homelessness is more common than you think.

Two of my best friends and their families have found themselves homeless when they were young but you never would have known it now or then. Homelessness is all round you weather you see it or not.

I hope that you see now how easy it is to become homeless and how many different types of people for every single background find themselves so. I would like to talk to you now about homelessness in St. Louis in particular. There is a long tradition of homelessness in St. Louis. According to Tom Burnham, the Shelter Director at St. Peter and Paul Community Services, the largest shanty towns during the great depression were located in St. Louis.

Stephanie Schmidt the program director at St. Peter and Paul Community Services said that the largest growing population of the homeless are homeless children. St. Peter and Paul Community Services estimates that they help about 3,500 people a year and they are only one of the shelters in the area and one of the smallest at that. Furthermore, there are some 2,500 homeless people on any given day in St. Louis but there are only 1,136 shelter beds says St. Louis City and County in an 2010 St. Louis Review article.

We have talked about how easy it is to become homeless and how wide spread the problem is. Now, I would like to talk about the little things you can do to help. Of course giving money and time serving is incredibly helpful, but I’m going to assume that you all are busy and don’t really feel like donating. That’s ok. There are other things you can do to fight homelessness.

The first thing you can do is treat the homeless that you meet with respect. Don’t avert your eyes when you pass them on the street. You don’t need to give them money, in fact many of the people who work at St. Peter and Paul caution against giving money to panhandlers. But you can smile or nod at them, perhaps even take a few minutes to have a conversation. Treat them as a person worthy of your respect, because they are.

The second thing you can do is vote. Many issues that affect homelessness indirectly are on the ballot every time you vote. If you vote for programs and candidates that will help decrease poverty, appear to help the city as a whole, promote education, and/or will help create jobs, you will be fighting homelessness.

As you can see it isn’t that hard to become homeless or to help. Homelessness isn’t a disease. It isn’t a mark of shame. It’s a state of being. Homelessness can happen because you lose your job, a family member or friend turns on you and kicks you out, an unexpected event causes you to fall behind on your rent or any number of other reasons.  You never know who could be homeless or why they are without a key.

What if one day you wake up on the side of the street, on a bench in the park. Wouldn’t you hope that you could still be treated with respect and like a normal member of society? Wouldn’t you be hoping that the legislation passes was going to help you climb out of homelessness and not sink deeper in?

Please. Remember what I’ve talked to you about today and maybe share it with someone else. Homelessness is a big problem in the United Sates and it is something that worth fighting. Look at you keys. Think about what they are the keys to and how lucky you are to have them. Thank you.

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