By: Truong Lam
Quote: George Matthew Adams
“Hi, do you have some change… just 50 cents is fine.” How many times has each of us been approached with that line, especially in the Texas Medical Center? Most times, how do you respond? Now, I’m guilty of this too, but most of us continue to amble on, pretending not to notice, or say, “I’m sorry. I don’t have any money.” Not that this is always the wrong answer, but is there a better answer?
Back in September 2013, I helped to form a group at Rice University called OwlsHelp Consulting as the first step towards finding a better solution to this problem. OwlsHelp Consulting was born out of a need to bridge the gap between the homeless population and the many benefits, resources, and opportunities readily available for the financially disadvantaged, as well as to connect students to the reality of poverty for these individuals and families. When we were first formed, the idea was to expose students in a very intimate, real way to the daily struggles of being homeless in Houston. Today, we represent an organization (transitioning to nonprofit status) working to bring comprehensive stability to homeless individuals by tackling all of their problems simultaneously, rather than temporarily putting a band-aid on them.
In the next few paragraphs, I’d like to share a few anecdotes, some insights I’ve developed along the way, and suggestions I have for bringing genuine, influential relief to the homeless of Houston.
Lisa Garcia is a single mom of five kids. This family was the first to receive our assistance, and we continue to work with them today. When we first met Lisa and her family, we looked at them, looked at ourselves, and said, “We’re a team of bright, hard-working, enthusiastic Rice students. I’d say we solve EVERYTHING in a few months.” Boy, have we ever been so wrong! I think when we view homelessness, we see it almost as a “choice,” or rather, something that individuals can escape from at any given time, yet they choose not to. For some people, it may be a matter of “choice.” But for the many displaced and disenfranchised, it’s a matter of surviving. For 10 years, Lisa has been in a vicious cycle of poverty that she has not been able to escape. The reality is every time she tried, she would just hit another wall. If she wanted her daughter, who is resolutely resistant to attending school, to go to school, she’d have to drag her daughter to school by bus, provided that she had money for the bus fare for the both of them. But oftentimes, that would mean she would have to miss a morning job interview. If she had a job interview lined up, she would set up the interview with a certain phone number that she would no longer have when they would like to follow up because she could not afford the phone bills. If she had a spot reserved for housing, she was told that she could not move in since the oldest son has a charge of “attempted burglary” on his record. If she wanted to stay in a motel temporarily, she would be told she is on the MCO list (Must Check Out) because her alcoholic husband has been cited for public disturbance at almost every motel/inn they stay at. And this is really just the beginning.
Another woman, in her thirties, has six kids and is with a supportive husband. They traveled down to Houston from Tennessee looking to start a new life. The move seemed obvious because her sister lives in an apartment here close to downtown. While the woman and her husband were on the job hunt, they stayed in the sister’s apartment. On one occasion, the sister promised to help relocate the family to another apartment, where she said she would pay for all expenses while they continue to look for work. Unfortunately, the sister took the moving van with all their possessions and left without a trace. When our organization was made aware of their situation, they had already been living in a park close to my apartment for almost a week! What’s more is that this was in the middle of December and the youngest of the six children was only four months old.
Interestingly, this family was brought to my attention by a very caring, selfless individual. He had been living in the same park for many years, but saw his job as helping bring assistance to those who are even less fortunate than himself. He’s nearly 50, and when he told me his story, it caught me a little off guard as to how he became homeless. He attended a public university in Utah on a football scholarship, which paid for his tuition and fees. While there, he pursued a degree in accounting. Not too long after his freshman year, his grandfather fell gravely ill and died. His grandfather had raised him throughout his life and had helped to prepare him for college. He was very close to his grandfather and immediately fell into depression. Without the only adult figure he considered to be a role model in his life, he eventually dropped out and descended into a downward spiral that drove him into inevitable poverty. Now, he finds satisfaction in being able to provide food, blankets, clothing, and other basic goods to other homeless individuals—a part of his personality, he says, he owes to his grandfather’s kindred spirit.
In addition to the stories I have mentioned here, I have encountered many different homeless individuals in the medical center and throughout downtown Houston who have very similar stories. Most times, it is the story of someone who is left by the wayside to fend for him/herself, when there is no hope, no direction, no support, and no one to tell them, “It’s going to be okay.” As the previous entries have so eloquently described, we are all human. We have the same desire to succeed, to make our parents proud, to care for our kids, and to give back to our communities. But, to me, what that really means is that we all have the moral obligation to help fellow man and to support each other in times of need.
The problem is here and around us. We cannot turn a blind eye to something that is so deeply entrenched in our daily lives. We see it every day, yet as the problem gets larger, we develop more and more excuses as to why we shouldn’t help “those people.” My request for you is this: when someone asks you politely for change, take some time to listen to their story. Now there are some unstable and violent individuals as well, but if you are in a crowded place and the individual is courteous with you and does not try to impose on you, stay there for a few minutes and ask him/her a few basic questions. “Why are you in this situation?” “Where are you from?” “Do you have family here?” It is beautiful how a few lines can develop a connection that was not there before. Once you have developed this trust, you can then direct homeless individuals to much needed assistance by handing them a “HELP card.” The HELP card is a wonderful resource sheet created by the Houston’s Coalition on Homelessness. I normally carry a few of these on me, so that if I do run into someone who needs food, shelter, mental help, or rental assistance, I can direct them to the appropriate services by pointing out these resources on the HELP card.
I know that this isn’t easy, but it is necessary if we want to make a difference to the status quo. In closing, I’d like for you to think back to before medical school, before today and the success you’ve accumulated up to this point. Think of all the people in your life, the support you had, and the environment you were in to ensure that you would become the person you are today. Now imagine all of it gone, completely absent from your life. What would have happened? Who would you be today? Many homeless men, women, and children lead the lives they lead not because they choose to, but because this is the only outcome they know of due to the lack of basic necessities for succeeding and striving for their dreams. Remember that when you give someone change or a few dollars, you sustain a caged life entirely dependent on the earnings of others. But if you take a few moments to cast aside the stigmas and open your heart, you’ll be simply greeted with the greatest gift any human can give to another—love.
Truong Lam is currently a research assistant investigating molecular mechanisms of lipid metabolism in the skeletal muscle. He is applying to medical school and would hope to one day use his experiences with his case management work to adopt better and more comprehensive medical practices for the homeless. If you are interested in learning more about OwlsHelp or the work that he is doing, feel free to email him at Truong.N.Lam@uth.tmc.edu.