by Joy Redstone, Crisis Intervention & Substance Abuse Prevention Counselor at Naropa University
Originally published as an opinion article in the Daily Camera, December 30, 2014.
This year we gathered at the Bandshell, as we have for many years, to commemorate National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. Four homeless women, there to mourn a fallen sister, stood up and told a stark truth. Next year, chances are very good that one of them will be dead and we will be standing on that cold stage to read her name. The endemic illnesses, the addiction, the constant assaults and rapes, the brutal toll of exposure will take its toll.
It takes courage to look your own death in the face and most of us live our lives in such a way to insulate ourselves from that knowledge. But when you are homeless that insulation is one of the ineffable losses. And when you choose to bear witness to the 23 deaths of homeless individuals in Boulder County in 2014, you are willingly shedding the privilege and comfort of that insulation.
When you lose someone you truly love everything changes. Nothing is ever the same again because the world no longer holds the presence of your beloved. And everyone is someone’s beloved. The finality of knowing that you will never again see their smile or hold their hand, that there are no more second chances or final words, is truly a painful moment.
There are so many ways that we all choose to turn away from pain. Some do it in overt and self-destructive ways that we label addiction or mental illness and others do it in more socially acceptable and hidden ways, but there is nothing more human than wanting to escape pain.
So, I invite you to lean into that broken heart for a moment, to lean into that space of presence and compassion that makes us most human and most divine at the same time. In sharing this place together, I hope that we will find something together. What I want us to do together is to lift the veil of “we can’t” or maybe even “we won’t” to acknowledge the humanity of those on the streets.
In lingering willingly in this broken-heartedness, I hope that we will together find the compassion and the commitment to bring year-round shelter to Boulder. There is nothing standing in the way of making that happen other than the will to make it happen. It won’t prevent people from dying while they are homeless but it will save lives and it will ensure that people don’t die pointless, preventable deaths alone and outside.
Year-round shelter is the norm in most parts of the country that share our dangerously cold winters. John Parvensky, president of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, has urged our community to embrace this compassionate and life-saving response.
The facts about premature mortality could not be more clear or more stark, with research showing homeless people dying on average 30 years earlier than the housed population, from a variety of causes that do include addiction and suicide but also infections, traffic accidents and falls.
What these facts may obscure is that quick medical responses save lives. Our camping laws ensure that those people who sleep outside have a very pressing reason to seek an isolated spot, as sleeping with other people raises the risk of being noticed and arrested. This isolation puts homeless women at even greater risk for assault and rape.
Any first responder will tell you that there is a precious window of time during which to preserve life and maintain function. When we offer year-round shelter, one of the most basic things that will change is that trained staff can intervene during heart attacks, seizure, strokes and other time-sensitive medical issues.
Our longstanding cultural beliefs about the nature of addiction and mental illness allow us to willingly turn away from those that suffer with the more comfortable notion that the person suffers from a moral failing, a lack of willpower. Decades of research from the NIH demonstrate unequivocally that the plasticity of the brain allows for detectable recovery in the parts of the brain that govern addiction, the circuits that govern learning, impulse control and reward. Addicts and alcoholics do recover, should they live long enough to get that chance. Year-round shelter gives homeless people to access needed services of all sorts, including addiction recovery, transitional programs and job-seeking support.
If we allow our hearts to stay broken open for just a little longer than this day, this one hour a year, I know that we can save lives. Everyone is someone’s beloved.