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The Long Road Home

by Sharon Lachow-Blumberg

February 9,2010

Homelessness is a problem that exists in many communities across the country and the world. People struggle with this challenge every day. And now, the world has become more keenly aware of the problem through the suffering eyes of the Haitian people. If you are like me, you have been moved to tears, wanting to do more than donate money. At times, I felt compelled to get on a plane and put my arms around all the children who are without someone to care for them. Many of us are lucky. Most of our basic needs are taken care of, while others are taken for granted. We don’t have to struggle for our daily bread, but for many in our community everyday is a search for comfort, for food, for shelter, for a place to call home.

It breaks my heart to know that there are approximately 3,000 homeless children in our public school system. How can that be? In Charlotte, it is my understanding that there are more than 8,000 men, women and children who are homeless. Over the last month or so, my husband Mark and I volunteered at the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and at the Urban Ministry Center’s Room in the Inn. We got to see firsthand the wonderful work that many organizations and individuals are doing here in Charlotte and we are lucky to have so many working on their behalf. Yet, the problem is not going away fast enough. I believe the change that is required needs to happen at all levels of the community simultaneously: through the government, non-profits and corporations, and of course through citizens and communities.

My friend Mike Whitehead recently befriended Gerald, a homeless man.  Gerald was sitting on a bench in uptown when Mike walked by. They smiled at each other and began a conversation. Mike took him to lunch and a friendship began. A short time later, a small community of generous souls took Gerald under their wings. They bought him clothes, took up a small collection to get Gerald a place to stay temporarily and helped him start a small business. My husband got involved helping Gerald with his brochure and business cards.

This story inspired me to do more. I think we need to create a model that can be leveraged again and again throughout the community. If we, as a collection of small communities, can mentor a person who is experiencing homelessness, we can positively impact the lives of so many. We can develop a program that is somewhat similar to Big Brothers and Big Sisters. Gerald was lucky that Mike came across his path that day. I know the city and county are working tirelessly to eradicate this problem. There are many non-profits who advocate for change. Why can’t we do something as well? We need to identify groups of people willing to mentor a person(s) in need. These groups can be neighborhood or business associations, faith-based groups, small local businesses, etc.

These organizations could identify a single point of contact that will coordinate the assistance and help facilitate the plan to transition these people off the street. We could then identify a list of business that would be willing to donate or subsidize goods and/or services, i.e. clothing stores, low cost or free medical/dental providers, and financial support. For example, the Mecklenburg County Department of Health has put together a wonderful community resource guide of health and well-being offered by the Health Department and other agencies. We could help these individuals identify trades and skills that they could transition into quickly. We could develop apprentice programs at local business so people can learn a skill/trade.

I know the homeless crisis is a complicated one to solve; but why can’t we help one person at a time? Small steps turn into big strides and leaps. I recently came across this wonderful quote from Anne Frank: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world”. So why not start with our neighbors who are without a place to call home?

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