Each year since 1975, the week before Thanksgiving is known as Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. The placement of this awareness campaign in the week before Americans stuff themselves with turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberries and pumpkin pie while spending time with friends and family in the comfort of a warm home seems fitting as a reminder that not all Americans are as fortunate.
This Awareness Week is designed to bring attention to the problems of hunger and homelessness.Nationally, 43.1 million Americans live below the poverty level, with 1 in 5 children living in poverty.On a typical night, 549,000 Americans are homeless and 42 million are at risk for suffering from hunger.
The United Way of Frederick County released a very enlightening study of our community. Eight percent (8%) of our population lives in poverty. Another 31% of families are known as ALICE – Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. These are families whose income is above the poverty level, but not sufficient enough to cover the basic household costs associated with living in this County. These basic necessities include housing, food, childcare, transportation and health care. All too often, families in our community are one large expense away from financial ruin. These large expenses could be medical bills or car repairs or even unpaid leave that results from having to take a day off to stay at home with a sick child.
Hunger and homeless have long-term impacts that extend far beyond the immediacy of trying to figure where the next meal is coming from, where to sleep that evening or how to manage the costs of basic necessities. When children are hungry, they can’t learn. When they are worried or anxious about where they will sleep or eat, they can’t learn. As they fall further behind in school, they become discouraged and this can result in depression, anxiety and isolation.
Individuals experiencing homelessness are vulnerable to an array of complications as a result of being without stable housing. They may be victims of crimes, develop mental health conditions and/or substance abuse issues, or become caught up in the justice system due to infractions committed as a result of being homeless (loitering, trespassing, nuisance charges, etc.)
When any or all of these complications impact someone experiencing homelessness, it becomes increasingly difficult to extricate oneself from the quagmire. Individuals with criminal backgrounds may not qualify for housing programs or employment opportunities. Lack of housing negatively impacts physical and behavioral health. Individuals experiencing homelessness may suffer from the exacerbation of a common illness, which left untreated, spirals out of control. The stress of living without a place to call home may cause or worsen mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety. Addiction can cause and prolong homelessness and homelessness complicates one’s ability to engage in needed treatment for physical or behavioral health conditions.
Indeed, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, more than half of people experiencing homelessness have had thoughts of suicide or have attempted suicide. School-aged children and youth who experience homelessness are three times more likely to attempt suicide. LGBTQ youth who are homeless are twice as likely to die by suicide than their heterosexual peers who are homeless.
Hunger and homelessness are not straight-forward issues nor will they be solved easily or without all sectors of our community coming together. We need the buy-in from our local, State and Federal representatives to provide the needed resources to combat the issues. We need understanding and compassion from our law enforcement officers, patience and cooperation from our local businesses, support and caring from our faith-based communities and nonprofit human service organizations, the expertise of our health care systems and the voice of our community members to look at each complicating factor and understand that there is more there than meets the eye. This problem will take a village to conquer.
Frederick is an amazing community where giving of one’s time, expertise or money is as natural as breathing. This time of year often reminds us to share our good fortune with others. But once Thanksgiving dinner is served and the leftovers are gone, please continue to keep those organizations and the people they help in mind throughout the year. Volunteering your time, expertise, sharing unwanted or unneeded items and, of course, donating money allows these organizations to help those in need year round. No one chooses to be homeless. No one chooses to be hungry, particularly a child. But together we can help everyone have more choices to choose from.
Frederick County Resources
City of Frederick – Food Bank Program
Frederick Rescue Mission (Bread of Life Program)
Food Pantries.org – Frederick, Maryland Pantries
Homelessness & Housing
The Religious Coalition – Emergency Shelter Programs
Shelter Listings.org – Frederick, Maryland Homeless Shelters & Supportive Housing