“Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.”
(In his writings, a wise Italian
says that the best is the enemy of the good)
~ Voltaire, “La Bégueule”
I’m off work and at home today because of the almost 40 BELOW wind-chill that’s hitting the Chicagoland area where I live, and as I lay here wrapped up in my warm blankets and having the luxury of kicking off a quilt when I feel too warm, I’m thinking about how very lucky I am.
The Waukegan Public Library is one of the community centers where I work enrolling uninsured individuals in the Affordable Care Act. The library opens every morning at 10am, but from about 9:45 onwards, there is a select group of men milling outside the doorway.
These are the people carrying their snack for the day in a plastic grocery bag, and these are the ones who don’t leave until the library closes for the night at 8pm. Their beards are scruffy and clothes a bit tattered, but otherwise their person doesn’t announce that they are homeless. They are polite and well-behaved — they sit quietly at the front tables playing checkers or reading the day’s newspapers while hundreds of other patrons shuffle in and out of the library completing their business quickly.
After 8pm, I don’t know where they go. And I force myself to find out that hypothermia, on days and nights exactly like tonight, kills an estimated 700 people a year. I force myself to hold the devastating knowledge that, not only do “good” shelters fill quickly, but “bad” shelters abound. Shelters with “barriers” that will not accept individuals with mental illness or substance abuse problems; shelters with hygiene issues like the ever-prevalent body louse; shelters that won’t accept animals, the list goes on.
As far as homelessness and women goes, domestic violence is the name of the game. According to New York’s Voices of Women, approximately 21% of homeless families and 25% single homeless women are homeless due to domestic violence. In addition to domestic violence directly causing homelessness in women, “many homeless women have been victims of domestic violence at some point in their past, even if they do not identify it as the immediate cause of their homelessness. One study in Massachusetts found that 92 percent of homeless women had experienced severe physical or sexual assault at some point in their life, 63 percent had been victims of violence by an intimate partner, and 32 percent had been assaulted by their current or most recent partner.”
When it comes time for women and families to transition to temporary or permanent housing outside the shelter, the problems continue. Not only does it take a longer period of time to place a larger family, but survivors also have particular sets of issues:
Victims often have poor credit records and employment histories because of the violence they have experienced. Landlords often discriminate against victims if they have a protection order or any other indicator of domestic violence. If violence occurs in the home, landlords can evict their tenants, resulting in a victim becoming homeless because she was abused.
And we haven’t even come to the disproportionate number of LGBT persons, especially youth, affected by homelessness — an issue that is still beginning to be understood and demographically tracked.
For each subset of the larger homeless population, nay each individual homeless person, there exists a many-headed monster to slay before they can be taken off the streets and placed in safe, clean, and permanent housing.
So, I look at the ring I had made (Etsy for the win!) the second week I started my job and it reminds me that, while no solution will ever be perfect, “le mieux est l’ennemi du bien” — “the best is the enemy of the good” and we all have to start somewhere.
Sometimes, it can feel like putting a tiny, Elmo-emblazoned child-size Bandaid on a very adult-sized gaping wound. But paralyzing oneself into inaction because of the enormity of the problem or the depression that can come from educating oneself about life’s realities is not the answer. Take it a step at a time and medicate with a Netflix binge of nonsensical Japanese anime when it threatens to overwhelm you. Just do something. We need you.