Looking for a New Year’s Resolution? How About Honoring Women Vets?

Raised $38,538 towards the $56,310 target.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Anonymous Donor Gives $10,000 to Make Sure Arizona’s Women Veterans Have a Happy New Year!

Phoenix, Ariz, Dec. 31, 2013—Over the past year, the City of Phoenix has taken great strides toward ending homelessness and in particular toward ending chronic homelessness among veterans. The Madison Street Veterans Association (MSVA) is one of many organization working on this issue, and its success rate is unrivaled. Until recently, MSVA had separate peer-based transitional living programs for both male and female veterans facing homelessness, but a change in federal funding policy ended the grant that supported the women’s section.

“We recently had a huge victory for our veterans with Mayor Stanton leading the charge to end chronic homelessness among veterans. But this is one battle in the larger fight to ensure every veteran has a home in the community they fought for,” said Corey Harris, Vice President of the Arizona Veterans and Military Leadership Alliance (AVMLA). “The VA recently predicted that over 100,000 veterans will be moving into Arizona over the next few years. With that will come a new influx of veterans experiencing homelessness to add to those who are recently without homes. Our female veterans are no exception.”

This past summer, several community groups banded together in an initiative called Blistering at the Margins in order to raise the necessary funding to keep the MSVA’s women’s section open. Volunteers including project director Seráh Blain, AVMLA’s Corey Harris and State Representative Mark Cardenas collectively spent nearly a month sleeping on the streets of Phoenix to draw attention to issues faced by people experiencing homelessness and to raise money. The Home Depot Foundation also partnered with the MSVA to transform and update the women’s shelter, bringing 75 volunteers who dedicated their time and talent to expanding the facility and making it more comfortable.

Blistering at the Margins raised over $28,000, but fell short of bringing in the $50,000 needed to keep the women’s section operating through the fall. The facility closed and the women who had been living at the MSVA were moved to other housing throughout the state. Arizonans advocating for women veterans have expressed concern that these women have lost an invaluable resource.

“The peer based model of MSVA has been proven to be successful,” said Panayiota Bertzikis, a Scottsdale resident, Coast Guard veteran and Executive Director of the Military Rape Crisis Center. “Women who have been in the program reported being most helped by the comradeship and support of other women veterans. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to replicate the healing and support network that one gets from their sisters-in-arms.”

Blain expressed similar concerns after meeting with the women who called the MSVA home. “It was heartbreaking to hear so many stories of what these women had endured in their service to our country, to have listened to them talk about how well they were being served through MSVA’s women’s program and how important that peer support was, and then to fail in our efforts to keep them in the program,” said Blain. “And now it’s going to be a much bigger financial jump to reopen the section.”

A Phoenix attorney was not intimidated by that challenge and yesterday donated $10,000 to Blistering at the Margins for the MSVA women’s section. He said he had been wanting to do more to support veterans in need, but did not know where his contribution would be best used—until he saw Blain on the news during the time she spent living without shelter.

“I was inspired,” the donor said. “I drove around downtown that day looking for her.” He was not able to find her, but later came across a news article on the MSVA and contacted Harris to find out if there was a way to help. In addition to the donation, the anonymous donor will be reaching out to friends and colleagues to help reignite the project and raise the needed funds.

“This incredibly generous donation will go a long way towards reopening Madison Street Veterans Association’s Women Veterans’ Center,” said Harris, “It could not have come at a more critical time.”

Happy Birthday, Corey Harris!

During the course of the Blistering at the Margins project, many of you met (or already knew) Corey Harris, a stalwart advocate for homeless batmanveterans in our state. Corey, a vet himself, fought passionately on the home-front to keep the Madison Street Veterans Association women’s section open—and even spent time sleeping without shelter in support of the project.

Well, it’s his birthday today—and while I’m sure he likes cake and Madison Streetpresents as much as the next guy, he’s asking instead for donations to support reopening the women’s section at the Madison Street Veterans Association.

Please consider a Birthday Donation in honor of Corey Harris. Help us make sure that when our military service-members come home, they do not ever, EVER end up on the streets.

Happy Birthday, Corey. Thanks for all you do.

DONATE NOW!

Better than Bootstraps…

Two of my friends who are experiencing homelessness are in need of some basics to help get them going. Jake has been without glasses for as long as I’ve known him, and can’t even read street signs. I’d like to take him to an eye appointment and get him glasses tomorrow when I’m in Phoenix for work. Nayna needs a cell phone; she has been able to use her boyfriend’s phone, but it is such a necessary tool for everything from job hunting to staying connected to friends and family–it really makes sense for her to have her own. I will be bringing her a prepaid phone with enough minutes to get her by for a bit. Jake’s glasses will cost $69.95 plus tax, including the eye exam, and Nayna’s phone will be somewhere around $50. Please consider making a donation to help me with these costs:

YES! I WANT TO HELP!

Thank you for your compassion and generosity.

Stranger in a Strange Life

Last Thursday I was in Phoenix for some meetings and was able to have breakfast with one of my favorite people, Brett, who was recently able to get out of a shelter and into an apartment with his girlfriend and another couple who had been sleeping in the parking lot. I wasn’t particularly well-dressed—not in a suit or anything—but I did have makeup on, and my hair and nails done. Brett kept saying how different I looked. I felt different. I was almost embarrassed. And I had thought about it as I was getting my manicure…What am I doing?!? Why does this matter?! Why am spending money on this? Everything feels foreign, while life in the lot has a realness to it. Everything there is reduced to: Who is kind? Who can I trust? Who will I share with? How do we work together to get food, clothes, medical care?

The stories Brett told me about life in his apartment, about cooking together and sharing resources, about falling in love…they are beautiful stories—and he’s happy.

I don’t know if it will last. I remember being really worried when he moved in with all these people…anything could go wrong, and none of them have a safety net. Unless we’re his safety net…this amazing community of people that has come together to support this project and advocate for marginalized people. I think we can be a safety net.

Brett doing his signature move next to Jake

Jake also called me this week—he has a job and hopes to have an apartment very soon. We joked about milk-crate furniture, and talked about the stresses of working. It’s interesting to mentally compare the different quality of work-stress versus where-am-I-going-to-find-food stress. The mental exercise renders work-stress much more enlivening.

I’ll be in Phoenix again this week and hope to have dinner with Brett and his “family.” I know I’m romanticizing his situation a bit—but the contrast in our lives brings into focus the stark reality of how much energy we all spend focused on the wrong things.

I had the great pleasure today of talking to Pastor Willie Lyle of Clarksville, Tennessee, who is also trying to get his community to stop focusing on the wrong things. Pastor Lyle himself spent four days living without shelter. You can read his story here: http://www.tennessean.com/article/20130628/NEWS01/130628028/New-Clarksville-pastor-goes-undercover-homeless-man-week I was thrilled to hear from Pastor Lyle and discuss how projects like his, and ours here, are inspiring individuals across the country to view people experiencing homelessness differently, more humanely. From his social gospel tradition to my humanist tradition, there is a staggering number of people from all walks of life wanting to get their hands dirty caring for one another. I hear rumors that even the Pope agrees with me!

I don’t know what will happen next, but something beautiful is stirring. Thank you all so much for helping to stir.

A New Day

Today, I humbly announce that I am suspending Blistering at the Margins, a project aimed at raising money for a homeless Veterans shelter in Phoenix. For more than 20 days I have been living on the streets of Phoenix to raise awareness about the horrors of chronic homelessness. It was my intention to stay here as long as it took to raise the funds to help keep the shelter open.

However, due to ongoing health concerns exacerbated by this experience, I simply cannot continue and promote the project in a way that would be beneficial to the shelter and the population they serve so nobly. I am one of the lucky ones—I have the resources to go back to my home in Flagstaff and seek medical attention and shelter. Many of the amazing and caring people I have met on this experience do not have that same ability. Until Arizona develops a comprehensive plan to combat chronic homelessness, others will continue to suffer from sleep deprivation, skin disease due to dehydration, extreme burns from sun exposure and chronic fatigue, among the many adverse effects of being without shelter.

I am so grateful for the support “Blistering at the Margins” has received in such a short time. The project to date was able to raise tens of thousands of dollars from hundreds of donors throughout the country, which will be donated to the shelter.  Fortunately, I have garnered the support of veterans across the state such as Representative Mark Cardenas (D-Phoenix) to carry the project forward. I am honored that he has vowed to continue the fight for the Madison Street Veterans Association.

While my life without shelter for the project may be suspended, my work to find the most effective model to transition veterans out of homelessness will never stop. I have been personally affected by homelessness since I was without shelter as a teen in Minnesota. I will continue to advocate for a better and more just society that will treat every human, no matter their class or social standing, with the dignity and respect they deserve. Thank you again for your support. You can continue to make donations through this site–and if you haven’t already, please call or email Governor Brewer asking for emergency funding for the MSVA Women’s Shelter.

Join State Rep Cardenas in Asking Governor Brewer for Emergency Funding for the MSVA

Last Monday, Arizona State Representative Mark Cardenas sent a letter to Governor Mark CardenasBrewer, asking her to free up funds within her administration to keep the Women Veterans Section at the Madison Street Veterans’ Association. Please join Representative Cardenas, myself, and other concerned Arizonans in imploring Governor Brewer to step in. You can send a message through the Governor’s Office here:

http://azgovernor.gov/contact.asp

Phone: (602) 542-4331

You can also send mail to:

The Honorable Janice K. Brewer
Arizona Governor
Executive Tower
1700 West Washington Street
Phoenix, AZ 85007

Please feel free to use the following letter,  which is based on the one sent by Representative Cardenas:

Dear Governor Brewer,

In light of a recent article that ran in the Arizona Republic, I would like to bring to your attention a detrimental situation for female veterans of this state. The Women Veterans’ Center at the Madison Street Veterans Association (MSVA) MANA House (Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force) is in danger of closure due to lack of funding. I respectfully request action on your part to assist in keeping the center open.

The MSVA began in 2008 when a handful of homeless veterans decided to band together to help each other and improve their living conditions in the crowded Madison Street shelter. By 2010, the MSVA opened a 50 bed transition living facility known as the MANA House in downtown Phoenix. Most recently, the MSVA opened a 16 bed Women Veterans’ Center in the MANA House in February 2013.

During the planning of the Women Veterans’ Center, the MSVA worked with their local US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) homeless team to ensure that their program followed the VA Grant/Per Diem (GPD) guidelines and requirements, with the intent of applying to the VA for funding for the 16 planned beds in addition to their already approved (and funded) 49 GPD beds in the male veterans program. However, soon after opening the women’s’ program, they found out that the VA was not offering funding for additional GPD beds, either for men or women, in this fiscal year. Additional requests were made for funding and unfortunately denied.

Lodestar Day Resource Center, the parent non-profit of the MSVA, has stated that in order to continue operation, the Women Veterans’ Center must have a sustainable source of funding. The total expenses for the center are estimated at roughly $250,000 per fiscal year. Since the fiscal year for this non-profit runs July 1 to June 30, they are currently past due for sustainable funding this fiscal year. This will likely require the MSVA to suspend the Women Veterans’ Center until they have raised enough funds, or have enough commitment for funding, to reopen.

Women veterans are at especially high risk of homelessness and they are more than twice as likely to be homeless as women who are not veterans. The Women Veterans’ Center provides services and support that address the unique challenges and needs for this homeless population including PTSD and sexual assault recovery counseling. To not only deny services to women veterans in the community who need shelter, but also turn-out those who currently are living at the facility (if it were to close) would be unconscionable.

I respectfully request that emergency funds within the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES), the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services or another source be made available to keep the Women Veterans’ Center open for the remainder of the year. I also request that you request funding in your budget to provide the center with sustainable future funding.

It is paramount that we avoid closure of this center and you, Governor, are the person with the power to help in this time of need.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Dentures

I broke immersion this past weekend. I let my brother get me on a shuttle back to Flagstaff so that I could pick up my car and my bank card. There are too many people around me playing ukewho need very inexpensive things–razors, deodorant, denture adhesive cream, etc…and my ukulele skills certainly aren’t going to be making me enough money to help. The whole thing started feeling ridiculous. While obviously, it’s an important piece of this project to show people some of the unsheltered experience, we all know I can’t make it completely real–I can only live with people for whom this is a very difficult reality; I can tell their story, and my experiences being with them. I am trying to get myself and those of you who read my blog as close to the reality of homelessness as story can allow, and I think it’s been eye-opening for a lot of people (myself included). But by the end of last week, I felt like I was hoarding.

I work for a nonprofit, and I don’t draw a huge salary. But I do have a car, which I can use to get people to their appointments, to the library, to the pharmacy, etc., and I can keep people out of the sun in the process. Everyone is getting sunburned, and many people are on medications like lithium, with which sun exposure causes increased risk for serious medication side effects and heat-related illnesses.

I do have a little bit of extra money after my bills are paid each month, and I can certainly buy things like denture cream. The denture cream was around $2.50, and buying it meant that a woman would be able to eat.

I don’t know if this is being completely unfaithful to the spirit of the project. I don’t want to jeopardize the good we’re doing in getting us to a place where we can positively effect many, many people’s lives. Breaking immersion and sharing my resources is only helping a few people. But I also know that when I was a homeless teen, it took only a couple of people investing in me in small ways: a couple of people ignoring traditional boundaries; being willing to take some risks for me; and making me feel cared about–that’s what completely changed my life.

I’ve found innumerable people out here worth investing in. I have been cautioned a lot dentureslately about how I “can’t save everyone.” Of course that’s true. I am not sure any of us can “save” anyone experiencing homelessness. But it’s a false dichotomy to suggest I either try to save everyone or do nothing. I am willing to continue sleeping in allies and parking lots and cars and wherever I need to in order to raise the money I’ve committed to raise. But you would have bought the denture adhesive too, wouldn’t you?

Occupying an Unsheltered Body

The human body is a marvel to me, both in its function and aesthetic. It is easy for me to appreciate the physical beauty of people even when it falls outside of cultural stereotypes about what should be beautiful, and while I have the same hangups many women have about their bodies, I have not often been particularly self-conscious about my own body. That has slowly begun to change.

It started when I pulled an ant out of my hair at a high dollar fundraiser I attended in support of two veteran-friendly Congresswomen; I was still in street clothes having not showered in days.

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Bruising and heat rash

As the days wore on, I started getting scratches, bruises, bug bites, heat rashes. With all the sweat, and dirt, and skin issues I am dealing with, I flat out feel disgusting. I am extremely uncomfortable touching people who are not shelterless. I really treasure the hugs and physical affection from the friends I’ve made who are also staying on the streets or in shelters, because I don’t feel judged.

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Superficial scrapes

As I consider my embarrassment about things like ants in my hair and gross rashes, I wonder how, after nearly three weeks on the street, I would be able to go to a job interview or do any kind of networking. I feel awkward on the bus because of how sweaty I am. I had to swallow A LOT of pride to make visits to the State Capitol this week in order to talk to representatives about the issues women face on the streets, and how imperative it is that we keep the Madison Street Veterans Association women’s section open. I definitely didn’t want to shake hands with anyone.

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More heat rash

I’m not trying to be overly sensational by showing some of the pictures I’ve taken to document what has been happening to my body. But I think it’s important to understand how many different kinds of barriers there are between street homelessness and economic security–including physical disease and emotional distress This is why shelter makes a difference, and why the agencies that provide emergency shelter and especially transitional living are so essential. People trying to regain economic security and their own home need jobs. And to get jobs they need confidence, cleanliness, and health. They need access to showers, laundry, medical treatment, peer support, and mentors.

Mystery bug bite

The kind of life I’m living right now has so many, many barriers to success–but agencies like the Madison Street Veterans Association, and the organizations collaborating on the Human Services Campus, work to remove those barriers.

Let’s end this. We don’t need to put women veterans in this hell. They deserve so much better from us. So many, many of the people experiencing homelessness deserve better from us. It’s an enormous problem–but we can start to fix small pieces of it, and I think saving a transitional living shelter for women who committed to serve our country is a pretty good place to start.

Falling In and Out of Cracks

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the members of my homeless “family” recently disappeared for several days. I need to tell a little of her story, because I need to plead with you to help me end stories like this.

I will call her Tiffany, a pseudonym to protect her identity. She is a witty, spunky, beautiful 19-year-old young woman. I believe she’s schizophrenic, but I am certainly not an expert. She has suffered some abuse in her life. She is often confused about where she is. She misses her brother but when I ask about him, she usually doesn’t remember where he is, although sometimes she says he’s in the Navy and will come get her when he has money. She tends to get very defensive when I give her advice; for example, one of the days we were all together, she was beginning to show signs of heat exhaustion but was very antagonistic when I asked her to get in the shade and drink water. However, when the young men in our group made similar suggestions, she always did whatever they said.

The last real conversation I had with her, she said she was upset that she doesn’t really exist and was expressing frustration about how to interact with the world without existing–and was worried about how her brother would recognize her. The words she used to describe her experience were brilliant and poetic. All of us have been impressed by her intellect, depth, warmth, and wit.

The last time anyone saw her before she disappeared, she was walking with two women I am told are known prostitutes. We didn’t see her for days.

In collaboration with our friends, the shelter at which she had been staying did file a missing persons report–but unfortunately, these kinds of cases often do not go anywhere. I spoke to a personal friend on the police force; he explained that because she is an adult and there was no evidence she was suicidal or taken by force, and no family reported her missing, there wasn’t much for them to work with if she left of her own free will.

A girl who does not know whether she exists, who is homeless, and who will do anything a man asks of her, is so incredibly unlikely to be able to safely navigate the kind of situations she is going to continue facing on the streets. This resonates deeply with me, because during my experience as a homeless teen, I ended up in some dangerous and damaging situations myself, and I have demons I will continue to fight for the rest of my life as a result. I don’t want to tell my story–but I do want to tell you that the stories of young women without shelter are often very dark stories, and when there are so many solutions in front of us that we are not investing in, we are failing to be an ethical society.

This fundraising campaign has been about saving a safe place for women veterans–women who courageously took up service to our country: women of character and cracksconviction who deserve our admiration. And this safe space, where they are not exploited; where issues like PTSD related to combat or military sexual trauma can be addressed; where they can support and nurture one another; where they are surrounded by other women who understand their unique experiences;…this safe space will close soon if we don’t raise this money. Please do not let these women fall through more cracks. They’ve fallen through enough already.

Tiffany came back yesterday. She was excited about how much money she made, and how she could help other people now. I don’t really think I need to say more than that.

The Community Way

AmbiguitesAs I mentioned in an earlier post, on the recommendation of many of our local agencies addressing homelessness, I have been attempting to experience many different ways of being shelterless in Phoenix rather than spending all of my nights in the parking lot I first slept in or spending my days at the Human Services Campus. The Campus is a collections of agencies providing a whole range of services, including emergency and transitional shelter, agency offices that help people apply for different kinds of benefits, a health clinic, a dental clinic, yoga, places for people to charge their cell phones…and much more. There are also shaded tables for people to gather and and connect with peers. I have spent a lot of time at those tables, listening to stories, learning how to navigate issues of transportation, hydration, safety, etc. I have spent time laughing, giving advice–and more often, taking advice from friends who have a swifter learning curve.

But since leaving the campus and attempting other ways of being shelterless, I have been primarily on my own and have really come to value how important my friends had been in working together for all of us to have a safe and tolerable experience. They’ve helped me figure out the bus system. They help remind me to drink water constantly. They’ve made me feel useful and nurturing when I am able to offer help and care. And the days I’ve spent away from them have been lonely, disorienting, and dangerous. I actually ended up in the ER with heat exhaustion because of foolishly not paying attention to how much water I was (or rather wasn’t) drinking. That never would have happened if I’d been with my community. They would have sprayed me down with water when I was getting hot, and would have been making me drink water all day.

So, I was treated and released, and had to walk about two miles back to the alley I’ve been staying in. At one point during the walk, I just sat down and cried. I miss my community. I cryingfeel alone and untouchable so much of the time. I hate the way this feels. I hate that it’s a reality, not a project, for too many people in Arizona and around the world. I hate that I can’t fix it. I can collaborate with others to create awareness, and raise money to save at least one transitional living shelter for women, but it is discouraging that this awful, lonely, untouchable feeling is alive and poignant in so many people because we don’t do a good job of investing in human well-being in Arizona.

Those are my moments of discouragement. I also have moments of great hope, because when I think about what Madison Street Veterans’ Association is doing for veterans facing homelessness, I know we have a way to make things better. This organization takes the organic process that happens among people–the development of little communities of solidarity and support, even (especially!) in harsh circumstances, and they capitalize on it to create a model based around peer support, accountability, and care. People succeed in transforming their own lives together there. It’s not an authoritarian, patronizing system but rather a humanizing, self-empowering system.

For people who ask why I chose Madison Street to be the beneficiary of my fundraiser, it comes down to this: (1) The women’s shelter is in danger of closing soon if we don’t raise this money–so there’s some urgency (2) It seems obvious that people who have invested their lives in service to our country deserve to be invested in by our country (3) The peer-support based model is powerful, character-building, and rooted in human’s natural way of being: together. This should be the standard approach nationwide.

Let’s start with keeping doors open on the Madison Street Veterans’ Association women’s section, and then let’s start talking about how to grow this idea and effect real change across the country.