That’s the response you’ll get from Charlie if you ask how he first connected with Interfaith. He’s reluctant to go into details. What comes across is not so much embarrassment as a profound sense of humility; Charlie just doesn’t think his story is anything special.
An Army veteran, Charlie spent most of his adult life addicted to drugs and alcohol after returning from Vietnam, and over the years he weathered more than a few storms on the streets of Escondido. That is, until five years ago when someone told him Interfaith had programs for veterans. On that day, Charlie decided he wanted help.
Like everyone who comes to Interfaith, Charlie’s case workers took the time to find out exactly what his needs and skills were, and used this information to determined what kind of assistance would serve him best. These assessments are a vital part of the case management process because whether the problem is addiction, disability, mental illness, lack of food, or lack of housing, the goal isn’t merely provide relief – the goals is to build sustainability. Unlike many agencies, Interfaith can walk someone through a comprehensive continuum of care services that will enable them to eventually live truly healthy and sustainable lives one day.
Initially, Charlie became a resident of Interfaith’s Veteran’s bunk house where he was provided with the immediate shelter he had been lacking for so long. Eventually, however, he was identified as an excellent candidate for Interfaith’s Fairweather Lodge program. Charlie agreed and he became the third Lodge’s first resident. Now Charlie lives within an intentional community of adults with similar challenges who operate their own business together.
Charlie is quick to point out that this job gives him a sense of purpose and accomplishment that he had been missing in his life for a very long time. Perhaps most significantly, like many people who have come off the streets and learned to live healthier lives, Charlie’s biggest desire is to give back, so he’s eager to start helping out as soon as he’s eligible, saying, “Interfaith has given me so much.” There’s a gratitude in Charlie’s words, driving him to contribute, and a sense of pride that he actually can.
I’m telling Charlie’s story because it isn’t uncommon. Interfaith’s family tree is crowded with people who spent years living on the street, struggling with addiction, or marginalized physically and financially due to physical or mental disabilities, but who have now learned to be healthy, productive, self-sustaining, and even strong enough to give back to the community in some way. I know the same is true for other social service agencies as well.
Unfortunately, we live in a time when people are hurting more than ever (last year alone Interfaith served 35,800 individuals), yet the political climate in America is again rapidly becoming hostile toward social help under the mantra that helping people is actually hurting our communities.
People need more help, not less. Granted, it needs to be the right kind of help; the kind that builds capacity, not co-dependence. True help must walk people through a process that leads to healthy sustainability. But that kind of holisitc, capacity-building, wellness-producing work requires more time, more services, and more money – not less. It requires public money and private money. It requires federal and state grants, private foundation support, and individual household contributions. It requires lots and lots of people rolling up their sleeves and helping those who cannot yet help themselves (last year we utilized over 5,000 volunteers).
Like it or not, we all pay one way or another for people who are poor, homeless, mentally ill, or otherwise debilitated in some way. Why not commit, as a nation, to do so ethically? We can build strong systems of care that eventually lead people like Charlie to contribute to their communities, rather than relegate them to the streets – or to jail – where they simply tax our communities.
In short, the creation of a strong and healthy community requires the participation of the whole community; the rich, the poor, everyone. Everyone has something to give.
Charlie gets that. I look forward to the day when everyone else does too.