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Mother of Exiles

05/11/2015 05:36 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

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2015-02-04-Joni_Blecher_150x150.jpgBy Kara Zordel

Kara Zordel MS, MSW is the Executive Director of Project Homeless Connect (PHC). Kara has created programming for UNICEF Tanzania, managed a large family shelter in the South Bronx, piloted a homeless eviction prevention program which is now an award winning national model, and created the first supportive housing of its kind in New York City.

The plaque on the Statue of Liberty declares:
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The inscription is a bright, promising doorway to America for anyone in need of shelter. And yet, when I leave my front door each morning, I'm reminded that more than one and a half million people will be homeless this year in the U.S. What is our responsibility to live that promise, and open the Golden Door?

I was a Resident Advisor as an undergrad when I first understood the systemic nature of homelessness. One night, a first-generation college student came into my room, visibly upset. Her mother had missed their weekly visit. I learned that the mother couldn't afford institutionalized care for her severe mental illness and was living under a bridge. Once a week, her daughter would bring medication to her in an effort to prevent her mother from losing all connection with reality. That week, her mother could not be found.

I remember the young woman's tears, her shame because her mother couldn't care for either of them, and her vulnerability in sharing this intimate suffering with a near-stranger. The American safety net had failed both of them. I couldn't see any golden door, just two people with nowhere to turn.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke about a "bad check" for black Americans: the defaulted promise of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. His powerful metaphor also extends to the 37 million individuals who are so vulnerable that one personal disaster might leave them without food and shelter. Instead of finding the American Dream, many of our neighbors will find themselves on our streets.

Homelessness is a poverty issue with real financial implications for all of us. Ending homelessness now will save money, create stability, and extend lives. We know that it costs less to put an individual in housing than to watch them ricochet through our present temporary - and expensive - social services.

Right now, we in San Francisco are adapting to serve the 29% of people experiencing homelessness who identify as LGBT. People come to us from across the country, having been cast out by their families and communities. We tell young queer kids that "it will get better," but for many on the street, it hasn't.

It's not news that LGBT folks and people of color suffer violence and economic hardship more often than their straight, white counterparts. The U.S. has a legacy of creating labels of difference, and using those labels to restrict certain groups from full membership and benefits of our community. Only once we recognize the value of each individual, no matter their status, can we make good on our promise to shelter the 'tempest-tossed.'

I know that you care - you're reading this article, and perhaps even nodding along, because you want to see an end to this common form of suffering. Homelessness is a community crisis and it requires a community response. There are specific steps you can take to enact change in your community:

1) Give your time. Volunteering makes you more attuned to the genuine needs of your community. Being a good neighbor means more than paying your rent, it means paying attention to the needs of those around you.

2) Give information. Once you find an agency whose work you admire, keep their business cards handy. I like to attach cards offering services to granola bars or clean socks, and pass them out when any one asks me for change.

3) Give money to those agencies worthy of your giving. When you've decided that you will donate, look for an organization that believes in results. Choose an agency whose values align with yours and become their partner in service.

I'm not asking you to give a handout, or invest in a temporary fix. I'm asking you to join with other Americans who understand the value of civic engagement. To work from a place of compassion when you choose to act, give, and advocate. Together, we can create a community where all are welcome through that Golden Door.

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