Living and Growing: Seeking justice for people experiencing homelessness

Each homeless person is a unique and precious human being created in God’s image.

Laura Rorem (Courtesy Photo )

Laura Rorem (Courtesy Photo )

By Laura Rorem

“What’s the low temperature going to be tonight, mom?”

“34” I replied.“Cardboard, cotton blanket and a man to share a warm coat is all I need then!”

I was abruptly summoned by Swedish Hospital and ANMC to escort our daughter back to Anchorage from Seattle because she was “too much to handle.” Chronically homeless and delusional from schizo-affective disorder, complicated by brain damage from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and substance abuse, Tanya had a deadly cancer that metastasized to her brain, which was further compromised by a severe blow to her head by a predator. Medevaced to Swedish, she received tests that were elusive in Anchorage due to her homelessness. Despite her psychotic state, the medical community still assumed she was capable of self-care and responsible. They failed to understand she was incapable, homeless and unable to follow up on medical recommendations. Chemo was impossible until she was on medication, and no longer homeless.

She died in faith on Feb. 23, 2018, at age 45, with us lovingly by her side, in a chaotic, undignified setting.

Tanya’s schizo-affective disorder emerged when she was 14. Many saw her as a “throw away.” She was our loving child of God, raised with unconditional love, compassion, empathy and kindness, yet an innocent victim of generations of FASD, mental illness and substance abuse in her birth family. Throughout we remained steadfast in our love and care for her as we tirelessly navigated the obstacles and challenges we encountered in accessing medical and psychiatric care, which ultimately ended in the never-ending loop of homelessness, drain disorders and premature mortality.

Our desperate three-decade efforts to provide safe housing were futile. She longed for independence, but evictions came because predatory people took advantage of her vulnerability. Our sleepless nights fearing for her safety, long periods of not knowing of her whereabouts, and constant stigma and discrimination exhausted us. For every homeless person, there is a loved one who suffers with them fearing for their life and safety.

Simple survival for Tanya was a full-time humiliating task to meet her fundamental basic needs of nutrition, water, shelter and protection from the elements. She did not live in unsanitary conditions because she “didn’t care.” Living outdoors meant having no regular place for bodily functions, trash disposal, safe food storage or bath. Not violent, people avoided her out of misplaced fear; yet she was highly vulnerable to becoming a victim. Tanya did not want to live on the streets. She wanted a home. Most of her money was spent to buy basic need items, rather than drugs and alcohol. Her criminal justice interventions were because many of her needed daily survival activities were criminalized. Tanya’s homeless realities are the experienced realities of all who are homeless.

Like Tanya, each homeless person is a unique and precious human being created in God’s image, who deserves a life of dignity and justice.

God calls us to, “Be fair to the poor and to orphans. Defend the helpless and everyone in need. Rescue the weak and homeless from the powerful hands of heartless people,” in Psalm 82:3-4.

Winter is upon us. On the coldest nights, Tanya would deliberately sleep illegally in a doorway to be arrested to survive.

Working for justice with and for homeless people is doing God’s will. May we overcome our discomfort and answer his call to action?

• Laura Rorem is a member of Resurrection Lutheran Church. She writes to honor her husband, Pastor Larry Rorem’s legacy of love, compassion and understanding for all humankind, especially the most vulnerable. ”Living & Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders. It appears every Friday on the Juneau Empire’s Faith page.

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