Rita Markley’s address: Move forward, find your bearings

Posted On November 15, 2013 By | No Comments on Rita Markley’s address: Move forward, find your bearings

On Oct. 25, 2013, COTS held its Annual Meeting & Volunteer Appreciation Breakfast.
COTS Executive Director Rita Markley gave the following keynote address. 

Rita Markley, COTS Executive Director, gives the keynote address at the Annual Meeting & Volunteer Appreciation Breakfast.

Good morning, and welcome to our Annual Meeting and Volunteer recognition breakfast.

This is the time of year when we celebrate your many contributions to COTS and reflect on why they matter. This is also the day when we thumb our noses at nutritional convention and offer both bagels AND cookies for breakfast. As you might have guessed, there’s a place at the table for every pastry.

Looking back on the past year is a surreal experience for many reasons.

As some of you know, I had eye surgery this summer to forestall, hopefully, the loss of my vision to glaucoma.

During the long post-op recovery time, I had to take a number of prescription drops each day, six different ones, four to six times a day, at torturously timed intervals.
Keeping up with that schedule was the least of my challenges; the drops themselves made my eyes so blurry that everything in front of me appeared as a shifting arrangement of blurred, unfamiliar images.

For two months, anytime I moved, it was one slow step and then another, without knowing for certain what was in front of me.

I’d run my hands along the wall to keep balance, trying to picture in my mind the room or hallway or stretch of sidewalk as it appeared when I could see … clearly. This meant slowing down, trying to remember precisely the defining contours of each space that I was passing through.

The most ordinary tasks, making a sandwich or setting a table, became overwhelming at times, especially if I dropped something and had to fumble around trying to find it on the floor. In a very short space of time, I went from making jokes and laughing about my predicament to feeling humiliated and (increasingly) in the way.

One morning, I wanted a bowl of cereal. More than anything, I wanted to fix it for myself. I was ridiculously pleased when I managed to pull together the milk, spoon, and Cheerios without asking for help. So delighted — you’d have thought I’d run the Vermont City Marathon in under three hours.

But then I knocked something, the bowl fell to the floor, and I felt myself becoming undone. A few minutes later, my daughter came breezing through the kitchen and was brought up short to find me on my hands and knees, in tears, trying to scoop up the mess that I couldn’t quite see.

I cannot remember a time when I’ve felt more defeated or vulnerable.

I knew at that moment, deep in my bones, that what I was experiencing was exactly how it feels for so many of those who turn to COTS every day.

A layoff notice, a family breakup, or an untreated medical condition is followed by an eviction or foreclosure. All too soon, the reassurance of familiar routines is swept away entirely with the loss of home. And it’s nearly impossible to see the way forward or find your bearings. Everything that was once certain feels suddenly tentative. The smallest tasks become overwhelming at times; a minor setback feels like a complete disaster when your heart is exhausted.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how extraordinarily difficult it is for any of us to maintain our bearings these days when so many pivotal events keep shifting the ground beneath us.

This past year marked the 30th anniversary of COTS. Looking back on our history is a jarring reminder of how much the world and our community has changed since we first opened our doors. Back in 1982, it would have been unimaginable that COTS would be around today.

Sadly, it’s too easy now to forget that emergency shelters and homeless services were not standard resources in most communities just 30 years ago. Back then, this country was not yet inured to images of homeless people foraging for food in Dumpsters. We still had the capacity to feel astonished at the idea of families with children sleeping in cars or tents because they had no place of their own.

To put this in clearer perspective, I want to take you back in time and then show you the future we are living now from that context.

The year is 1982: Try to picture downtown Burlington in your minds …

There are plenty of tie-dye T-shirts, but also lots of big hair and shoulder-padded jackets. You can buy everything from a parakeet, to a shower curtain, to a grilled cheese-and-bacon sandwich at Woolworth’s.

When people walk down Church Street, they aren’t chattering away on cell phones. They talk to the person strolling beside them.

There are no digital cameras, no Facebook posts or laptops; people don’t stop abruptly to take videos with their iPads. There are still payphones on every block.

1982 is when JR Ewing of “Dallas” rules primetime TV, and Michael Jackson is at the top of his game releasing the “Thriller” album. Time magazine awards its Man of the Year (yes, they still had Man of year back then) to a non-human, the computer.

And places like COTS don’t exist. If you hear the term shelter, it’s in reference to the Red Cross or Disaster Relief.

This is a time when teacher’s aides, waitresses, warehouse workers and cashiers can still afford to pay for their rent AND their groceries. It’s a time when the elderly are not forced to choose between buying medication or food. The mentally ill aren’t left to wander the streets without housing or supports.

But 1982 is also a time when the national unemployment rate hovers near 10%, the federal deficit is soaring, interest rates are well above 12% — and everyone is worried about an imminent recession.
1982 is the year when a story from the national news makes its way to Chittenden County. The emerging problem of homelessness in big cities becomes a small-town reality as seven destitute Vermonters begin sleeping on benches in City Hall Park.

An ad hoc committee quickly forms with concerned volunteers from a cross section of the community: Jim Rader from the new Mayor Bernie Sanders office and Sister Lucille Bonvouloir, among others.

This Committee on Temporary Shelter comes together in late summer to organize what became known as the Waystation Project.

They partnered with Sara Holbrook Center to use space there as overnight shelter. And they teamed up with the Vermont National Guard to round up bedding, cots, and other supplies.

On Christmas Eve, 1982, the Waystation Project opened its doors with Mike Cunningham and Sister Lucille Bonvouloir on hand to welcome anyone who needed shelter. Temperatures that Friday night were well below freezing in Burlington.

In those early days, homelessness was still so unexpected and rare that nobody anticipated an ongoing operation beyond winter. The Committee on Temporary Shelter was just that.
Now, imagine, if some of us could travel back to visit with Sister Lucille that first winter and talk with her about what lay ahead.

Maybe we’d take her to lunch at Tortilla Flat or the Oasis Diner.

But how would we convey all the seismic shifts in the economy that would displace and uproot millions of lives year after year? If we could draw a map for Lucille of these past three decades, to help give her a lay of the land, what would be the defining contours? Where would we start?
I think we’d have to warn her that the key intersections across the terrain ahead would be defined by numbers that might seem incomprehensible at first. These are numbers that we all need to keep in mind if we want to understand some of the underlying trends that have shaped our work.

Numbers like these:

• Between 1980 and 1999, millions of high-paying jobs were eliminated or moved out of this country. During that period, the 500 largest U.S. corporations tripled their profits. Sadly, those 500 companies also eliminated 5 million American jobs at the same time.

• During the 1980s, more than a half million units of housing were lost every year to condo conversion, arson and demolition. By 1995, the supply of affordable stock plummeted, and there was a shortage nationally of 4.4 million housing units. In Vermont, the shortage is now anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 units depending which forecast you read.

• Average wages were consistently flat or falling through the ‘80s and ‘90s. In 2000, a groundbreaking national study (“Out of Reach” by Cushing Dolbeare, 1999) showed that nowhere in the United States, not in one single jurisdiction, could a full-time low wage worker afford the fair market rent.

• Not surprisingly, the number of families paying more than half their income for rent between 1999 and 2005 increased by 76% — from 2.4 million to 4. 2 million households in just five years.

• Right at the midpoint of that decade, the U.S. Census reported that median household income fell for the fifth year in a row despite continued economic growth and productivity gains. At that time, 63% of families living below the poverty line had at least one full-time worker. And that was before the Recession.

It’s not hard to imagine Sister Lucille’s face growing more stunned with each statistic. We’d probably interrupt our stream of numbers to reassure her that COTS quickly evolved to focus on housing and homeless prevention. I’m fairly certain that she’d want the rest of the data. So, we’d plow ahead letting her know that:

• CEOs had a rosy time for three decades. In 1980, their compensation was 40 times the average worker and rose to 270 times the average by 2012 (The New Yorker – “Open Season” by James Surowiecki, Oct. 21, 2013). Meanwhile, workers at the bottom of the wage scale have only seen their incomes increase by 7% since 1973 (The New York Times – “Our Economic Pickle,” Jan. 12, 2013)

• In 2005, even the Wall Street Journal took notice of the widening gap between rich and poor with a front page story. A month later the Economist ran a piece noting that the concentration of wealth for the richest ONE percent of this country was at its highest since 1928, the year before the stock market crash.

• More recently, U.S. Census data indicated that 20.5 million people earn incomes below half the poverty line, less than $9,500. That’s up 8 million from 2000. (The New York Times – “Poverty in America: Why Can’t We End it? July 28, 2012)
• Meanwhile, 6 million Americans have no income other than food stamps. (The New York Times – “6 million try to live on no income but food stamps, Jan. 2, 2010)

As a backdrop to these numbers, state governments and the feds have consistently underfunded key investments like treatment for addictions, mental health services, programs and ongoing support for those with developmental delays.

No doubt Lucille’s head would be spinning if not face down on the table by the time we reached the end of our lunch. I am certain, though, that she’d have been thrilled back in 1982 to hear that COTS would focus on long-term solutions many years before HUD and other public programs began funding that kind of priority.

Despite enormous challenges over the years, COTS has achieved some remarkable results. We created 56 units of permanent affordable housing and 26 units of transitional housing dedicated to those moving from shelter. Since January, nine formerly homeless veterans have moved from our Canal Street program into community-based permanent housing.

Over the years, we’ve been recognized for the outcomes and innovations of our programs by two HUD secretaries, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and numerous foundations and businesses.

We’ve launched tools like the security deposit and risk-guarantee fund, and creative new programs like Home Again and Family Supportive Housing to help those in shelter move more rapidly back into housing.

In 2008, COTS rolled out the largest privately funded homeless prevention program just as the worst of the Great Recession bore down on Vermont. In that first year, we helped avert eviction and foreclosure for 357 households. Over the past five years, we have broken the fall into homelessness for 1,451 renter households, and we stopped foreclosure for 66 families.

Every initiative we’ve undertaken in the past 30 years, every endeavor we’ve launched, we have done in partnership with many others. It would take me well over 10 minutes to list the broad range of landlords, businesses, nonprofit allies, housing developers, local congregations and schools with whom we have built enduring partnerships since 1982.

None of our work or partnerships would be possible without your support and without the ingenuity and compassion of COTS staff. These are the people who work tirelessly to make sure that there’s a safe, welcoming place for the homeless to turn every day of every year. COTS never closes. They are the most talented, tenacious, remarkable people you will ever likely meet anywhere. Speaking of tenacious and remarkable, Tim Coleman will reach his 30th anniversary at COTS on Nov. 5th. That’s an extraordinary milestone .

As we move into our 31st year at COTS, there are many difficult challenges ahead. CNN reported just last night that the number of homeless students in U.S. public schools reached an all-time high of 1.2 million.

COTS is still reeling from the enormous deficit we incurred while running the overflow shelter at the Eagles building from 2009 until June 2012. We’re on an increasingly tight timeframe to site our new Daystation. There are ominous signs that state and federal support will be further eroded in the coming years.

It’s very likely we’ll have to find our way forward on a number of fronts without knowing what’s directly ahead. Our path won’t always be easy or clear.

Guests at the Annual Meeting give Rita a standing ovation.

But I’ve learned a lot from my eye surgery experience this summer. I’ve learned that no matter how uncertain our steps, no matter how much our pace falters or we lose our way, we will always find our truest bearings in each other.

All of you gathered her today have joined with us, some of you for many years, in trying to shape a better world. You are COTS vital touchstones, your countless contributions are the steady hand that breaks the fall for hundreds of Vermonters each year.

I believe that when you give your time and talent to places like COTS, what you are doing most of all is standing firm with us in the unwavering belief that NO ONE should be denied a chance just for being poor. In doing this, you affirm the infinite promise of every life. There’s no greater gift that you could possible give. More than anything else, that is what we celebrate today. Thank you.

Categories: COTS Shelters, Events, Homelessness, Housing, Staff and Board, Volunteers
Tags:, , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.