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January 8, 2014

ANDERSON: Hunkering down

— Hunkering down is an expression I remember my father using when it was cold outside. He would tell us to be quiet and hunker down, it was too cold for all that noise (there were seven of us) and we needed to eat our soup, watch cartoons and pray for a break in the weather.

I haven’t wanted anything but soup since Sunday, that urge to “hunker down” has been great. Getting up this morning and treading out early was hard, but fun. If it weren’t for the danger of this weather, I would love it. It is exhilarating.

At the homeless shelter we run it was buzzing with activity and so many called. The sheriff’s department helped a family stay in house by picking up water from us and delivering it to New Washington. We sent a box of gloves, scarves and hats to the Community Kitchen to pass out to people who needed them, and people who didn’t know where to call, called us to find out who to call for help. It was very busy. But a good busy.

As we hunkered down, we also realized how lucky we were to have a place to hunker down. The residents laughed as I scolded them for going outside to smoke. Put your coats, gloves and hats on, “you could freeze” ... oops that was my mother talking.

I thought about all the people out there who maybe needed a warmer house, maybe needed some plastic around the windows — a trick poor people used to keep the draft away when there were no storm windows — for warmth, had to use hair dryers on the pipes because the plumbers were packed or there was no money to call one, or even those who just didn’t have warm enough clothes to go out in this. It is pretty scary when you think about it.

We can hunker down because we have a place to hunker down. Some people have the place but no or little heat, poorly insulated walls and windows, furnaces that need replacing and not enough space heaters. Keeping the oven door open becomes the way to “hunker down” for them, or gathering around a space heater or a kerosene heater.

Their poverty rules their warmth and their ability to secure warmth, just as it does food, medical insurance and security. The inequity of it all seems hardly fair. Some of us crank up the thermostat, others pray for the night to be over so they can feel warmth again.

Tomorrow I was supposed to go to Indianapolis for a rally on health care coverage in Indiana. I wanted to go so badly because this year we have seen so many of our people sick with no real way to fight their illnesses.

We can send our folks to Phoenix Health Care for the Homeless in Louisville now and it has been wonderful because they can access medicine, health care and vision and dental services at this time because they are homeless. It would feel wonderful for those living in poverty to have that option as well.

It would feel wonderful to know that those living in middle income security wouldn’t become impoverished with medical emergencies. People in this country shouldn’t die from a lack of medical care, but they do every day. If you experience a medical emergency, you already have “enough skin in the game” to receive assistance. Affordable health care is a necessity as is affordable housing. They together should constitute a “right” in this country.

When you work with people from this perspective and you visit them in tents, huts, substandard housing, the streets and shelters, it is hard to excuse the way we prioritize in this country. The way we choose to look at the poor is a huge part of the problem. We have in many ways criminalized poverty. We “blame” people for their poverty. Why do we feel the need to do that?

It is important to experience the coldness of winter because it makes us relish the warmth of summer. My dad used to say you can’t be happy if you haven’t been sad. I guess that bears out when you “hunker down.” The frigid cold is a stark reminder of the need for shelter, the need for compassion, and the need for community.

So many have brought so much to the people of the shelter. More importantly they have brought themselves. In droves this season they came to participate with our people and to offer them solace, jobs, warm clothing, food, and it has been good.

The Center for Lay Ministries, the Community Kitchen and Jesus Cares at Exit Zero I am sure experienced the same as did Serenity House, Jerry’s Place and any other residential facility. People saw a need and filled it.

That is what we know in this country and what I hunger for from our political leadership. As JeffCares has proven, anything can be done when leadership steps up for the right reasons. We all need to “hunker down,” concentrate on being warm, plan for keeping others warm, educate our elected leadership about what our priorities are and then determine who can lead us to make those things happen.

— Barbara Anderson, Jeffersonville, is executive director of Haven House Services Inc. Reach her by email at barbanderson_1@yahoo.com

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