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Commentary: October Suprise Storm Reminds Us of Homeless Plight

By Tom McLaughlin

Buffalo, NY – It's that time of year again. The holiday season is here, and it's a time for giving. But this year, it's understandably a little more difficult to give - particularly because of the October snowstorm.

Remember what that was like? I remember being surprised when it was October 12, and someone told me it was snowing. My first reaction was, Seems a bit early for snow, but I didn't think much else of it. And then, probably just like the rest of you, I had no idea what would happen later that evening and over the next few days.

Seemingly, in the blink of an eye, our lives changed. Downed trees and electrical lines made our neighborhoods cluttered and dangerous. Things that many of us probably took for granted - lights, heat, food, even drinkable water - suddenly went away. Worries of flooded basements replaced worries at work. No matter what we planned for the weekend - like fall home improvement projects, get-togethers with friends, or little Susie's dance recital - life had just thrown us a giant curve ball. We felt helpless, like we no longer had control of our lives. For some of us, it may have been a humbling experience to reach out to neighbors for help. We may have even felt vulnerable. Some people might have even lost income when restaurants, grocery stores and other small businesses closed. Imagine living paycheck to paycheck and being shorted a couple days of work.

The storm passed, and for the most part - we've now gotten back to normal. But I can't seem to forget what those days right after the storm were like. I remember what it was like for people to huddle under blankets, long for a hot home-cooked meal, and reach out to others for help. For the many men, women and children who are homeless, this is an everyday experience that doesn't end when the lights come back on. They're surrounded by crisis and constant uncertainty.

We were cold without power and heat in the storm's aftermath. Imagine instead feeling constantly cold during the fall and winter months. Many of us had to eat pre-packaged foods for a few days. Imagine instead what it's like wondering every day where you're next meal will come from. Some of us scrambled to stay with relatives, others found hotel rooms, and others stayed put and relatively comfortable thanks to generators. Imagine instead wondering where you'll sleep, night after night.

Becoming poor or homeless, whether it happens overnight or over time, leads to a feeling of helplessness that isn't easy to fix. And worse yet, these people were hit the hardest during the storm. At the Buffalo City Mission, we saw a 41 percent increase of men, women and children to our shelters from October 12 through October 18 - a sudden increase that's almost unheard of for us. This pushed our resources to the brink, but through God's help and the generosity of many caring volunteers, we served more than 2,000 meals and provided shelter for more than 860 people. Once the storm ended, we felt a bittersweet satisfaction knowing that even though we had given to those who most needed help, many would still have no homes or families to return to.

Right now, it's hard to think about giving when our resources have been stretched thin - and especially since we're in the middle of the holiday season. Western New Yorkers are some of the most caring and giving people on earth, and I know they're sympathetic to the plight of those who are poor or homeless. But many of us, even now, are still trying to get our own homes back in order.

The nights of October 12 and 13 were dark and cold. It was a time where we experienced what it was like to be without. Now that the holidays are here, let us pray that the October snowstorm taught us to remember the blessing of receiving gifts. Despite the troubles we had and those we may still continue to have, we need to remember to give to those who need our help most - those who struggle every day to receive basic needs.

Even in the worst of times - like the snowstorm - we witnessed so many examples of people helping their neighbors. This holiday season, let's remember that those who are poor or homeless also are our neighbors.

Listener-Commentator Tom McLaughlin is executive director of the Buffalo City Mission.

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