So much love.
On Thursday March 29, 2018, a radiant and beautiful light in all our lives became that much brighter when Lavina Minnie Shults passed on to the next chapter of being. The week leading up to Minnie's passing was difficult for many people. She had been in critical care on life support for nearly two weeks by the time she finally let go. The nurses on the CCU commented frequently about the number of guests she had come see her and the level of support and care she was receiving from her community. People brought cards, plastic flowers (real flowers aren't allowed on the CCU), and wrote encouraging and loving notes on her hospital room white board. It has been difficult to find the words to write this memorial post about all the beautiful and amazing parts of Minnie's story because truthfully, I'm angry. But I'll get to that later.
Minnie valued loyalty, laughter, family, caring for others, resilience, and working. She really, really valued working. Minnie ran kitchens for most her life. She often talked about how she would love to get back to it and we had plans to support her and a group of shelter guests to cook meals once a week for everyone at the shelter. Minnie couldn't work due to her serious, progressive health conditions and the persistent grief from the loss of her son 7 years ago. Not being able to work was very difficult for her.
I can't talk about Minnie without talking about Doug and Sadie. Doug and Minnie were married 26 years. They have been staying in our couple's dorm at the nightly shelter for a little over two years with their dog, Sadie. We joke about how Sadie is an Olympia celebrity because wherever she goes someone knows her whether they know Doug and Minnie or not. While Minnie was in the hospital, I was talking to one of her closest friends and she joked, "I've been married three times and never once has someone loved me like that!!", commenting about how deep Doug's love for Minnie is. Doug came out to Olympia before Minnie and one former shelter guest mentioned that while he shared a dorm with Doug before Minnie came to Olympia, Doug would stay up all night giggling on the phone, telling her how much he loved her over and over.
We had the pleasure of meeting Minnie's son, Harley who came out and really stepped up to support his mom and Doug. Whenever we get insight into people's family outside the shelter it's always such an honor to bear witness to the pieces of their lives we don't always have access to.
Whenever one of our guests, past or present, passes away it is a shocking reminder of the toll that homelessness takes on individuals, families and communties. With the average life expectancy at just around 30 years lower than the rest of the population, it is no surprise that we deal with this type of tragedy very often. We prioritize people who are typically older (over 50 years old) and who have been experiencing homelessness for a long time. The main goal of our work, as I see it, is to honor our people in life and in death.
So... here's why I'm angry. Minnie's health decline really took a turn this winter after she got pneumonia and never quite recovered from it. Minnie and Doug had been waiting for the decision of her Social Security claims that she went to court for three months ago after being denied by SSI/SSDI two times. She and Doug stayed in their car most the day, parked up on the street in front of the church because she would get too winded trying to walk the 4 blocks to the Community Care Center. This meant that she was barely shielded from the elements during the day trying to heal from pneumonia.
We got a lot of complaints this winter about cars parked in front of the church and people feeling like it was bad for the neighborhood. It's hard to explain to people that they are right -- it doesn't look good. It shouldn't be acceptable in our community that a moldy car was Minnie's only option for day time shelter. It shouldn't ever feel comfortable for our community to bear visible witness to the suffering of fragile, disabled people. We should never allow this spectacle to continue.
However, we do. In fact, we continue to fund and prioritize elaborate, expensive actions of further criminalizing, displacing, restricting access to spaces, surveilling and taking legal action to try to make homelessness disappear as quickly as possible to alleviate our discomfort. The pressure on city government, social service providers and law enforcement to make "this issue" quickly disappear is immobilizing and it sets up the solutions that our city desperately needs, to fail. Not to mention that talking about it as, "this issue" is dehumanizing and let's us depersonalize the fact that breathing, living, laughing, crying human beings are facing a humanitarian crisis on our doorsteps and in our backyards. Elders, children, medically and mentally fragile people are at extremely high risk of death and compounding complications the longer they stay out in the elements.
Yet, the actions and strategies that have been proven over and over again to alleviate the impacts of homelessness and other major social issues, (including the opioid epidemic), are not being fully imagined, funded, prioritized or implemented on a reasonable scale to address the magnitude of the challenges. Adequate amounts of low barrier shelter, supported and affordable housing, and highly accessible medical, mental, and substance use health services are the only strategies that have shown to make a marked difference in decreasing homelessness in communities.
When people experiencing homelessness, advocates, and service providers talk about these issues as life or death, it's because they are. Since December 2017, 5 people from the street community have died that we know of. In the past year, the number of deaths in the street community is more than double that. This is an alarmingly high death rate for a relatively small subsect of our county population.
The night Minnie went to the Critical Care Unit, we had called the EMT's for another guest in respiratory depression from COPD complications. While they were attending to her needs, Minnie had a major medical episode and collapsed, so they took her to the hospital too. It turned out that her heart beat was dangerously low, her kidneys had failed and her lungs couldn't work without intubation. Minnie remained on respiratory life support for about 9 nine days and then passed away at age 53, peacefully, and with her son by her side in a beautiful room on the 3rd floor at St. Peter Hospital. The St. Peter Palliative Care Team was really good to work with. They helped ensure that Sadie could be with Minnie wherever she was in the hospital.
While Minnie was on life support, we got word that her SSI/SSDI claim was approved. It felt like a slap in the face and too little too late. But, as we do, we looked to the bright side of things and began working with the lawyer to ensure that Doug would get survivor benefits as her husband. As things stand now, Doug is being denied the full claim of benefits and backpay that is due to him because Social Security has decided that although they've been legally married for 26 years, they didn't technically "live together in the same house" for the past two years due to their homelessness. We are fighting this ruling, and remain hopeful that Doug will get the support he needs to secure income and housing, but these are the types of complicated hurdles our guests have to overcome if they have any hope of getting off the streets.
The question that we need to ask ourselves is this; Do we prioritize reactive, costly strategies that have been shown over and over to exacerbate impacts of homelessness on communities, or do prioritize sensible solutions that are cost effective and have been proven over and over to alleviate the impacts of homelessness on communities? Increased access to shelter, housing, physical, mental and substance use related healthcare are the clearest path forward. Interfaith Works is dedicated to working towards sensible solutions that strengthen our entire community. We hope that you will join us in embracing this message.
Minnie, we love you and thank you for all that you added to our lives. You will not be forgotten.
Meg Martin, MSW, MHP, is the Shelter Program Director for The Interfaith Works Emergency Overnight Shelter.