You'll rethink the luxury of having your own mailbox after learning Luis' story.

A few weeks ago, one of the volunteers who staffs the check-in desk tapped on the doorjamb of my office.

"A guy on the phone — Luis — asked if we can send him his mail," he said. "The guy says it's really important."

I was working at a nonprofit that offers services that help people living on the streets acquire permanent supportive housing. Forwarding mail is not one of those services.


"Sorry," I replied. "Bethesda Cares' policy is that we don't forward mail. We'll hold it for people, but we can't forward it. Luis has to come get it himself or send someone with written authorization to pick it up." The volunteer nodded and went back to the phone.

I turned back to my work, but the volunteer was back within a moment. "He says he just got a job. The guy's finally working, but it's during all the hours that we're open. He can't get here and doesn't know who he could send. He says the mail has important ID stuff in it. He's afraid he'll lose the job if he doesn't have it."

Well, crud.

I understand why we don't forward mail for the 375 clients who use Bethesda Cares as their mailing address (liability, workload, cost), but Luis had recently got into housing and had a job. I didn't want to go against policy, but I didn't want to bust this guy's chops either. The volunteer and I brainstormed for a moment, and we decided that Luis could send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope and that I would get it back out to him, which is exactly what happened a few days later.

Having no mailing address pretty much stinks, more than you might think.

Practically speaking, people who are trying to enter or re-enter society have to create and re-create connections, paper trails, and systems of interactions with large commercial and governmental entities. If you don't have a mailing address, this task is nearly impossible. While a lot of correspondence is now done online, plenty of agencies that process crucial paperwork like IDs and benefits information still rely on the good old U.S. Postal Service.

Emotionally speaking, having "no fixed address" — which is how law enforcement and administrators refer to someone who is homeless — leaves you untethered. Maybe you have a bus stop you call your own, but you know that's not the reality. Having an address, a place where people can find you (even if only by snail mail), reaffirms your existence. It  confirms your identity, especially when you're desperate for any permanent elements in your life.

Knowing that friends, families, and agencies can find you, even when you yourself don't know where you're going to sleep, is an anchor.

So in addition to helping people find housing, Bethesda Cares allows clients to use its mailing address as their own.

And when I say "as their own," that's exactly what I mean: We want clients to use just our street address, without our organization's name. Adding "c/o Bethesda Cares" reveals their status as homeless, and we want them to have the dignity of keeping their current situation private if that's their preference.

Some clients check their mail only sporadically; they aren't really expecting much. For others, though, coming in to ask for their mail is an important weekly touchstone. It's a layer of routine in their otherwise chaotic lives. It's a reason to come in to our safe space, where they know someone will greet them by name, address them respectfully, offer some coffee and maybe ask how they are. It's a place where they can seek respite from the elements without being told to move along.

Most importantly, it's a reason to come into the place where they will eventually seek other services — like talking to a case worker about housing.

I'm well aware that our office mailing address is a sorry substitute for a home address.

But it's not intended to be a permanent fix. Every service we offer is designed not only to ease our clients' lives, but also to serve as a tool of engagement. It's a chance to say "yes" to someone who's become deeply disenfranchised in society, who is unwilling or unable to believe that anyone will consistently have their backs.

In order to use our address, clients must have an intake interview with a caseworker. We learn their stories and a bit about their immediate needs. And we get to say "yes" — "Yes, you can get your mail here," "Yes, come have a hot meal every day of the year," "Yes, we have clean socks for you."

And, eventually, "Yes, we can help you seek housing."

Homelessness represents the total collapse of support systems, both public and personal.

Rebuilding that shattered trust takes years.

Every touchstone we provide and every indignity we soothe brings that client one step closer to taking the leap of faith they'll need to apply for housing — the leap of faith needed to hope for something better after so many years of accepting the worst.

While our office guides clients on the long path out of chronic homelessness, our greater community has a vital role, too, in making sure that our clients know they aren't forgotten and that they are worthy of our time and our resources.

Anyone can help restore a person's dignity. Just find a local organization working to end homelessness and drop off a package of cookies. Drop off clean socks or unopened toiletries. Maybe include a note filled with kind thoughts.

That way, when clients come in to check on their mail, you'll be helping to reinforce, in any way you can, that they matter.

This story originally appeared on amylfreeman.com and is reprinted here with permission.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Researchers at Harvard University have studied the connection between spanking and kids' brain development for the first time, and their findings echo what studies have indicated for years: Spanking isn't good for children.

Comments on this article will no doubt be filled with people who a) say they were spanked and "turned out fine" or b) say that the reason kids are [fill in the blank with some societal ill] these days are because they aren't spanked. However, a growing body of research points to spanking creating more problems than it solves.

"We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don't think about spanking as a form of violence," said Katie A. McLaughlin, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher on the study which was published Friday in the journal Child Development. "In this study, we wanted to examine whether there was an impact of spanking at a neurobiological level, in terms of how the brain is developing."

You can read the entire study here, but the gist is that kids' brain activity was measured using an MRI machine as they reacted to photos of actors displaying "fearful" and "neutral" faces. What researchers found was that kids who had been spanked had similar brain neural responses to fearful faces as kids who had been abused.

"There were no regions of the brain where activation to fearful relative to neutral faces differed between children who were abused and children who were spanked," the authors wrote in a statement.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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