The homeless aren’t welcome at ‘awareness’ event

Posted: November 30, 2010 in Discrimination, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Housing, Hunger, Morality, Stupidity

This year, "National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week" was from November 14th through the 20th.

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) — along with the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness – co-sponsor the event annually to try and create (as the NCH website states):

". . . a nationwide effort to bring greater awareness to the problems of hunger and homelessness."

And indeed, there were numerous communities nationwide that held "sleep-outs," walks and other events to raise awareness.  

Considering the theme, you would think that some of the best spokespersons would be those who are actually homeless and/or hungry, right? And, as such, you would think that they would be invited to be part of the process.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case — at least not in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

On Friday, November 19th, Coeur d’Alene resident Steve Bell "slept out" at the Harding Family Center to raise awareness to the homeless situation in his community — and also in hopes of collecting around 2,000 sleeping bags to give out to the County’s homeless population.

Here’s the utter absurdity of the story: According to an article on the NSCN website, approximately 50 homeless people tried to,

". . . join him throughout the night [but] were turned away.

While members of the general public were allowed to camp with Bell outside the center, the people who were in fact homeless were directed to a local shelter."

Even Mr. Bell found the situation rather ridiculous — and said:

"That’s the irony, isn’t it? If you had a home you could spend the night there, if you didn’t have a home, you couldn’t."

It seems to me strangely peculiar that, as a society, we give lip service to the idea of helping the homeless. Yet we’ve become quite expert at excluding them from participating in the very events that are supposed to benefit them.

Local governments and homeless advocacy groups seem to love congregating for the purpose of "brain-storming" for ways to "deal" with homelessness. They commission studies and reports. They hold public forums — seeking input from local residents and business owners. But the homeless themselves aren’t included. And if or when they are allowed to participate, their thoughts and ideas are dismissed — almost as though what they have to say lacks insight and validity.

What the "experts" seem to repeatedly fail to recognize is that there is no one more expert at knowing the struggles of homelessness than those who are going through it.

Instead, the "experts" consistently fall back on the erroneous notion that more shelter beds need to be made available; that more meals need to be served. Some even put forth the idea that a "one-stop" homeless mega-center needs to be built.

For some strange reason it never occurs to the "experts" that the homeless do not want to be sheltered and fed. They don’t want to be herded onto some massive "homeless campus." They don’t want to be trapped within vicious cycle of "the system."

What the vast majority of homeless want is housing — and the means with which to maintain that housing for themselves.

It’s that simple.

On his websites and HardlyNormal, friend and fellow blogger, Mark Horvath posts video interviews of the homeless he meets.

As a rule, at the end of each interview, he asks: "If you had three wishes, what would they be?"

I have yet to hear one of those folks say that they want to spend the rest of their lives homeless, living in shelters or sleeping in a doorway, under a bush, or in an alleyway.

Invariably, the first two of those wishes are for housing and the financial means to remain housed.

Yet (and despite what the Homeless Support Services industry claims) this is exactly what we are not offering the homeless: a genuine opportunity to find a way out of homelessness and back into housing.

And why is this?

Because we aren’t listening to what the homeless are trying to tell us. We aren’t paying attention to them regarding the types of services and help they are asking for.

Think of it this way . . .

How much trust would you have in a doctor who casually walked into the examination room and proceeded to tell you what malady you had without even bothering to ask you what your symptoms were?

I don’t know about you, but I’d want a second opinion — and quickly!

Along those same lines, perhaps it’s time the "experts" began to seriously listen — not just hear, but really listen — to what the homeless themselves have to say.

Who knows. The "experts" might even learn something.

  1. Rev. Cynthia says:

    Michael, it does make me wonder what their reasoning was for excluding those, who were actually homeless – especially as the organizer himself wasn’t in support of that.

    As someone, who has been homeless in the past, I have been very fortunate that SLO County officials, who are involved with trying to help to solve homelessness in our area, have been extremely respectful toward me; supportive of my projects; and do listen to what I have to say.

    How wonderful that folks, who were experiencing homelessness in Idaho, showed up for the event! I think it is important to note, that events held in the evening cannot usually be attended by people, who are staying in shelters, as they are typically required to check in for dinner (5-6 p.m.) and are not allowed to leave, without losing their space. For example, “National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day” is coming up on the longest night of the year (12/21/2010) & a lot of communities hold Candlelight Vigils after dark – that will automatically exclude people, who are waiting in line for a shelter bed.

  2. elana says:

    this article strongly resonated with me. I’ve been cycling in and out of homeless for 17 years. Altho’ I have a section 8 place i’ve been robbed so often, that I’m afraid to reside there, thus i consider myself homeless. Tomorrow i don’t know where I’ll stay. I’m also a degreed social worker. When I’ve shown up at homeless awareness events, I’m excluded, shunned, and ignored to the best of their ability – despite the fact that i’m more expert then anyone in the room!

  3. Michael — thank you for eloquently stating something that I’ve been trying to put into words.

    The scenario of “people in the throes of a situation” not actively being listened to, in favor of the “experts” is not isolated to homelessness. I’ve seen it happen in many causes, work places, and events. Actively listening only to acknowledged experts is pandemic globally in many arenas.

    I don’t know how to resolve the issue. However, as a homeless person, I can speak from the streets with passion. And I support what you’ve voiced here whole-heartedly.

    Thank you for the opportunity to listen to you.

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