Thursday, July 15, 2021

Open Letter to Los Angeles Regarding Homelessness #Homelessness #LosAngeles #HomelessLA

I am the guy that you don’t want to hear from - the guy that doesn’t focus on blame, but instead focuses on responsibility.

LA can neither administrate nor buy its way out of its homeless issues. Homelessness is a community problem and until communities start putting direct work into their own neighborhoods, homelessness will not lessen.

LA has it bad. It’s expensive to live here and the weather and the marketing is good - so the poor and desperate will always be in LA in order to find SOME joy in their lives.

They are PART of us. And just like in our families, people with problems can’t ‘be fixed’. The repairs to their lives won’t come quickly and successes take time and effort. We know this because that is the human condition. We accept these things with people we care for, but we deny that reality to people we don’t know.

For strangers, we think of them in terms of program costs, turnaround times, and statistics. And, it just doesn’t work. We have created a class of throw-away people. We think of them as disposable and many of them agree with us.

How many “trash people” in your family end up succeeding on their own? I know of none. People need support in order to succeed. They need self respect. They need a community to underpin their efforts and not one that counts down their time in a program or tallies the cost of the help.

It’s not going to get better until we 1) take direct positive action and  2) find a way to see a sustainable return on our community investment.

This is difficult but it’s our responsibility.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Does White Privilege Include Homelessness? #whiteprivilege

I was at a dinner party the other night and one of the people there and her friends asked me if I acknowledged my privilege. I was awkwardly silent because I knew I was about to get verbally jumped. I replied, "everybody has privilege in some way." This was not well received, but I ended up fighting them off by reminding them that I work on homeless issues.

I said, "The reason I work on homelessness is that poverty is a great equalizer. If you show me a gay black man with cancer, I'll show you a homeless gay black man with cancer. If you show me a disabled Native American veteran, I'll show you a homeless disabled Native American veteran." My point was that having a stable place to live and a support system is a privilege in and of itself.

I don't deny that there are a lot of people who don't understand adversity. My mother said she never went without and she was always protected by her family. Personally, both of my parents were stable and I grew up in the same house from the age of two to the age of twenty-four - plus my parents paid for my undergraduate education. That was a great advantage. However, I will also then say that my mother did always work hard to maintain her life and I have carried on that tradition. Adding to that, I have also struggled. I had to re-learn how to walk after a motorcycle accident, I lost my house in 2012, and it is rough building a new business.

But, who cares? I don't want to focus on that. In fact, I don't know why anyone focuses on their troubles (except to entertain and to inspire). The homeless people I met who were able to pull themselves out of homelessness singularly focused on their success strategy out. Hanging on to their hardship has only kept the homeless that I've met in that hardship.

Acknowledging your privilege (I guess) makes you kinder to others. It's like repenting. But, repenting does no good if you don't focus on a clearly defined event (I hit my brother,  I drank the sacramental wine, etc.). If people who don't know you accuse you of being evil, it only builds animosity (see The Spanish Inquisition, The Salem Witch Trials, or any territorial dispute).

Because I focus on the judgment housed people lay on the homeless and the ways to navigate through that judgment in order to get people off of the streets, I simply see 'privilege' as just another distraction people concern themselves with so they don't actually have to DO something to help people. To me, it's an academic exercise.

Do my black friends go through extra hardships? I'll let them tell me. Do other minorities go through troubles in public that I don't? I'll let them tell me. But, if you have a stable place to live, please don't tell the homeless white guy in the wheelchair to confess his privilege. It's just mean.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Being Just A Number - Counting The Homeless

Back in 2010, I had a police officer tell me that a shopping cart equaled one homeless person and a tent equaled two. Since that day, I have been very suspect of the accuracy of homeless statistics. This week, I participated in the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count because I wanted to understand their particular methodology. We did count tents, but not shopping carts. The tents also seem to remain tents in the final numbers - instead of equating them to a number of people.

The people running the count were very kind, but there was this air of protecting the volunteers from the homeless that was floating about. The training video explicitly stated that the homeless were people too, but went on to tell us to not talk to them "in order to keep their privacy". I kept imagining some guy coming up to me on the street, not saying anything, writing a tally mark down on a clipboard, and just walking away. I would be so sad. People talk to people. People count items. Homeless people are not items. Can you imagine how our national census would go if census takers just counted houses?

We also counted from 8pm to midnight - and in groups. At 11pm, the organizer called me to tell me I could stop if I felt unsafe. If my safety was a concern, why did we count at night? Is it so we don't have to talk to sleeping homeless people? Is it because they're easier to count when they're not moving? Is it because volunteers can't make it out during the day? I had just walked by a sleeping woman and I felt that SHE was unsafe... because she was asleep outside.

It was not explicitly stated, but I felt that for the sake of the volunteers, The Count was also buying into this idea that homeless people are "the other" - that they are not one of US. The ironic thing is that as long as we have this view of separation, homelessness will not get solved.

Some homeless people can be dangerous, but it's not a rule. A more accurate rule might be that homeless people are sad, depressed, and/or lonely. And treating them as a potential danger and a number to count just makes them sadder, lonelier, and more depressed.

Can we start bridging the gap between "us" and "them" by calling the act of counting the homeless a census? I get that the word change is just a token, but maybe some volunteers might feel safer with that word.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

'Click Bait' Homelessness - The Difficulties in Marketing Poverty

I just watched an interview clip where Conor Skehan (an Irish housing official) talked about the pitfalls of pulling on people's heartstrings. His point was that people are pulled into action when humans say they have no shelter - and this could be used as manipulation. The headline for the article I read about the interview focused on Mr. Skehan calling homelessness 'normal'. Because he called it normal, the publication that wrote about the interview is banking on its readers to think that that is a polarizing thing to say - it's their click bait.

In the eleven years that I have been documenting homelessness in the US, I would agree that homelessness is normal. No person in any city I have visited  has ever said to me, "We don't have any homeless here."

The interviewer asks Conor Skehan if it being normal makes it right. It seems as if the interview's subtext is this:

People need to calm down and not react to people crying 'homeless' because you could be getting scammed.

We need to hype the heck out of this any way we can to get the public to support getting people off of the streets.

Here is the crux of the dilemma. People are talking about the same thing with different life values attached to it. Homelessness is not like cancer where people have pretty clear views on the subject.

The views on cancer tend to be:

1. Cancer is bad.
2. Getting cancer is bad.
3. A cure for cancer would be good.
4. Other than with lung and skin cancer, cancer just happens. It's not 'your fault'.

Arguments against curing cancer tend to be:
1. We can't cure cancer.
2. We should put money into preventing cancer instead.
3. Curing cancer is too expensive.
4 The money is in treating cancer, not curing it (no one is [publicly] a  proponent of this argument).

If we try to do the same thing with homelessness, it gets ugly pretty quickly.

The views on homelessness tend to be:

1. Homelessness is bad - but some people want to be homeless.
2. Homeless people are - well I won't publicly say that they are bad, and I'm sure some are fine people but drugs and mental illness and scammers and lazy people.
3. A cure for homeless would be good, but I don't see why do I have to put effort into someone else's life. I've got my own problems.
4. I would never be homeless. They did something to get themselves into that situation.
5. Poor bastards. I feel sorry for some of them.

Arguments against solving homelessness tend to be:

1. I will never say we can't solve homelessness because that's bad PR and I am a giving person but I will never back a futile endeavor. Our society fights wars to win and not to perpetually lose battles. Why can't they just solve their own problems?
2. Families need to take care of their own - or people should have enough money to support themselves.
3. I don't want to pay for their mistakes.
4. (Privately) There's no money to be made in solving homelessness. It's a sink-hole.
5. It's not my problem to solve, it's homeless people's or The City's problem.

The above list can grow and grow and people will continually argue about the points and how to approach them. We get caught up in the judgment of being homeless and it clouds any directive we start with. It also makes it hard to 'market'. Talking about homelessness in a directed soundbyte or headline can be difficult because people come to those words and concepts with different attachments.

So what do we do? I focus on getting specific people off of the street and back to being self-sustained. This way, I keep the dialogue contained to that person's situation and needs. Homelessness is not cancer. A homeless person is not a group of mutating cells that can be treated in a single systematic way. People are far more complex than cancer cells and we don't even fully understand cancer cells. How can we expect to understand and support a whole disparate population of people loosely tied together by the fact that they don't have stable roofs over their heads?

Homelessness is normal. But, I don't think we should accept it. We should work to get people stable - because we enjoy living in a stable society. And, we should look past the click bait and into each specific situation.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Homeless Scams! How Can We Ever Give Again?!

Recently, a homeless man (Johnny Bobbitt) got tied up in a GoFundMe scam to bring in cash for himself and his (what I call) housed pimps. What was the scam? He said he rescued his female pimp from having to get out and walk to fill her own gas can while she was stranded on the side of the road. He was legitimately homeless. That wasn't a lie. But, in today's world, it's not enough to just be homeless or to just be a homeless veteran (which he was). Homeless people have to do something super in order for us to care about them. These pimps knew this.

All three used the power of marketing and publicity to get the public really excited about The Beast rescuing The Damselle in Distress - just like in a fairy tale. And man, did it work. This one homeless guy got $400,000 in donations from frenzied people who thought they could really make a difference with the simple click of their donation buttons.

See, we all want a good story, we are all followers, and we are all too busy with our own lives to actually put work into our communities. We are also so desperate to be good people that if someone tells us that they have a good cause, without any due diligence,  we let ourselves get scammed.

Really, what do we think one homeless guy is going to do with $400,000? Apparently, he only got $70,000 (because pimps take a deep cut), but still, what do we think one homeless guy is going to do with a lump sum of a decent middle-class yearly income? GoFundMe gave the guy a lottery ticket - and we know the history of how that goes.

His pimps (Kate McClure and Mark D'Amico) turned out to be financial disaster stories as well - blowing their cash on cars, vacations, and gambling. And now, we want to prosecute all three of them for being dishonest. I kind of have a problem with this. Johnny was legitimately homeless. We got the opportunity to help a homeless guy. His pimps knew that if they didn't sell a super story, we wouldn't care about him, so in my eyes, they get marketing points. Sure, they are deceptive messes as people, but how many times does a person get prosecuted for that?

How many times have we purchased something that wasn't as amazing as the advertisement?

I'd chalk this up to a lesson, Help the people in front of you. Do research. Do the work. Talk to homeless people and don't just give the internet $400,000.

Friday, November 16, 2018

It's Not Enough To Be Homeless For Us To Care

I've been telling stories about the homeless since 2010. I am always intrigued by the irony of who we as the public think homeless people are versus the reality of homeless people's daily ingenuity, coping powers, and life skills.

At the same time, I want to let homeless people know that they are people worth my attention because if you value a person, they are likely to value themselves. And obviously, the opposite is also true.

I've been hoping that these stories will resonate with the public - that the public will see that the homeless person is just like them and that that realization will inspire people to do something to get their neighbor off of the street.

Instead, the public pays little attention until something about the homeless makes them angry (like poop in the streets), sad (like homeless people getting killed by sociopaths), or impressed (like a homeless kid getting into Harvard).

My publicist says people work on emotion and judgment. She wants me to put words like "useless" and "fight" into my publicity copy. I know she is right, but that's not the product I'm selling. Unfortunately for me, the stories I present focus on regular people and possible solutions - and solutions aren't sexy.

I joke that I need to start telling stories about homeless pornography (which I don't know to exist) in order to inspire focused effort and resources that will get people into stable housing.

The problem is, homeless porn might get the porn stars housing, but that won't help the thousands of other homeless who didn't attract the attention. I wish all homeless had a golden voice or saved a school bus full of children - but they don't and they didn't. They are just people trying to live their lives with what they have and I want to help them - because I was taught that this country does not accept failure.

So I guess, here's my emotional plea - "No excuses, let's fix this!"

Monday, October 29, 2018

Building Legitimacy and Community Without An Address

One thing that prevents the homeless from moving out of homelessness is the weight with which the government and certain businesses place on a permanent address to define legitimacy. I understand the historic position of a person's address denoting their findability and therefore trustworthiness in society, but in today's age of everyone carrying trackable GPS telephones on them, I wonder if those policies can be relaxed to provide a pathway back into society.

The government won't send mail to a PO Box. This means a person cannot get a new license if they don't have a home. If a person doesn't have a valid driver's license, often times businesses won't hire them. Other places (such as gyms) won't let a person use their facilities if they don't have a valid address.

Can we develop an official communication channel for homeless people? Could we have a federal e-mail address? Also, can people have options apart from a permanent address that could build trust with a community?

A car rental business explained to me that the reason their customers had to pay them with a credit card was that the company was then assured to have multiple options to find customers and to charge them in case the car was damaged or disappeared. Having cash or a debit card was a dead end to them.

People don't trust the homeless. Church programs and religious communities often provide a network of trust to homeless people. This is often a route for success for a homeless person and it works if that homeless person believes in the same God. Could we build something like this in the secular sector?

I think if a person wants to get out of their unstable situation and become trustworthy, they shouldn't have to ascribe to a religion to do it. This country has been putting a lot of its ills on the backs of religion and I think it's time for other communities and organizations (to include government entities) to step up and offer solutions. The churches seem overworked.