A quick update to a question asked in the forums, in reaction to Solving Extreme Poverty in the USA.
This is based on the post: How to Help Someone Surviving Homelessness
Transcript of Notes
(not a full transcript)
If you are trying to help someone facing a serious financial crisis and potential homelessness, then this is the place to begin. The following suggestions provide practical advice for anyone attempting to help a friend or relative survive homelessness.
This information is divided into three presentations:
Part 1 – What to do
Part 2 – What not to do
Part 3 – Seriously, just DON’T do this
This first presentation assumes the following:
1) you already know the homelessness person you are trying to help
2) neither you nor this person have ever experienced extreme poverty or homelessness before.
No one is ever just handed help of any kind you have to prove that you’re not – to use a common slur – human garbage. Anyone who’s homeless is always considered guilty until proven innocent and even then most people will assume you just haven’t gotten caught yet. That makes proving yourself to be ‘deserving’ rather complicated.
Actually, you have to prove that you’re human – and then you have to prove that you deserve to live like one.
Spend a little time trying to understand the realities of poverty in your area. Walk or drive around and take the time to actually see homeless people and low-income neighborhoods. Visit the homeless shelter. Research all of the resources available to homeless people in your area. Call around and get some basic information about what it takes to qualify for help. Then spend some time researching news stories about homelessness in the region. This will give you some insight into the way the media portrays extremely poor people and how dangerous it is to be living on the street.
Just remember that you will never truly understand what it’s like until you’ve lived it.
Simply read the biographies of people who have survived extreme poverty and nonfiction books about poverty and homelessness can be helpful. Sadly, these resources these tend to be few and far between – particularly biographies. A readily available online resource is Invisible People, a homeless journalism project that interviews people surviving homelessness and posts the interviews without edits. It’s one of the only resources that provide a voice to homeless people by simply allowing each person to tell their own story. The link is provided in the description.
After your friend or relative has become homeless, continue spending time together. Whenever possible, make a point of doing so publicly.
This kind of crisis will send a perfectly healthy human being spiraling into depression. Simple and authentic acts of friendship can help fight the despair that inevitably comes from living with the stigma of poverty.
Other people will see you together, which will reduce the damage caused by poverty stigma. This will also increase the possibility of making whatever connections are necessary to get out of homelessness.
Making alliances is crucial to both surviving and escaping poverty. Being homeless means losing police protection. Individuals without a support group or network are frequently targeted by predators –including those living financially stable, socially acceptable lives.
Publicly associating with the housed enhances the individual’s standing as a member of the ‘deserving poor.’ The is a matter of survival and an unfortunate reality born out of extremely limited resources.
No matter how altruistic a social worker or non-profit volunteer is, when a program has enough money to cover the needs of 100 people and it receives 500+ applications, decisions must be made and those decisions are often subjective.
Many non-profits are provided opportunities to collaborate with wealthy benefactors or other organizations on a limited basis. These are purposely unadvertised programs made available to ‘hand picked’ clients. Effectively, they will examine the people who have applied for publicly advertised programs and select those who are considered a good fit.
For all of these reasons (and more), it is important to present the best possible argument for being selected as a recipient and that requires being perceived as ‘deserving.’
Community. It’s the one thing everyone surviving homelessness loses. Ostracism and stigma are part of the homeless experience. They are unfair, unwarranted, traumatizing, and will directly hinder any attempts to escape homelessness. Publicly associating with someone even after they’ve become homeless maintains a connection to the community that existed before losing everything. I can’t overstate just how helpful it is to have a public display of that connection. It’s one of the few things that can counter the ostracism and stigma, just enough to begin making additional connections that could help lead a person out of homelessness.
Anytime someone you care about is faced with a crisis it is time to listen and let them talk. Don’t judge, don’t get offended, and (for the love of Pete!) do NOT break confidences!
Brainstorming all possibilities, no matter how outlandish, helps re-establish hope. Some things are not possible right now, but there’s always someday.
Setting a long-term goal can help to clarify the next best move. The financial situation may be desperate right now, but that does not eliminate the possibility of reaching life or career goals in the future. Identifying a long-term goal and looking for immediate opportunities that move in that general direction can both simplify and improve the process of escaping poverty.
By seeing the actions taken in the immediate moment as steps on the path to a much different (better) place, the individual is able to achieve a more positive perspective overall. This is invaluable when writing resumes, sitting through interviews, filling out applications for assistance, looking for housing and so on.
For some reason, brainstorming sessions have a way of making people more aware of opportunities. After taking some time to look at seemingly outlandish goals, something within immediate reach will be identified. A contact, a job posting, a passing conversation…any number of resources and leads might be revealed. It just requires allowing the mind to focus on what is possible.
Brainstorming discussions can help a person remember their worth and remain cautious while job hunting. If an individual goes into the job-seeking process willing to “take anything from anyone in exchange for whatever paycheck is offered” then chances are very good that an unethical or abusive manager will exploit the opportunity. The end result? A terrible work experience, Job loss, a tarnished work record and minimal pay.
Tangible Help: Helping out in small ways provides more than financial assistance, it lifts the spirits and establishes an ongoing sense of community. It makes taking that next step out of poverty possible.
It is your responsibility to identify what you are both willing and able to do. This is about boundaries. You can’t communicate or enforce your boundaries if you don’t know what they are. Other people can’t respect your boundaries if you don’t know what they are. Identifying those boundaries are your responsibilities.
Sit down and making two lists: 1) things you can do in the short term and 2) things you can do over the long-term (read: years). After you have clearly identified your own limits (to yourself), it’s time to take action.
How you communicate this information will depend on the person facing poverty/homelessness and your relationship. Sometimes simply showing up with a casserole is the best thing you can do. Other times, it’s better to discuss the available options ahead of time. A few suggestions are listed here.
Network with people who know how to utilize the local resources for survival. Most people find good solid information through places of worship, community organizations, and 12-step programs.
Ask the people in your own network of friends and family for recommendations about both resources and people who might know more about local resources.
Helping to identify and arrange temporary paid work can be a valuable form of assistance. Before we get into the benefits of odd jobs, let’s take a look at the realities of the work poor. Most homeless people already have jobs – commonly known as the working poor. Don’t assume that your friend needs additional work
If you have the ability to offer or arrange paid work, then make the offer. If they turn down your offer be gracious about it and let them know the offer remans open if they ever change their mind. Homeless people have the right t accept or refuse as they see fit. Acknowledging and respecting that fact is important.
Here are some reasons odd jobs can be helpful – if they choose to accept your offer.
It enhances the individual’s standing as a member of the ‘deserving poor.’
It qualifies as freelance work and/or self-employment which provides solid networking opportunities.
Helps fill a time gap on a resume.
It’s easier to find a job when you have a job.
Legal problems can, and often do, force people into extreme poverty, homelessness included. A court case can take over a person’s life, draining time, resources and funds. Depending on the reasons behind the case, it can cost a person their reputation, job and family – justifiably or not. Any involvement with the legal system is costly and winning is often the result of simply having more resources to devote to the process. If the issue at stake is important enough, people will (and have) devote every last resource to the fight, leaving them financially destitute.
Surviving extreme poverty (homeless or housed) is a legal quagmire of vagrancy laws; restrictions based on lack of a permanent address; illegal evictions; and accusations of theft, fraud, trespassing and simply existing (e.g.: sleeping in public). Attempting to report violent attacks or rapes is practically impossible and police brutality is not uncommon.
Those are just the most commonly known legal issues facing people trying to escape extreme poverty.
Any form of legal entanglement is devastating to impoverished families. Criminal cases are common and many of them are based on racial profiling or ridiculous laws specifically designed (and selectively enforced) to criminalize the existence of poor people because those with power don’t like seeing extreme poverty in public spaces.
I wish I could say that last sentence was an exaggeration or an analogy or even representation of worst-case-scenarios that pop-up through the country. Sadly, it is the cold-hard-reality faced by people surviving extreme poverty everywhere in the United States.
There are free legal aid programs, but they are inundated with requests for help, run by a small staff of volunteers and universally refuse to even discuss anything that is considered criminal. Legal representation provided within the court system is also overloaded and poorly managed.
As the experts in mass incarceration have pointed out, simply being part of a targeted racial group almost guarantees problems with the criminal justice system, regardless of your commitment to living a good and honest life. The same can be said for people surviving poverty – particularly those faced with extreme poverty and homelessness.
Extreme poverty and homelessness will not be significantly reduced, much less solved, until prejudiced and predatory laws are eliminated, all people are provided access to quality legal assistance and addressing an issue through the court system does not require being either extremely wealthy or a willingness to face complete financial devastation.
There’s a lot of work to be done here.
I don’t have a clean or easy answer.
It must change.
Mass Incarceration and Vagrancy Law Resources:
“A few months ago I thought the slaughter of the Civil War, and the agitation of the violent Abolitionists who helped bring it
on,were evil. But possibly they had to be violent,because easy-going citizens like me couldn’t be stirred up otherwise. If our grandfathers had had the alertness and courage to see the evils of slavery and of a government conducted by gentlemen for gentlemen only, there wouldn’t have been any need of agitators and war and blood.
“It’s my sort, the Responsible Citizens who’ve felt
ourselvessuperior because we’ve been well-to-do and what we thought was ‘educated,’ who brought on the Civil War, the French Revolution, and now the Fascist Dictatorship. It’s I who murdered Rabbi de Verez. It’s I who persecuted the Jews and the Negroes. I can blame no Aras Dilley, no Shad Ledue, no Buzz Windrip, but only my own timid soul and drowsy mind. Forgive, O Lord!
“Is it too late?”
–It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
Ahead of the crowd a lady with twists stands on top of a police car, holding a bullhorn. She turns toward us, her fist raised for black power. Khalil smiles on the front of her T-shirt.
“Ain’t that your attorney, Starr?” Seven asks.
Now I knew Ms. Ofrah was about that radical life, but when you think “attorney” you don’t really think “person standing on a police car with a bullhorn,” you know?
–The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
…one day in early 2000, I sat talking to a young mother on welfare about her experiences with technology. When our conversation turned to EBT cards, Dorothy Allen said, “They’re great. Except [Social Services] uses them as a tracking device.” I must have looked shocked, because she explained that her caseworker routinely looked at her purchase records. Poor women are the test subjects for surveillance technology, Dorothy told me. Then she added, “You should pay attention to what happens to us. You’re next.”
Dorothy’s insight was prescient. The kind of invasive electronic scrutiny she described has become commonplace across the class spectrum today.
–Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor by Virginia Eubanks
Nebraska is one of the states that does not have a campaign organised, so I took a photo of the capital and modified it a bit:
Now there’s a protest in Lincoln, NE!
It doesn’t have the same powerful (and important) effect as a real life protest, but it’s the beginning of something…hopefully…even if that something is just an idea.
All of the following groups are working to establish communities for people trying to survive extreme poverty (homelessness):
Rootz of Change: (Atlanta, GA, USA) An intentional community, farm, training center and a community of anti-poverty activists.
Dignity Village: (Portland, OR, USA) A tiny house community offering temporary living to people trying to survive extreme poverty (homelessness). Also maintains a collection of micro-businesses. Quote from website: We feel it’s necessary to establish a community-based living facility where people living on the streets can have their basic needs met in a stable, sanitary environment free from violence, theft, disruption of peace, and drugs and alcohol.
Right to Dream Too (R2Dtoo): (Portland, OR, USA) Safe camping location/community offering a safe location to sleep. Video tours and interviews of the community are listed on the website. I recommend watching this one: Right To Dream Too (R2D2) City Hall Meetings Portland OR 2013 Quote from website: Right2DreamToo (R2DToo) was established on World Homeless Action Day, Oct. 10th, 2011. We are a nonprofit organization operating a space that provides refuge and a safe space to rest or sleep undisturbed for Portland’s unhoused community who cannot access affordable housing or shelter. We exist to awaken social and politcal groups to the importance of safe undisturbed sleep. Our purpose is to create a placewhere unhoused people can rest or sleep without being rousted by police or private security and without being under the threat of violence.
Opportunity Village: (Eugene, OR) Micro-housing community providing transitional housing and community support for homeless. Managed by Square One Villages, a non profit dedicated to creating self-managed communities of cost-effective tiny homes for people in need of housing.
Build Our House Project: (Philadelphia, PA) Quote from website: Sustainable, supportive housing, organised by poor and homeless people, for poor and homeless people. Working to end homelessness in Philadelphia through justice and compassion.
Community First!: (Austin, TX, USA) Quote from web page: A 27-acre master planned community that provides affordable, permanent housing and a supportive community for the disabled, chronically homeless in Central Texas. A development of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, this transformative residential program exists to love and serve our neighbors who have been living on the streets, while also empowering the surrounding community into a lifestyle of service with the homeless. Additional information, upcoming events and videos can be found on the Community First Village Facebook page.
Homeless Ecoville: (Richmond, VA, USA) A self-sustaining, tiny home community created by and for extremely poor (homeless) people. Quote from website: It is a community of people who work together toward being a self-sustaining village. A Go Fund Me page has been set up to raise funds for the land.
Tiny Cabins 5 Safe Harbor: (Seattle, WA, USA) Quote from Facebook page: A safe harbor from the mean streets of Seattle, a community of tiny cabins & dorm tent shelters, doing what we can to help one another.
“Kids are late to class for working the midnight shift. They give awards for best attendance but not for keeping your family off the street…every state in America the greatest lessons are the ones you don’t remember learning.”