Yet Another School

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BUSES ARRIVING IN front of the Sleep Inn could mean one of two very different things: a field trip that might be the greatest day of a young Scout’s life, or the dreaded return to PATH, which meant you were getting bounced out of one shelter and moved to another. One prompted joy; the other served as a reminder that being poor meant having little or no control over where you would rest your head from one week to the next. Even if the decision to move families from one shelter to another wasn’t arbitrary, at the very least it seemed that the transfers were carried out with indifference. Someone somewhere—a caseworker or management at a hotel or in the Department of Homeless Services—had decided that it was time for people to pack up and move. Genesis, Brithani, and their mother and little sister were moved from the Sleep Inn to a more traditional shelter that had a regular-size refrigerator and a stove in each room so that families could make home-cooked meals. In their new space, Genesis was grateful to see her mother stirring pots, not only because that meant far better food than they’d been able to eat in a long time but also because the packaged lunches and dinners handed out each day at the Sleep Inn had been meals that could stretch to satisfy an empty stomach—filled with starches that could also exacerbate diabetes, which Genesis’s mother had developed. So having a stove and a refrigerator was good, because it meant healthier food. But the move came with consequences, too. Their new shelter was deep in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, about forty-five minutes away from the Sleep Inn. Genesis and Brithani had to start at new schools—again.

Troop 6000: The Girl Scout Troop That Began in a Shelter and Inspired the World by Nikita Stewart

Tastes Like Poverty

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Inside the makeshift social services office at the Sleep Inn, there were hundreds of single-serve disposable plastic bowls of cereal, the kind with paper on top that peeled back like a sardine can. There were a few varieties to choose from, but the cereal was packaged for convenience and economy, and for parents and their children at the Sleep Inn, it was another reminder that being poor meant having fewer options. Someone somewhere had decided that a single small serving of cereal per day was good enough, and to many, each plastic container felt like a single serving of poverty. To experience homelessness was to live a life where everything, it seemed, was decided by the shelter staff, by the hotel staff, by the government. Every aspect of their lives was apportioned right down to the cereal.

Troop 6000: The Girl Scout Troop That Began in a Shelter and Inspired the World by Nikita Stewart

Impossible Shelter Rules

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At the same time Genesis was crying onscreen, Cori was sobbing outside the room. Her neighbor at the Sleep Inn had told her that a resident assistant was in her room packing up her belongings. Cori had done everything right—seeking permission and getting a letter from the Girl Scouts—but there had been a miscommunication or someone had decided that the letter was not adequate authorization for her absence from shelter for more than forty-eight hours. According to Childrens Community Services, Cori was in breach. So now they were kicking her out.

Troop 6000: The Girl Scout Troop That Began in a Shelter and Inspired the World by Nikita Stewart

A Name for the Nameless

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But this new troop was unique. It belonged to girls who did not know where they belonged. It wouldn’t make sense to use the numbers normally applied to troops in any of the five boroughs. Given that its members had no fixed addresses, wasn’t this troop of girls, no matter where it was located, really like a floating borough in its own right? Or even a shadow borough, because the rest of society was ignorant of or didn’t want to acknowledge its residents? At some point Girl Scout staff realized that the 6000s, designated years earlier for specialized troops, like those for girls with special needs, were no longer used. And so, the Girl Scouts of Greater New York settled on the name Troop 6000.

Troop 6000: The Girl Scout Troop That Began in a Shelter and Inspired the World by Nikita Stewart

Shocking Poverty

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If Heidi had been shocked to hear that all of the rooms in the Sleep Inn were providing shelter for the homeless, she was absolutely shocked to hear that the person proposing to start a Girl Scout troop there was a homeless employee of the Girl Scouts. She began to grasp something that not enough city officials seemed to understand: Homelessness was escalating at such a rapid rate that a hotel had been informally turned into a shelter in a matter of a few months, so fast that a community development specialist at the Girl Scouts was now counted among the city’s most vulnerable.

Troop 6000: The Girl Scout Troop That Began in a Shelter and Inspired the World by Nikita Stewart

Eligible To Live

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They were waiting to be placed in what the city called conditional shelter: For ten days, before putting any family in permanent shelter, investigators would call landlords and relatives to verify whether applicants for housing were actually homeless. For years, advocates and attorneys for homeless people had complained about this intrusiveness, treating homeless people as if they were trying to steal something, as if everyone was a liar until proven otherwise. In the past, the definition of overcrowding varied from investigator to investigator, with some even asking relatives whether a person might sleep well on bedding in a bathtub. Acceptable long-term sleeping options included air mattresses, even if they took up all the floor space in a room.

About 58 percent of those vying for a place to live were initially found to be ineligible either because they had no documentation that they had been evicted or because relatives, unsure of what to say, would convince themselves or outright lie to investigators that ten people could comfortably and happily live in a one-bedroom/one-bathroom apartment. This meant that many people seeking shelter had to apply all over again after incorrectly being found ineligible; others just gave up in frustration, returning to crammed apartments or enduring family strife for the sake of a roof over their heads.

Troop 6000: The Girl Scout Troop That Began in a Shelter and Inspired the World by Nikita Stewart

Solving Poverty: Why Costs Are Not an Issue

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A quick update to a question asked in the forums, in reaction to Solving Extreme Poverty in the USA.

Discussion forums:

(3) Surviving Homelessness (quora.com)

https://www.reddit.com/r/SurvivingHomelessness/

Part 3: How To Help Someone Facing Homelessness

Video

This is based on the post: How to Help Someone Surviving Homelessness

Discussion forums:
(2) Surviving Homelessness (quora.com)
(1) SurvivingHomelessness (reddit.com)

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. This is part 3 in the 3 part series- how to help someone facing 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 third presentation assumes the following: You already know the person surviving homelessness or the person trying to survive homelessness is not exhibiting behaviors that are dangerous to themselves or others.

Identifying dangerous behaviors means you have directly witnessed or experienced violent or dangerous actions taken by a specific person. This entire presentation focuses on the terrible things people do when they act on prejudices, stereotypes and gossip. Do not be that person.

By the same token, anyone who has survived the trauma of homelessness will tell you that it’s dangerous out there and a lot of predators hover around the homeless community because they know they can do pretty much anything they want to homeless people without consequence. When dealing with strangers, keep your prejudices in check and your street smarts turned on. If you don’t have street smarts then find a buddy with experience enough to keep both of you safe.

If you can’t find a buddy and you don’t have reliable street smarts – or if you’re unable or unwilling to keep your prejudices under control – then just walk away. Leave the people surviving extreme poverty and homelessness alone and keep your judgmental comments to yourself.

This third presentation – Seriously just don’t – contains a lot of fire imagery, which is appropriately symbolic. Doing any of these things is akin to finding someone desperately in need of help and choosing to douse them in gasoline and light a match.

We’ll begin with simple verbal abuse – It’s amazing what people feel compelled to say when they find out a person is either facing the possibility of homelessness or actively surviving homelessness. All of the following examples are pulled from my own experience – this is not a compete list.

This is based on the idea that some people deserve to be poor or are inherently different from the so-called ‘good people’  born into a higher financial class. This ridiculous and offensive belief that poor people are biologically suited to poverty generates backhanded compliments like this one!

I’m glad this happened to you and not me because you’ve been homeless before, so you know how to handle it.

Poor people are being punished by god and community – that’s why you’re poor. If you’d been good, you wouldn’t be poor! This nonsensical belief comes out in fun comments like these.

I don’t have that problem. 
You must have done something wrong. 
There must be something wrong with you.

People who believe the stereotype that casts all poor people as sneaky, manipulative, moochers will say things like this. Particularly if they are those special members of the upper class who like to keep a ‘poor friend’ in their circle for bragging rights or entertainment purposes. Confiding in a ‘friend’ like that about a current financial crisis will invariable produce a comment like this one.

I knew this was going to happen. My family told me you couldn’t handle living right. I knew you would be coming around asking for money. I never should have made friends with…one of you.

People who believe poverty only happens to people who are mentally ill or addicted to something, love to recommend ‘getting help’ without knowing anything about the person or their situation. Side note – Mental health isn’t free. A person who can’t afford a place to live isn’t going to have money for therapy. Regardless, the stereotype generates comments such as…

I know a great therapist. I’m sure they can help you address the real problem.

Extreme poverty is just a budgeting issue – who comes up with these things? Recommending a budgeting class to poor people is like telling a starving person to go on a diet. Yes, homeless industry professionals habitually say this:

Have you considered taking a budgeting class?
Our services require completing a budgeting class.

Everyone knows that having money automatically makes you more intelligent, better educated and more polite. Proponents of these opinions can’t help but be openly surprised by someone they thought was a peer turning out to be ‘one of them!’ Saying things things like…

I thought you said you had a college degree. 
But you seem so smart. 
But you seem so nice.

Where to begin? It is annoyingly common to hear homeless industry professionals and government workers saying this. There are quite a few stereotypes and prejudices tied up into these comments. Poor women are sexually loose, can’t maintain a relationship or are poor because they had children or were simply  to ugly or stupid to land a rich man. Leading them to confront women with questions like…

Where’s your man? 
What kind of a woman are you if you can’t even land a man who can pay your bills?

Please pay attention. Most homeless people HAVE jobs. The vast majority of those who don’t have jobs are trying to find work that pays a living wage. Actually, those that HAVE work are often trying to find another job – that pays a living wage. Asking Have you tried getting a job? Only proves you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Have you tried getting a job? 

Variations of this can crop up among religious people of all kinds, but the ‘negative energy’ concern is most often used as an excuse to ostracize someone in the new age, pagan, feminist or womanist communities. Basically, you’re bringing uncomfortable truths into their daily lives and they aren’t allowing it. ‘Energy’ has nothing to do with it.

Your energy is really negative. I just can’t have that in my space. 
I am a very sensitive empath and I have to protect my space. 
Until you get rid of this negative energy, you’re just going to have to keep your distance.

Surviving homelessness means living in a state of ostracism. It’s an unfortunate and highly traumatizing fact.

The most common and vicious attacks against people dealing with a crisis, homelessness included, come in the form of backstabbing gossip.

Gossip never dies. When I was a kid, my family went to public places and collected recycling to help cover the bills. We also pulled things out of the garbage, cleaned them up and sold them at flea markets for the same reason. I personally have had co-workers triumphantly throw in my face the fact that I was one of those ‘trash kids’ and then proceed to make sure everyone else knew what I ‘really am’, which actually created some hostile work environments.

During the years that I followed the standard employment advice to keep my experiences with poverty quiet, this happened multiple times – and I mean 10, 20 even 30 years after the fact. I discovered that posting details about my experiences surviving poverty to my blog and online forums about homelessness lessened the power of this kind of gossip, but it did not eliminate the issue – And I am not unique. This is a sadly common problem.

Outing homeless people – what does that mean?

When the general public hears the word ‘homeless’ they usually think of the ‘visible homeless. These are the people who are begging on street corners, clearly intoxicated or severely mentally ill.  This is actually a very small percentage of total homeless population in any area. The vast majority of people surviving homelessness are indistinguishable from anyone else on the street. They are parents with children, single adults, teenagers and kids trying to survive the streets entirely alone. They’re invisible because they go out of their way to hide their circumstances and just blend in.

In many cases this invisibility is an important protection from predators or thieves and a key part of their strategy to escape homelessness. It’s incredibly common for employers to fire employees for being homeless or refuse to hire new employees after they discover the candidate is homeless. Therefore, secrecy is very important.

The people who are notorious for outing homeless people are 1) volunteers at homeless shelters, soup kitchens or food banks; 2) members of religious organizations that provide benefits to people surviving poverty, homeless or not, and 3) librarians at the local public library.

It takes a very small number of vicious gossips to effectively destroy the efforts of a large number of homeless people just trying to get back on their feet.

The moment a family member or friend is surviving homelessness, someone will make it their mission to disclose every secret or embarrassing detail they know. Often, they will follow these betrayals with musings about how much they regret ‘trusting or ‘believing’ or ‘being friends with’ someone who is now homeless because – obviously – something must be wrong with THEM. This is cruel. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s just plain cruel.

Defamation is a legal term so let’s take a look at the definition.

Defamation: The oral or written communication of a false statement about another that unjustly harms their reputation and usually constitutes a tort or crime.

The key element is the false statement – lies, insinuations and exaggerations – that harms a person’s reputation. Outing a specific individual as someone who has survived homelessness and then suggesting that certain stereotypes, such as 1) mental illness, 2) addiction, or 3) criminal behavior are true for that person BECAUSE – and only because – they were homeless…that is defamation. It’s illegal.

Quick bit of trivia: “The first use of the phrase ‘blacklist was in the 1639 tragedy “The Unnatural Combat” by Philip Massinger.

A blacklist is a list of people who have been who are punished or boycotted. It’s unethical, at best. In the United States blacklisting is also illegal in some states – under certain circumstances. The reality is that this happens to everyone experiencing homelessness – because they are homeless – the reasons behind their current crisis are often irrelevant.

From the moment a person becomes homeless they will find themselves blacklisted by people they trust Friends, family and members of the community they previously participated in. This is part of the ostracism and dehumanization process. The blacklisting itself usually manifests in the person trying to survive homelessness being cut out of family gatherings, blocked  from community events, and isolated from everyone.

 As people talk and it becomes clear family and friends are spreading the word that this person is homeless and warning people against interacting with or assisting this person – intentionally or not. Others will take it a step further and start cutting the person off. Landlords will refuse to consider renting to homeless people. Some businesses will start following the person around and accusing them of shoplifting, provide a noticeably bad haircut or sell them food that has been tampered with.

This can spread to the services provided by the homeless industry, medical professionals, and similar services. As people talk a person can get labeled as ‘underserving’ and when those rumors reach the individuals controlling access to gov’t benefits and non-profit resources, it can influence their decisions and actions, effectively cutting the person off from what little social safety net currently exists.

God blocking refers to clergy or lay members of a religious organization blocking people from participating in religious services, taking volunteer positions within the organization or socially ostracizing a person for ‘religious reasons.’ Usually, the people doing the god-blocking will justify their actions with theories about how they are doing ‘what God wants.’

That brings us to the end of Part 3 – Seriously, Just DON’T when helping someone facing homelessness. Please check out parts 1 and 2 and, as always, thank you for listening.

Part 2: How To Help Someone Facing Homelessness

Video

This is based on the post: How to Help Someone Surviving Homelessness

Discussion forums:
(2) Surviving Homelessness (quora.com)
(1) SurvivingHomelessness (reddit.com)

If you are trying to help someone facing a serious financial crisis and potential homelessness, then this is the place to begin. This is part 2 in the 3 part series- how to help someone facing 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 second presentation reviews common actions taken by those who claim to be helping people surviving homelessness. Some really believe they ARE helping. Just to be clear, none of these things are helpful. Most make the situation worse.

Platitudes. When a person is facing a crisis, the only thing they should be focused on is securing real, practical help. Responding to their concerns, fears and requests for help with platitudes like ‘it will all work out,’ ‘god has a plan’ and ‘think positive’ isn’t particularly helpful. Before you speak, stop and think: who are you trying to comfort – the person in crisis or YOURSELF?

Accusations. The widespread stereotypes that try to fault poor people for the existence of poverty has created a deeply embedded culture of blame. Surviving poverty, homeless or not, means dealing with a steady stream of accusations – most of which have no basis in reality.

Looking for ways to make poor people feel guilty about being poor is common among volunteers and professionals within the poverty and homeless industry. Some admit to (or even brag about) the behavior while insisting it’s ‘for their own good’ because that is what ‘motivates people to change.’ It’s an activity tied to the highly illogical belief that ‘poor people just need to stop being poor.’ While this accusation allows the accuser to feel superior it does nothing to help alleviate poverty.

It’s common for volunteers and poverty industry professionals to keep tabs on homeless people within their programs. This often includes using a gossip network to watch all purchases made at local stores and businesses. Simply walking into a tavern to use the bathroom or buy dinner can quickly escalate into accusations of drinking and alcoholism. This is tied to stereotypes about poor people being drug addicts, lazy and irresponsible.

Shopping for supplies at the local department or grocery store can result in a lecture about budgeting or buying things the family doesn’t need – in the opinion of strangers. A parent who purchases a few balloons and a present for a child’s birthday may find themselves being lectured like a teenager who stayed out too late on a school night. And, yes, poor families are reminded that birthdays are a luxury – basically, poor kids don’t deserve parties. All of this is tied to the stereotypical belief that poor people are inherently stupid, uneducated, immature and irresponsible.

Minimize The Pain. Trying to downplay the severity of the circumstances is not helpful. Yes, it really is that bad. Stop a moment and ask yourself, are you trying to make them feel better or are you trying to make YOURSELF fell better?  Learn to accept the discomfort because this reality isn’t going to change overnight.

Religion. The way people use and approach religion is a huge problem within the homeless industry. It will be explored in more depth during a future video. For now, remember this much à If hearing that someone is dealing with a serious crisis, like homelessness, immediately sends you into a flurry of Bible quotes and time-to-convert-the-sinner behaviors – stop. Just stop and walk away.

Now that you’ve taken a step back try – really TRY – to understand that poor people are NOT being punished by god. They are dealing with a very physical, social – secular – problem.  If a person surviving homelessness or poverty specifically ASKS you to pray with them, or talk religion or study a holy book, then AND ONLY THEN is it appropriate to do so. Leave the preaching for church. If you’re committed to helping someone trying to survive homelessness, then you have to respect their boundaries and their beliefs. If you are unable to do that, then you need to find a way to help from a distance because you are making the situation worse.

Try to Fix It. If you’re a fix-it person – someone who wants to make everything all better for everyone around you – then it’s time to pay attention. Be careful about what you promise to do – or even imply that you  might do – for someone surviving homelessness. There is nothing worse than false hope, particularly when it is immediately followed by the complete disappearance of the ‘friend’ who realizes they can’t handle the reality of poverty and homelessness and just vanishes. POOF! Like magic.

If you are a fixer by nature, keep your mouth shut and your ears open – there will be plenty of opportunities, usually on a smaller scale. It is your responsibility to focus on identifying those things you truly have the power to change. Accept reality and be brutally honest with yourself about what you can (or cannot) do.

Wait for the opportunity to help. Yes, that means sticking around.

Be prepared to be frustrated by the system. The reality of homelessness is complicated at best. There will be a lot of times when you will see a simple, seemingly easy solution to one of the challenges holding your friend in poverty and every one will be stymied by homeless shelter rules, government requirements for eligibility, the way society treat homeless people, lack of resources at local non-profits, landlord prejudice and on and on. Prepare yourself because the minute a person becomes homeless nothing…and I do mean NOTHING…has an easy or simple fix. The person surviving homelessness can be the most sane, well-adjusted, trustworthy and well-educated person you’ve ever met and getting out of poverty will still be extremely difficult and complicated. That’s just the reality of homelessness.

Hold a Fundraiser. This may seem counter-intuitive, but fundraisers and requests for private donations must be kept to a minimum. I’ve mentioned the importance of being considered a member of the ‘deserving poor’ several times already in the first presentation. Asking for donations has to be done carefully because the risk of being labeled undeserved and then blacklisted is very high.

Eligibility for access to any form of assistance is often restricted to people who can prove they have been homeless for at least 30 days and have no assets. Government benefits like food stamps or low-income housing are based on total assets and total income. Every penny received during a fundraiser will be removed from government benefits and could render a person ineligible. Eligibility for long-term benefits must be considered when collecting donations because even a successful fundraiser will only provide a one-time payment and that money will only last so long.

The general public is accustomed to fundraisers run by huge non-profits, where a donation is made once or twice a year, an official thank you is provided with assurances that this donation has helped solve the problem, and everyone continues on their merry way (until next year). This is what the public is trained to expect from fundraisers. When donations are collected for an induvial, there’s a very high probability that the donors will be expecting tangible, positive, and immediate results. This means there could be backlash generated from a) accepting charity and b) not being able to escape poverty – we gave you money, why isn’t this fixed? This can be extremely damaging over the long-term.

If you choose to hold a fundraiser then keep it restricted to very specific and targeted goals. For example, paying back rent or a hotel room, child support, getting a drivers license, medical bills or fixing a broken-down vehicle.

That brings us to the end of Part 2 – What not to do when helping someone facing homelessness. Please check out parts 1 and 3 and, as always, thank you for listening.