The Race to End Homelessness

The Police are not Our Landlords

By | Homelessness, The Race to End Homelessness | 2 Comments

If you were in Los Angeles last week, maybe you were a part of the great crisis of August 1, 2014. For a few hours that Friday, Facebook stopped working. Were you part of the panic that ensued? Network news reported on the issue, although many people were likely too busy refreshing their Facebook app to turn on CNN.

I am all about seeing my friends’ vacation pictures and status updates, but the news that followed the glitch seemed more disturbing. The Los Angeles police tweeted (thank goodness for alternative social media!) that they’d really appreciate it if citizens could stop calling 911 to report the Facebook issue.

While we all probably have a funny story about a ridiculous police report, it is worth questioning the jurisdiction of police. It does not extend to Facebook. This week, Los Angeles Police were relieved of another responsibility – clearing Skid Row of people experiencing homelessness.

Skid Row, a fifty block area in Los Angeles that is home to more than 17,000 people experiencing homelessness, is one of the most densely concentrated group of homeless people in the country. Studied and documented many times for the unique environment it creates, residents here have long been wary of police involvement in their lives and their belongings.

Amid a new Los Angeles plan called Operation Clean Streets, leaders are beginning to see that arrests are not the answer. “The seriousness of the situation makes this much more than a police issue,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar during a news conference. Instead, this is becoming everyone’s issue – which is what homelessness has been all along.

Now, police will partner with mental health providers, legal services, and housing providers. Finally, police are being used as partners in the race to end homelessness rather than the only tool. Asking them on their own to end homelessness is about as effective as asking them to reactivate Facebook. Many police forces across the country undergo sensitivity training and don’t necessarily want or plan to widely criminalize homelessness, but they use the resources available to them. A police officer is not a mental health therapist, or a doctor, or a housing agency.

Providing necessary support to both police and individuals who are homeless in Los Angeles is the only way to successfully strengthen the neighborhood. There is potential here to finally adequately support a large group of chronically homeless individuals. I am sure the Los Angels Police Department hopes that it works.


Make Jobs, Not Bombs

By | Homelessness, The Race to End Homelessness | 2 Comments

Work experience is the most important part of your resume, so why would previous employment prevent someone from being hired -especially if the new position was less dangerous or stressful than the work the applicant had already completed?

This is just the situation faced by many unemployed veterans, who are increasingly unable to find work. While it is illegal for companies to discriminate against veterans in the hiring process, veteran’s advocates fear that employers automatically equate time spent in military service with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, and are afraid to make a hire. In reality, not all – or even most –veterans return from overseas with emotional problems. Furthermore, PTSD does not necessarily prevent an individual from working.

This discrimination isn’t limited to small misinformed business owners, some veterans report being passed over for positions in government, including being told in 2010 that a company did not want  “disabled veterans and the problems that come with them.” This was at the Federal hiring level. Unemployment among veterans decreased slightly in 2013 from 9.9 percent to 9 percent, but still remains higher than unemployment among civilians.

Without employment, the cycle of poverty begins. Besides supplying income, working can help a veteran return socially and psychologically to civilian life, yet often this opportunity is denied to the men and women with military backgrounds.  The never helpful but often – heard advice thrown at people experiencing homelessness is to  “get a job.” For those that are physically and mentally able to work, this advice is increasingly frustrating. Somehow, we deem these individuals qualified to enter combat internationally, but not to work in an office.

The justness of this discrimination is overwhelming, but luckily veterans are not a population who give up easily. Groups for veterans are leading some impressive advocacy work, including a military campaign aimed at employers. One organization I’ve raved about in past posts is The Mission Continues, a Missouri based group that deploys post 9/11 veterans to do more than just desk jobs, connecting them with service projects in their home communities. This structure both utilizes a veteran’s existing skill set and creates leadership opportunities for returning veterans.

Veteran unemployment contributes directly to veteran homeless, and no person who has served our country should return home to find themselves with nowhere to go. Opportunities to use their skills in new settings can change the cycle of homelessness and poverty among veterans, but only if employers can step away from fear and stigma.

Maybe City Planners Think Your Arms Are Tired

By | Homelessness, The Race to End Homelessness | 3 Comments

I’ve always thought of London as a friendly city. The only city to thrice host the Olympic Games, London hails itself as an welcoming destination city. That is, if you’re an Olympian, or a tourist. Not if you are experiencing homelessness. 

Recently, London installed spikes outside apartments to prevent anyone from sleeping on the ground. The instillation came about a month after one man was seen sleeping outside. The one-inch spikes are not the first of their kind, and are known to exist in other parts of the United Kingdom and Canada. London mayor Borris Johnson, to his credit, called the spikes not only “anti-homeless” but also “stupid.”

He was not the only one. You may have even seen the spikes on social media, as outrage spread across London and internationally. Perhaps it was the political shaming, or the large-scale social media blitz that protested the spikes, but news reports indicate they were removed earlier this week.

This is hardly the first example of creating an environment unsuitable for homelessness. If you have ever looked at a park bench or a subway stop and wondered why the city planners were so worried about people having a place to rest their arms, they probably weren’t. Benches with multiple armrests, divided only wide enough to sit, are too narrow to lay or sleep on, dissuading homeless people from staying the night.

photo: TimberForm

Among all this techniques for making cities unwelcoming, a Canadian company created an installation that is both humanitarian and an act of advertising genius. Notice that not only do these city benches not have intrusive arm rests, but they actually prop open to create a temporary rain shelter. Inside are directions to a RainCity Housing, an organization that specializes in working with low-income individuals to meet basic needs.

vancouver homeless bus bench

photo: Huffington Post

Decisions as small as armrests matter greatly if that armrest ruins your bed for the evening. The steps we as city planners, politicians, social workers, and concerned citizen take to develop and improve our hometowns truly do affect the lives of many people, and these small injustices could easily go unnoticed if you are not the person impacted. This time, Toronto leads the way in providing both shelter and dignity to homeless individuals in Canada- perhaps other cities can also design a place for all residents, giving even the impoverished a place to call home.



The Race to End Comic Sans

By | Homelessness, The Race to End Homelessness | 2 Comments

In an increasingly digital age, there are some things that will always be written by hand. Postcards. The grocery list on the fridge. And, until homelessness is eliminated – panhandling signs. One foundation in Barcelona, Spain, had the idea to connect the handwritten signs of people experiencing homelessness to the technology used by business and publishers. The Arrels Foundation worked with graphic design team to take the handwriting of several individuals experiencing homelessness and turn their letters into fonts. Now, the fonts are available for purchase at

The group hopes to see big brands use the fonts for their products, generating income for the foundation and the individual artists. Their website introduces the “writer” of the font and explains the terms of licensing the fonts. Contributor Loriane’s font is already in use, purchased by a company called Valonga and used as a wine label.
14394242435_9d1dd61a4d_hPhoto Credit:

This is an important innovation for several reasons. Not only is it an exciting opportunity for someone to see their handwriting transferred into print, but the marketability of a person’s writing allows companies to support homeless individuals in a mutually beneficial way. I believe there is a crucial need for aid and fair distribution of basic needs, but that is not what this is. This is not charity. This is allowing people experiencing homelessness to profit from their own product and for a business to make a purchase with a social impact.

The fonts can be licensed by an individual for around $26 USD, or commercially for just under $400 USD. This might cost more than Times New Roman or Arial, but graphics are increasingly important for marketing and branding. In April, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office spent £80,000 (roughly $136,000) on a type change that the Daily Mail called “almost identical.”
commonwealth-old.jpgcommonwealth-new.jpgImage Credit: Daily Mail

This is not to say that the Arrels Foundation and its clients are simply cashing in on lavish wasteful spending. In a time when pen-and ink writing has all but disappeared, type is both the face and the handwriting of a company. Design is important, and this concept allows individuals of many socioeconomic backgrounds to contribute to the way we’ll read and see the future.


Realtors Want Housing For All

By | Homelessness, The Race to End Homelessness | 2 Comments

How do you experience homelessness? I wrote several months ago about the preferred terminology for homelessness; that “people experiencing homelessness” is a better phrase than “homeless people,” because it reminds us that homelessness is a condition – hopefully a temporary one – and not a defining characteristic. After further consideration, I think the phrase applies to all of us – even those of us who are lucky enough to have our own beds and roofs and keys to the front door. I have never experienced homelessness, but my experience with homelessness – meeting people who have lost their homes and their families and their health due to lack of affordable housing – makes me want to end this issue. I know many social workers, case managers, and shelter employees that are passionate about ending homelessness because they (we) interact with individuals experiencing homelessness every day. Sometimes I think we exist in a nonprofit bubble, believing that our peers in other lines of work cannot understand the realities of homelessness, or the importance of ending it. This is inaccurate.

For Cindy Eich, experiencing homelessness didn’t involve seeing a family member lose housing or encountering someone panhandling. As an Illinois Realtor, she started seeing not only people without homes, but homes without people. In 2011, Eich remembers “we were showing properties that were foreclosures and it was obvious that families had lived in those homes.” Motivated by the empty dwellings she saw, especially those that used to have children in them, Eich created Realtors Against Homelessness in 2011 and has since held multiple fundraisers in her community, the last of which raised $25,000.

This week in Florida, the state’s largest professional association – realtors – gathered at a conference to discuss how they could help end homelessness. As Florida hosts the third largest number of individuals experiencing homelessness, this is a crucial issues facing the state. The group has advocated for Florida legislation that supports individuals experiencing homelessness and provides more funding for rentals and home ownership.

In an era when politicians, business owners and plenty of private citizens attack and berate individuals for being homeless, it is refreshing and promising that this professional organization supports ending homelessness and is working to make that happen. People experiencing homeless are not a likely group to utilize the services of a realtor, so there is an obvious disconnect between realtors making a financial profit and helping this population. Their commitment to doing so demonstrates how important a home really is – the professionals who dedicate their careers to knowing the details of housing see how important having your own place can be, and want every person to have this as an option.

Our professional lives connect to homelessness in ways that aren’t always obvious. For one realtor, selling a foreclosed house was her experience with homelessness. For others, it may be serving homeless clients or treating homeless patients. Our experiences with homelessness are wide ranging, but until we see the end off this social issue, it will impact us all.


Hashtag: #EndingHomelessness

By | Homelessness, The Race to End Homelessness | 2 Comments

You won’t find out what I’ve done today by checking my facebook statuses. I’m comfortable with social media, but I try not to get too comfortable. No “woke up, ate eggs, went to work, looks like it might rain” information from me. I’m on the quieter side – both in real life and when it comes to posting what I’m thinking about, which is perhaps why I struggle when I see my friends and colleagues use their twitter feeds as a platform for social advocacy.

As #Bringbackourgirls, the hashtag protesting the kidnapping of more than two hundred girls in Nigeria, exploded this past week, I wondered if I should be tweeting the same thing. I read up on this travesty, and felt outraged at this human rights violation, but I struggled to connect how my tweeting – even with a hashtag used by hundreds of thousands of other users – might lead to justice half a world away.

This week, Twitter made an announcement that really connected the dots for me, and showed how a platform made up of 140 characters can make a difference online and off. The microblogging giant announced plans to open and operate a tech center for individuals experiencing homelessness in the San Francisco area. Computers are increasingly relevant to the job market, both in finding available job opportunities and in possessing basic computer skills, but poverty creates a “digital divide,” and people from lower income backgrounds have less access to computers as they grow up, making the internet a scary place.  The space, called the Twitter Neighborhood Nest, will be open to individuals as well as families, with tech skills offered to any age group. For adults, this will include computer literacy as well as job searching skills.

Twitter is the place for the newest information, where the news is splayed across your screen in tiny snippets. So it is perhaps somewhat surprising that the platform for all things instant is partnering with a service organization that is more than a century old. Compass Family Services will work with Twitter to create the new technology center, as the nonprofit currently coordinates services for more than 3,500 individuals experiencing or on the brink of homelessness.

This partnership is an excellent move, one that gives The Twitter Neighborhood Nest a strong foundation. This seems to be much more than a one-time donation or a publicity move, because Twitter has sought input from people who know the demographic they hope to serve. Partnerships – especially the unlikely ones – are the key to having enough knowledge and resources to overcome the digital divide and overcome homelessness.


No Need for Spring Cleaning

By | Homelessness, The Race to End Homelessness | 6 Comments

I used to save everything. Clothes I’d never wear, old schoolwork, books I’d read already. I was a pack rat, and this continued right up until I had to move to college. And then move to Baltimore. Now, as I start my next apartment search in the city, I’ve already begun inspecting my belongings with a critical eye. The idea of hauling everything I own – even to the next neighborhood – makes me cringe.

Because things cost money, we obviously equate possessions with wealth. But clutter doesn’t make me feel wealthy, it makes me feel tired and overwhelmed. My most important possession isn’t my best item of clothing, my favorite photo album, or even my wallet – it’s the fact that I have somewhere safe to keep these things so that I don’t have to keep them on my person every moment of the day. If I wear one dress to work, I don’t worry that the rest of my closet will be empty when I come home. When I take a shower, I don’t worry that anyone will grab my credit card.

Experiencing homelessness not only leaves an individual without shelter, it leaves their things without any place to stay. Certainly, learning to minimize our dependency on “stuff” is an important lesson, but what if that comes down to deciding to carry my winter coat all July, or to hope to come by a new coat next October?

When I read about a Texas couple who went on a 21-day trip across Europe but packed nothing (just passports, no clothes, no dental floss), I was intrigued by the story, but not exactly sure what they were trying to prove. Twenty-one days is a long time without your favorite sweatshirt, but both of these travelers knew their possessions would be waiting for them upon their return home. Living freely is one thing, but it takes a significant level of privilege to leave one’s things behind and trust they will all be there when you’re ready for them.

In Florida, the example of the winter coat might not be as relevant, but if a person carries their belongings with them everyday all over the city, they are probably important to them. That’s why it is so concerning that a new Florida rule will strip homeless people of their possessions if they leave them for 24 hours. After that, the individuals can pay a fee to get them back, or lose them to the Ft. Lauderdale police.

It is true that many people experiencing homelessness have storage units, or have friends and family who can keep their things for them, but even these individuals may have to go several days without access to their belongings, and must choose what to keep on their person. If you had to leave behind your physical house, closet, bookshelves, and photo albums, what might you take with you? Maybe something to remind you of a happier time, or an appliance that represents the hope that you will one day again have your own place. Maybe you’re very practical, and you take clothes to keep yourself warm and soap to keep yourself clean. You probably take your photo ID and some money.

No matter what you have, it probably isn’t something you want lost or ruined. In Hawaii, one man doesn’t care what possessions they are; if they belong to a homeless person, he’s going to destroy them – with a sledgehammer. Tom Brower, a Hawaii state representative, travels his district and destroys the shopping carts people experiencing homelessness use to transport their belongings.  He does it, he says, because homeless people “disgust” him. (But apparently people roaming around wielding sledgehammers is not cause for concern.)

While Brower is busy with a sledgehammer, several cities have begun to offer storage units for people without housing. Portland and Washington D.C. are among the latest to provide some refuge for the stuff that is important to its homeless populations. These differing approaches show which cities are committed to good ideas and ending homelessness – and which need to throw away not belongings, but their current policies.

Perspective of the Poet

By | Homelessness, The Race to End Homelessness | 6 Comments

April is National Poetry Month. If poetry is the kind of thing you associate with Dr. Seuss or college kids at a coffee shop open mic, you are missing out. I’m no poet myself, but as a consumer I find that one of the most important elements of any artistic pursuit – poetry or otherwise – is the perspective of the artist. 

I invite you to absorb these pieces crafted by individuals experiencing homelessness, as they can explain their situation in a way no one else can. Starting with an untitled piece by Scott Abbott, which speaks about a day of homelessness in ways I hadn’t considered before:

Ankles and shoes, ankles and shoes,
Submerged beneath the financial news,
A coin may be flipped, a coin may be tossed,
A soul self serving, a breakfast of frost,
Memory fragments, drew down the curtain,
Breath still exhaled, reasons uncertain,
Herds of strangers with familiar laces,
Test acoustics of a concrete matrix,
Intruding upon a homeless muse,
Left with the vision of ankles and shoes.

To me, this poem’s imagery reminded me that too often, passerbys don’t make eye contact with people sitting or living outside, only leaving them to see our ankles and shoes as we walk away.

This next poem, an excerpt from “Dark Waters,” is only one of many from a collection by James Allison. Homeless for two years, Allison lived and wrote in his truck until a friend offered him housing. Once stably housed, Allison compiled his works and had his collection published.

Tired of false hope and false promises
and a future that is anything but secure
I am ready to leap into the dark waters
and take my chances
in what could be my only hope
of survival

He is currently housed, employed, and in good health.

I’m not the only one who has been impressed with the work of an individual experiencing homelessness. Three years ago, during Poetry Month 2011, Shalla Monteiro befriended a man living in a pile of garbage in Brazil. The poet, Raimundo Arruda Sobrinho, had been homeless for nearly thirty-five years, but he wrote poetry every day. Impressed by his writing, she started a facebook page to help get his poetry collection published.

The page attracted many fans of Raimundo’s work, including a man who already knew him – his brother. After losing touch for more than fifty years, Raimundo’s brother contacted Monteiro through her page and reconnected with his sibling.

Now Raimundo lives with his brother- and is working on publishing his work. You can get regular updates on his writing process via his facebook page and see his story – and some of his work – here:

April may be ending soon, but I invite you to read poems written by people with all perspectives – if you love poems, you can find something great. Even if you think you hate poetry, this form of writing is the one in which some people communicate best. This is your opportunity to hear them.

Homelessness, Have You Heard of it?

By | Homelessness, The Race to End Homelessness | 2 Comments

Do you know the kinship you feel when someone mentions your favorite obscure band, or makes a reference to a movie you thought you were the only person to have ever seen? That feeling that someone else stumbled onto this awesome music/movie/media on their own, and now you can discuss it? Sometimes that’s how I feel about the issue of homelessness.

I realize that’s an odd thing to say, since I work in homeless services and read articles on homelessness and even write about what I’m learning, reading, and thinking here in The Race to End Homelessness. I just mean that outside of those dedicated circles, it seems as though homelessness is an issue people are uncomfortable discussing. Telling people about my job at parties will often send them heading for the snack table, or at least grasping for a subject change.

That’s why I was surprised when I read the United Nations April 2014 report that criticizes the United States for several often discussed controversial policies – Guantanamo Bay, NSA surveillance… and one less publicized issue – the poor treatment and criminalizing of Americans experiencing homelessness. It wasn’t just that the content of the report that stunned me, (although the findings are quite astounding) but rather that the issue of homelessness is finally a talking point at an international level.

Of course it would be preferable if this were an issue the U.S. could address domestically and not be embarrassingly criticized on an international stage, but as long as criminalizing those without a home is a problem that persists in the United States, it deserves worldwide attention. If the United Nations committee on Human Rights calls a practice, “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” will we see change in the way cities treat homeless individuals? Approaching homelessness as a crime has been consistently demonstrated not to work, illustrated most recently by James Boyd, shot multiple times for camping in the mountains of Albuquerque, and Jerome Murdough, imprisoned for sleeping in a New York City stairwell and then left to roast in a 100+ degree jail cell. Even so, many cities and policies seem determined to prove that homelessness is wrong via arrests, fines and other punishments. Instead of sticking a homeless person with legal charges or bail that will keep them stuck in poverty, the UN report recommends state and local governments “ensure close cooperation between all relevant stakeholders … to intensify efforts to find solutions for the homeless in accordance with human rights standards.”

It is my hope that the United Nations recommendations will not be the last international look at the treatment of those experiencing homelessness. We need this issue in the news, in the UN committee reports, and on the minds of government leaders and individual people. Criminalizing homelessness is an issue that threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable American people, and it is too important to have it be an obscure issue we are uncomfortable discussing.

Zoning Laws Outlaw Peanut Butter

By | Homelessness, The Race to End Homelessness | 6 Comments

I have a friend who raves about the fried peanut butter and jelly you can order at Rocket to Venus in Hampden. I’m sure she’ll get me to try it one day, but I have a hard time believing they have improved on my life-long favorite sandwich.

Because they are cheap, easily assembled and, (in my opinion), delicious, PB & Js are the favorite sandwich of volunteer groups passing out food to homeless people. If you don’t share my personal tastes, peanut butter and jelly could get boring. While everyone deserves variety, sometimes food is food, and when you’re hungry, a solid sandwich can be a big help.

Notice I said “when you’re hungry,” not “when you’re experiencing homelessness.” Most groups that pass out food in public places don’t care if the recipients are homeless, because they know that hunger affects people even after they get housing. That is why volunteers in Raleigh, North Carolina were so surprised last summer when they were told they could not pass out hot breakfast to the line of individuals that has come to expect their presence on weekday mornings. The group, called Love Wins Ministries, arrives weekly with breakfast sandwiches and a vat off coffee, but in August 2013 they were stopped by Raleigh police and threatened with arrest before they could serve.

Raleigh is not the only city letting its hungry residents stay that way. You may remember the less-than- hospitable town of Columbia, South Carolina that was working this winter to outlaw homelessness. As of February 15th, the area has taken further steps to alienate its already marginalized population, by requiring that any group planning to distribute obtain a permit (costing around $120) to serve meals in any public park or open space. This discourages volunteer groups that are not run by a registered nonprofit from providing food. In Rockford, Illinois, both food and shelter have been interrupted at Apostolic Pentecostal Church. Last week, church officials were informed they would be acting outside the law if they continued to use the empty church building as a shelter and warming station for homeless individuals.

Law enforcement in each of these cities and towns cite zoning or permit regulations as the reason for the recent interruptions, but there has to be a way to have a city that can feed its homeless population without it being deemed a fire hazard or an illegal act. Homelessness won’t end with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but if we can’t even serve this simple snack, what hope is there for a large scale, system change to end homelessness? These jurisdictions must find a way to prioritize human needs, and work with groups that are trying to help, not against their efforts.

Hélder Câmara, a 1980’s Brazilian Archbishop once explained, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” Today, feeding the poor might earn him handcuffs, not sainthood. As neither a saint nor a communist myself, I still think it is important to ask why so many cities demand people living in poverty navigate legal hurdles in order to obtain a warm bed or a snack – and I wonder how we can improve upon this practice.