It’s very common for homeless service providers to say “They don’t want our help. They don’t want to be told what to do. They want to be homeless”. Let me ask you, does anyone want to be told what to do? We live in a world where, for the most part, we have freedom of choice, yet we offer people experiencing homelessness a world where they have to get up when we tell them to, stand in line for food when we tell them to, eat what we tell them to, go to bed when we tell them to, take a shower when we tell them to, and so on. Many faith-based organizations add on to this forced religious programming and church attendance. In far too many situations we offer people experiencing homelessness a world with very little choice.
There is a very serious problem when a person would rather sleep outside instead of receiving support, and the problem is not the person. The problem is what we are offering is so often without dignity and freedom of choice!
Photo: Alison Guillory
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I was working as an outreach case manager when Glendale Police called about a homeless man they found in an abandoned building. Upon arrival I found a scared older man huddled in a corner in the worst possible condition a human being can be. I took Lanny back to our facility and offered him a shower and some clean clothes.
Over the next few years Lanny and I became close friends. I would look for him almost every day when I was working outreach, and when I was traveling with Invisible People, Lanny would inquire with my co-workers asking for information about my return.
I committed to getting Lanny off the streets. It took 3 and a half years to get him into housing, but once he had his own place that provided personal dignity, the transformation for the better was immediate.
When I landed in Seattle last month, I received an email from Daniel Malone, who at the time was Deputy Director of DESC and is now Executive Director. In the email, Daniel asked me what I wanted to see during my visit. While still on the plane typing with my thumbs I responded “wet housing”, but as soon as I hit send I felt a little uncomfortable that I used that term. I quickly followed up with another email requesting to see their “low barrier services”. I am not sure why I corrected myself; it was probably out of my own insecurity trying to sound more professional.
“We don’t use the term ‘wet housing.’ We use the term ‘housing’ because in housing people get to do what they want to do.” ~ Daniel Malone
As many of you know I love and support the harm reduction model and strongly believe the United States needs to add more harm reduction solutions if we are ever going to end homelessness. Over the years you’ve heard me use the term “wet housing” to reference services that allow alcohol. At the same time you’ve also heard me scream real loud that we need to provide people with dignity, and that the housing first model (when done right), is by far the best solution to get people out of homelessness. When Daniel Malone said to me: “We don’t use the term ‘wet housing.’ We use the term ‘housing’ because in housing people get to do what they want to do.” something just clicked it made so much sense!
Harm reduction saves lives and saves taxpayer money!
I understand some of you have issues with harm reduction. Keep in mind that this morning you (hopefully) brushed your teeth – that’s harm reduction. Using seat belts in a car is harm reduction. Harm reduction simply put is a strategy to prevent negative consequences. In the housing first model, and what I love so much about DESC’s view, it’s about allowing people to be people!
The most expensive solution to end homelessness is criminalization and it doesn’t actually end homelessness. If you support criminalization, you might as well just give the government access to your bank account for easy withdrawal. For example, New York City’s average annual cost per inmate in 2012 was $167,731. The second most expensive is just leaving people on the streets. As Daniel shares in the video below, people experiencing homelessness often go through a lot of crises that can increase the cost of public services. University of Washington’s research showed year over year savings to the community was $4 million. Here is a link to DESC’s research page http://desc.org/research.html
My friend Bevan Dufty says that the housing and harm reduction model at DESC should be replicated in every city in America. I have to agree. But don’t take my word for it, check out the research, and if you can – go visit to see for yourself!
Los Angeles Times reported transient encampments and car camping grew 85% countywide in the last two years. This week the Los Angeles City Council voted to make it easier for authorities to clean up homeless camps, but Seattle has found another solution by embracing tent communities.
With the lack of affordable housing continuing to be a crisis along with the growing amount of people who cannot find employment with a livable wage, tent encampments are increasing across America. There is no community rural or urban that is immune from homelessness and tent encampments. Directly and indirectly tent cities effect you!
Over the last few years I have visited several tent communities. Most are just a group of people who have come together for social and survival needs. Occasionally a tent encampment will grow, and if there is the right leadership, the group can evolve into well-organized community.
Seattle’s Tent City 3
My first experience was when I visited Seattle’s Nickelsville back in 2009, and being an old hippie at heart, I fell in love the self-governed tent community model. I have visited Nickelsville a few times over the years. Dignity Village in Portland is another wonderful community. In the feature film @home, the film makers follow me into Ann Arbor’s “Camp Take Notice”, but sadly the community no longer exists.
This video is of my visit to Tent City 3 in Seattle last year. Seattle is the one city that I am aware of that embraces tent communities and incorporates the model into their homeless services. Although tent encampments are not the best solution, when housing and shelter beds are not available, adding tent cities to the continuum is a smart move.
Empowering homeless people and those who were formerly homeless by sharing their individual stories encompasses the majority of the work I do through Invisible People. This type of work is critical primarily because people who are currently experiencing or have experienced homelessness are grossly underrepresented at every level from social services to political policy.
So, when Conrad N. Hilton Foundation asked me to meet with the Corporation of Supportive Housing Community Advocates and help amplify their story, to say I was excited would be an understatement. This was an extraordinary opportunity to provide representation to those who typically don’t have a voice.
Supportive Housing Community Advocates program is designed to support formerly homeless residents of permanent supportive housing to effectively advocate for themselves and their communities. The year-long curriculum combines monthly educational trainings on topics such as housing policy, advocacy, storytelling, narrative development, and public speaking with individual coaching sessions, as well as numerous opportunities to advocate at local, state, and federal levels.
From the initial meetings it seemed like an awesome project, but little did I know how truly incredible the CSH’s Community Advocates program is. I don’t think anyone knew what to expect from our first in-person meeting as oftentimes there can be some stress from allowing a story to happen organically. That was not the case here. I walked into a collaboration between a few formerly homeless people and a facilitator developing a program to help case managers. Immediately everything flowed as if it was all meant to be.
I had never heard of such a thing as formerly homeless people helping to train case managers, but it makes so much sense. Programs like this should be much more common. We produced a few short Instagram videos that you can watch here: https://instagram.com/csh_innovate.
The next day I met with a different group of advocates, and again this group of formerly homeless people embraced my presence with kindness. In a few days, I would be joining most of these new friends during a trip to Sacramento, so we took a little time to get to know each other. Everyone had such compelling stories. One woman shared about living with schizophrenia and surviving homelessness, and it was so powerful, I used my phone and uploaded to YouTube immediately:
The following Monday, I met a small group of CSH’s Community Activists at LAX at 5:00am to fly to Sacramento. I bring this up to provide a glimpse “behind the scenes”: some of the very best moments of this journey was witnessing how this project gave formerly homeless people a purpose. This small group of individuals, now in supportive housing, were overjoyed by simply being on a shared-ride driving through downtown Sacramento. I’m sure speaking to state legislators was an experience they’ll never forget, but the whole CSH Community Advocate program provides them all with something to look forward to and to be excited about.
Having a purpose in life can never be overstated. People need to have a reason to get up in the morning. When someone goes from the streets to housing, it’s often a very scary experience. Obviously, the advocacy aspect of a “lived-experience” peer support program is invaluable, but equally important is the worth and boost in self-esteem such programs give to the people involved.
Below is embedded playlist of all three Speak Up Advocates that traveled to Sacramento. Follow the conversation and activities of our advocates via #CSHSpeakUp on social media.