Homeless Advocates Are Being Silenced on Major Issues

homeless advocates hands are tied as homelessness continues growing

Homelessness keeps surpassing all the wrong milestones, breaking all the worst records nationwide. But the issue isn’t new.

Homelessness is an ancient offshoot of poverty, a problem that, if you look closely enough, is emblematic of the ever-burgeoning gap between rich and poor. But as that gap widens and more of us fall through the splintered social safety nets, you don’t have to look for homelessness. Indeed, it is something you couldn’t ignore if you tried.

Today, with the homeless crisis at an all-time high, it’s easy to see the problem spilling out onto the street corners of cities, suburbs, and rural towns. That’s because it is too big to be hidden, too sizeable to be confined. There are  19 million rent-burdened households nationwide, all teetering dangerously on the edge of an unhoused status.

And it isn’t just street homelessness that’s on the rise.

It is also family homelessness, chronic homelessness, and hidden homelessness, to name a few. The problem overflows, revealing itself to crowds of unwilling onlookers, many of whom know that the person pushing a tent around the nation’s capital today could just as easily be them tomorrow.

Full-time workers are priced out of housing. Disabled veterans fly flags at intersections, their spirits low. Millions of schoolchildren are distracted from their studies, more concerned with where they’ll spend the cold, dark nights. Domestic abuse survivors enter the homeless shelter system, where they are all too often raped, robbed, and abused all over again.

Law enforcement officials scour homeless encampments, digging up people’s memories like wreckage and tossing their few belongings in the trash. Aged-out foster teens and forgotten seniors wait for a system that would rather save pennies than people.

With all that has happened, from homeless homicides to mass evictions, from the revival of antiquated plagues to the absence of students in grade school classrooms, you would think there would be rallies in the streets. You’d expect there might be some heartfelt revolt against the system. But rising over the clattering sound of collective human misery, there is only silence.

The Voices of Advocacy Have Been Reduced to a Hush

“Honestly, between welfare reform and continuum of care, I think that the voices of the advocacy community related to sheltering people who are unhoused have been silenced,” explained CEO Sherrie Tussler, who has been serving the homeless community for 27 years and counting.

Today, she physically serves the community by providing food banks, food drives, and mobile markets to vulnerable people in need through her Milwaukee-based organization, Hunger Task Force.

In the past, Sherrie directed wellness shelters and worked with the continuum of care staff. She has witnessed the triumphs and pitfalls of the social services sector firsthand.

When we asked her what or, rather, who was silencing the voices of advocacy, she summarized the issue with a one-word response.

“Money,” Sherrie told us. “Money silences many people. And so, I would say it’s about funding.”

“Originally, when we started reforming welfare, back when I was still at the shelter, the welfare reform agencies would offer top dollar for any group that wanted to work in cooperation with them and service to a specific population,” she explained.

“And so, if I was serving, say, for example, Southeast Asians, and I worked at the Hmong American Agency, and I said, you’re not doing a very good job by the Hmong people. They’d say, let me douse you with money. And then you can hire case managers, and you can become part of what we’re doing,” she continued. “And that would silence your advocacy.”

The Money That Silences Advocacy is Used for Funding, Not for Personal Profit

It should be duly noted that when advocates are silenced through financial means, their aim is not to get rich but to further their cause through the funding that is being offered. This scenario presents a double-edged sword for advocates.

Speaking out on issues will get your voice heard but won’t fund the cause you’re vying for. On the other hand, quieting down on specific issues could result in financial backing for your specific cause, but it also means that other vital issues fall by the wayside until, eventually, they are not discussed at all.

This kind of homeless funding that is contingent upon the support of certain organizations and silence on important issues feeds right back into the system to create a very toxic work environment.

“The continuum of care, I think, while it’s good to have groups working together and collaborating on how people access services when they’re not housed, it also requires you to be in lockstep with other shelters,” Sherrie said.

“Locally, what happens is if you become homeless, you have to call a hotline or a 211 line, and the shelter director or shelter staff no longer have control over who gets into a bed,” Sherrie said. “It’s based on a system of priority, which I get, but it also means that the person standing at your door on a freezing cold night might not be allowed in.”

Silence Has Left Too Many of Our Neighbors Outside in the Cold. Please Make Your Voice Heard Today.

I have a friend who was the board chair for the street outreach team, and I sent her all this stuff about the Cicero Institute’s template strategies to criminalize homelessness. I was screaming, furious. And I said, you need to send this to the advocacy community for homelessness in Milwaukee,” Sherrie said. “And my friend said, Sherrie, you are the advocacy committee on homelessness in Milwaukee. That’s so sad,” she whispered, shaking her head. “So sad.”

Silence is killing the homeless community at a rate of 20 innocent lives per day. The time to speak up is now. Please tell your local legislators to address the housing and homeless crises together by making housing a human right for all.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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