Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Gift (Part 2) by Madelaine Sayko

Continued from previous blog...

I wonder too what will happen in January and February, in March or May or July - when the impetus of good cheer fades and the need does not. Homelessness is not seasonal; and in fact the summer months often see a rise in the number of families with no place to live. The reality is that we cannot gather enough clothes and food and toys and household items to really turn the tide; those things may sustain for a bit, but lives cannot really improve if there are no jobs, no health care and no places to live.

But even beyond that there is one aspect of homelessness and poverty that is usually overlooked, one aspect that may in many ways inform these other vital needs. What others often don’t realize is the simple fact of just how lonely a place poverty is.

Studies have shown that familiarity with others – be they of a different ethnicity, religious belief, race or economic status – is a key factor in reducing prejudice and improving collaboration and understanding. So long as the poor are ‘out there,’ so long as the giving is not face to face, it is hard to understand, support and enact the kind of underlying changes that are needed to make a lasting difference because one can remain apart, one can see this as an act of charity and not humanity.

Human interaction is an essential part of any life; it is precious, it is empowering, it gives us a sense of meaning, of worth. To be ignored, to be invisible is to be meaningless; yet this is what poverty does for it is brutally lonely.

The homeless cannot have you over to their house – they have no house. The poor cannot go out to dinner they do not have the money, they cannot meet their friends for coffee and chat about the struggles and joys of raising children for there is no place to meet, they cannot hang out to watch the game on TV with their pals for they have no TV and they have no pals. They do not go to museums or book clubs or the movies. They do not have a community for even when they try to form one it will change; these are the vicissitudes of their circumstance.

The poor lack the entryway to one of life’s most basic pleasures; that of camaraderie, of companionship. When you have no income and no place to live your life gets small and direct; every day is about surviving that day, about managing the crisis you are facing now, about shelter and food and holding on Not having an income doesn’t mean more leisure time; it means no leisure time.

To be poor means that your dreams are reduced to the smallest possible existence, that you learn to keep your own company, head low, barely noticed; its better that way. You keep your feelings to yourself even as you hunger not only for a meal but equally for something that you cannot find in the food pantry; a voice to answer yours, a conversation, a human touch. Relationships, time with others, the art of sharing, a hug to ease ones fears; these moments buoy the spirit and give hope, they heal and nurture but the truth is that they are absent for the poor. For them poverty is only heartbreakingly lonely.

So this is what I hope – I hope that after this holiday season passes by we do not give up, we do not think we are done, that the gap has been filled. I hope that we will keep our awareness alive, that we will keep making our material contributions, even if they don’t seem to fill the vast space of need.

But beyond that I also hope that we see people who are homeless, who are poor, who are in need as people, that we learn to cross our paths with them, to talk with them, to employ them, to break bread with them, to even make them our friends. I hope that we find a way to give of ourselves, to embrace those who are without so that we can truly recognize these folks as people and perhaps change the course of their lives and the course of our own.

Ms. Sayko is a senior manager in health care who also works to improve conditions for those who struggle with illness, injury, poverty and homelessness.

The photo, "Hope for the Holidays," by ewitsoe is used with permission.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Gift (Part 1) by Madelaine Sayko

The other day I was in my beloved NYC, walking down 5th Avenue. It was an intoxicating moment; NYC at Christmas time – the cacophony of visitors, fur-trimmed, leather adorned, polar fleeced and down puffy, the slightly frenzied madness of families with wandering glassy-eyed children, ingĂ©nues who insist no matter the weather on wearing spike heels, the ubiquitous hot dog vendors (with everything of course), the smoky scented chestnut roasters, carols swirling past in the air punctuated by ringing bells and voices laughing and talking in a zillion different tongues. The gleaming star up by 57th street…and then there is the tree, oh the tree with its glorious blanket of lights, surrounded by wooden soldiers and angels and ice-skaters, bursting with a sense of festivity. And the stores, recession? What recession, the stores glitter and gleam with bounty, silk and elegance, their windows filled with fantasy worlds.

Then I stopped in front of Harry Winston. In the window was a necklace of breathtaking beauty, the facets of diamonds literally danced with fire and light. But even as I admired the magnificence of its beauty a thought came to me: how many people could live in safe homes and have food to eat for the whole of next year for the price of that single object?

Now, I understand that there is not a scale here – a necklace or the lives of 50 people, and I don’t expect folks to deny themselves beauty or pleasure or even very expensive things. But I think its important to pay attention. In that same bit of holiday madness were a few folks on the street corners, dressed more soberly than the rest. They were selling a magazine written by the homeless, it was a struggle for them to make their voices heard. And on the home front I noticed that our local paper had a small announcement: 43 people died from homelessness this past year. Interestingly this was placed under a much larger article that spoke about a crime problem in another community. Three individuals had been attacked and the police commissioner was quoted as saying, “Three is a big number.” Well, 43 is a big number too – even if it’s “just” homeless people.

Yet I know that people do care, they do reach out. Indeed, upon reflection it seemed this year that there was an even greater multitude of groups and causes soliciting contributions, from high school food drives to replenish ravaged food banks, to corporate groups sponsoring families with no money for clothing or household goods, from collecting toys to simply raising funds. This holiday I have seen a growing league of individuals, all of whom are attempting, in various ways, to fill the expanding gap of need experienced by so many. And, despite the faltering economy, I have also seen an equally abundant number of folks responding, reaching into their pockets and trying to help.

Yet I have mixed feelings about all this goodwill. On one hand I am deeply moved by this grass roots enthusiasm, by the fierce determination and pervasive belief that “a small group of individuals can change the world,” that with enough cans and sweaters and teddy bears we can heal the heartbreak and overcome the struggle that grays out the joy in life for so many. I am also gratified and touched by the number of folks who give, who recognize their relative abundance, who are moved by compassion or a sense of injustice or by something. These acts, regardless of who is in what political office, regardless of individual beliefs, speak to an essential goodness in people. And in that I find hope.

But I am also saddened by these efforts, saddened because their very abundance speaks to how great the need is. Notwithstanding the insights of the economic pundits, the reality is there on the street, in the numbers of folks who need food, clothing, who cannot afford holiday presents or have no home in which to celebrate. The need is there in the empty food pantries and strapped agencies. And, unfortunately this mushrooming growth of helping agents is merely the representation of how the demand for help has outstripped the depth of available supports.

This piece is continued on the next blog entry.

Ms. Sayko is a senior manager in health care who also works to improve conditions for those  who struggle with illness, injury, poverty and homelessness.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Community & Isolation at the Holidays

A couple of weeks ago, I had two remarkable and different experiences within 48 hours related to homelessness. The first brought a profound sense of community, the other, a profound sense of isolation.

My community experience took place in the Regent Theatre down the street from where I grew up. My rock and roll band had reunited (after 12 years, 7 collective children and, for some of us, serious hair loss) to play a benefit concert to help end homelessness. For me, it was a once in a lifetime experience: playing the music I love, with great friends, for a cause I believe deeply in, in a theater filled with family and old and new friends. My favorite teacher was even there in the front row! Throw in the connective power of music in the mix and, for me, the night became transcendent. It was a deep sense of connection in the warm theater, protected from the December winds outside, singing songs to welcome the holiday season.

Less than 48 hours later, I joined almost 300 people as part of the City of Boston’s Homeless Census run every year in December by Jim Greene of Mayor Menino’s Emergency Shelter Commission. It was very cold and late. We started at 9pm and many teams worked past midnight. The goal was to do an exhaustive count on one night and discover what services homeless people needed, whether they were veterans, and if they wanted to come in for the night (most refused) or maybe get an extra blanket.

I was part of the team that went with the State Police. The officers knew particular spots among the underbelly of the highways, amidst steel girders, cement overpasses, and carbon monoxide where homeless people stayed every night. Most people—like me—never dreamed of going to these spots, never mind sleeping and living there.

The first stop was under an overpass of Route 93, a major highway through the city of Boston. The police dropped us off, then stayed back as our team of 5 looked for people and called out, “Mayor’s Office for the Homeless Census, anyone here? We’re just counting folks and seeing if anyone needs services tonight.” Cars raced by on the highway near us. It was pitch black and cold. Seeing no one, I was ready to leave for the next spot when someone found Larry. Larry was up under the overpass tucked in an opening where no one could see him, in the dark, bundled up in two coats, a worn hat and gloves. When he realized he wasn’t in trouble, he opened up, told us some of his story. He didn’t like the shelters because they reminded him of prison. He had an ex-wife and kids who were doing fine but he hadn’t seen them in a while. We recorded some other details (no names on this census) and as we started to leave he stopped us. “How were your Thanksgivings?” “Fine,” one of us said. Larry said: “Mine was real good. I had 3 meals at St. Francis House, they even took my picture for the paper.” He was personable and articulate and eventually we had to go as our night was just starting. But what struck me was how isolated he was. Cut off from any social or physical nourishment.

I had been on such a high for 2 days – this sense of connection from the concert, a benefit for homelessness – and now I was reminded in the most direct way what the benefit was for.

We hear about mass foreclosures and layoffs and we wonder where people already on the edge go. Often they are so well hidden it’s easy to forget them, literally tucked away under the roads we speed over. In the dark. In the cold. Alone.

I realize too that despite some great strides in addressing homelessness, we have to do more and we have to do better.

Can you help Give US Your Poor in our efforts to do better with a donation, or host a house party with our help? You can make an online donation here.

Thank you for your support. Wishing you and your loved ones a happy and healthy New Year!

My best, John

Photo is "Highway" by lj lindhurst used with permission.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Thinking systemically about homelessness: What is our system's purpose?

I've been thinking a lot about homelessness lately as a system, particularly studying systems dynamics, an approach to understanding complex systems. There are different ways to think about a system. Writer, teacher, Donella Meadows, says a system has three components: (1) parts, (2) interconnections, and (3) a purpose.

So if we are to examine all the forces, actions, structures, and attitudes that lead to high rates of homelessness as a "system," let's look first at the purpose of such a system in the ideal. I say the ideal, because I want to think here about the system of factors acting to prevent homelessness and create/support homes for all people in the U.S.*

For starters let's describe our purpose as something like, "to end homelessness in the U.S." That's a good start. But it's negative: ending not having a home. It's more inspiring to shoot for the creation of something, something positive. How do we put our purpose in positive terms? How about: "to create decent sustainable homes for all people in the United States." By sustainable I mean that people can live there for a very long time, not necessarily that it's green (although energy efficient would be great). How about, "decent homes all people can live in for a very long time." I specifically did not mention "home ownership" or "housing" or "American citizens." I want to keep it open to how people actually live in homes because I assume there will be some rental housing, some home ownership, some communal living, some boats, whatever. If people are happy in a community, have access to food, have good social networks and are sheltered from the weather, that is my hope - the type of home I'm less concerned with. And if someone is here illegally I still don't want them living in an alleyway...for their sake or mine.

Thinking systemically about any issue--and even determining a purpose--is a team sport. Because a system involves many people it takes collaboration to define the purpose, the vision for it, and even what the system is. I whipped the above purpose out alone on a laptop for this blog. Not the best process. There are hundreds of perspectives on this system I do not, could not, have. I need to share it with people that bring different perspectives of the system. No one person can have a view of the whole system at any one time, so collaboration is vital to capture those perspectives to get us closer to the truth of how it functions (or can function). Together we'll adjust, change, add, tweak, sleep on it, share, and adjust some more. We need to talk to homeless people, low income residents, market rate renters, teachers, housing developers, legislators, service providers, not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) folks, mainstream resource administrators, landlords, employers, public officials, health care providers/recipients, etc. I'd ask them, "What is the purpose you'd like to see for the system you're a part of that affects the creation of homes?"

We incorporate the wisdom of the group in the purpose statement. In a systemic process like this, getting the purpose statement right can take a day, a week, or longer. But it's vital and it's time well spent, like laying the foundation of a new house.

Next step (for next blog): identifying the parts of the system and their interconnections!

* My assumption here is that if we looked at the purpose of the actual system in place (as opposed to our ideal), it would not be to create homes for all people but rather to hide homelessness.  Maybe it's unintended but that is the purpose of the system that's created.  But, again, that's my assumption.

Photo is titled, "14 Purpose" by midoubleko and is used with permission.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

National and state college scholarships available for HS students that are/were homeless (Deadline Oct 30!)

One of the key factors in ending homelessness is education.  This Saturday, October 30, is the deadline for homeless, formerly homeless, and at-risk high school students across the U.S., including Puerto Rico, to apply for a Horatio Alger Association college scholarship.  Almost 1,000 scholarships are available this year.

Horatio Alger is a fantastic organization which exists to help students who have overcome hardship attend college. This year, through a partnership with Give US Your Poor: The Campaign to End Homelessness (part of UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy Studies), they are targeting students that have experienced homelessness.

The relationship came about in 2007, when we were hosting, along with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, the Give US Your Poor Concert for Boston’s Homeless. The concert featured amazing artists that happened to have experienced homelessness performing with celebrity artists (Natalie Merchant, Mario Frangoulis, Mighty Sam McClain, Buffalo Tom). All artists that night were also on the Give US Your Poor CD (Appleseed Recordings) alongside many other homeless and celebrity artists.

During his performance, Greek tenor, Mario Frangoulis, welcomed 13-year-old Kyla Middleton on stage. Kyla is a top-notch student, articulate public speaker, sings beautifully on the CD (with Dan Zanes), and was homeless with her family for a year. Mario and Kyla sang a duet of John Lennon’s, “Imagine,” before the Dorchester audience.  Tears.  Applause.  Standing ovation.

Then Mario had a special message for Kyla. She was being awarded a $20,000 college scholarship from The Horatio Alger Association.  (See article.) That was a cool moment. So cool, that it inspired UMass Boston Chancellor, Dr. Keith Motley, to create a 4 year scholarship, given annually, to attend UMass Boston for a Mass. student that has experienced homelessness.

Which leads us to the scholarships offered this year: almost 1,000 total. Please encourage high school students you know that are graduating in the spring or summer of 2011 and have been, or are, homeless to apply for this scholarship. There are over 100 national scholarships worth $20,000 each as well as state-specific scholarships of $2,500-$10,000 depending on the state. For links to criteria and on-line application, click here. Deadline is Sat. October 30, 2010 and some paperwork (is collecting of supplementary materials is required, so make sure to allow time to assemble). If you can help get the word out in this final week to your network it is most appreciated.

Photo title is "College Graduation Smile" by portorikan via Creative Commons.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

To give or not to give? by Abby Strunk

A question I've been asked frequently since taking on the role of Executive Director of Street Sense is, "What should I do when I see a homeless person?" Many people reference a memory from their childhood when they were told by their mother or father not to give money because doing so enables the person. In other words giving a dollar might contribute to that individual remaining on the streets. I disagree. But, I also do not believe that giving money to a homeless person is the only action one can take.

While I've never been homeless myself, I don't know anyone who wants to or likes to feel invisible. But, that's how many of our homeless neighbors feel. I once heard a homeless man say, "I feel like a ghost, like people can see right through me."

One of my favorite yoga authors, Judith Lasater, suggests a mantra for daily living: I will do what I can in response to what is needed here. I recommend using this mantra as a guide when deciding how you can help someone who is struggling. Simply ask yourself, "What is it that I can do in response to what is needed here?" Can I carry granola bars in my bag to give out to someone who needs it? Can I ask a homeless person if I can buy them a cup of coffee or tea? Can I sacrifice a half-hour of my time to buy someone lunch?

Can I make a commitment to give my time, money or resources to an organization that is making a positive difference?

All of these are incredibly noble efforts.  What is almost certain is that the next time you pass someone who is living on the streets, you can make eye contact, say "hello," ask how he/she is doing and wait to hear a response. Give someone who is homeless the gift of being seen and heard.

I draw inspiration from the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he spoke at the National Cathedral just before his death. He said: "We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be."

Please do what you can in response to what is needed.

Abby Strunk is the Executive Director of Washington, D.C.'s Street Sense, a 16-page biweekly street newspaper that offers economic opportunities for people experiencing homelessness through a newspaper that elevates voices and encourages debate on poverty and injustice.

Monday, August 16, 2010

At the base of the pyramid with Paul Polak (Part II of II)

(Continued from previous blog.)

Some facts Paul shared:

(1) Of the 90% of the customer base in the world, 2.75 bil living on less than $2 a day,
(2) 1.2 bil living on less than $1 day,
(3) 800 million (maybe 850 m) live on small farms depending on agriculture,
(4) There are 525 million farms in world (85% are less than 5 acres)
(5) Avg size of farm in Africa is 4 acres.

Given the above, Paul argues that small farm prosperity is the key to ending rural poverty.

Marketing is a critical element. There is no mass media at the BOP; people cannot read or write. So at IDE they recruited troubadours to write songs and skits with marketing messages imbedded. Bollywood movies were produced every year, they hired a top director and a top male and female lead and adopted familiar Indian plots: boy meets girl, they want to get married, there is a near suicide, then... INTERMISSION!! The actors talk of the benefits of low cost, effective pumps for poor farmers. They put customers on treadle pumps and after intermission, the movie continues where the father tells the boy to buy a treadle pump and boy and girl get married.

Polak says there are three (3) great myths of poverty eradication that must be overcome:

1. We can donate people out of poverty.
2. We can end poverty through GDP economic growth.
3. Multinationals as they are now will end poverty.

He also suggests, instead, 12 Steps for Ending Poverty:

1. Go to where action is
2. Talk to the people who have the problem and actually listen to what they have to say (interview at least 25 people)
3. Learn everything about the specific context
4. Think and act big (minimally reach 1 million people)
5. Think like a child (children have no limit to their thinking but get to the heart)
6. See and do the obvious (rural farms)
7. If someone invested it you don’t have to
8. Design for critical price targets
9. Design for measurable improvement
10. Work off of a practical 3 year plan
11. Keep learning from your customers
12. Stay positive: don’t be distracted by what other people think.

Moving forward in his quest, Paul has left IDE (although still on their board). He has launched another non-profit (D-Rev) – fomenting a design revolution to reach the other 90% of the population not targeted by marketers, aka the BOP. He is also launching a for-profit (Windhorse International) that takes on projects and influences how big business designs prices and markets its products. Its mission is to earn remarkable profits by serving the world’s poorest customers.

Paul started his career in poverty alleviation by talking to homeless people in Colorado where he lives and at the time worked with a friend of mine. We talked of our mutual friend then I asked him if he felt his approach to ending poverty would also work in developed economies. "Absolutely!" he said. "All the rules apply here too." I'm not convinced of the latter (yet) but I was very convinced by his approach and results at the BOP.

Paul Polak has done 1000+ interviews (all of which he records himself) with poor people around the globe, mostly with poor farmers at the base of the pyramid. His very first interview was with a homeless man in Colorado.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

At the base of the pyramid with Paul Polak (Part I of II)

This entry is about global extreme poverty. It looks at solutions that may have implications about homelessness in the U.S. which is where Paul Polak's interest in poverty began.

Paul Polak is in his mid seventies, witty and funny, and has an old school charm that is engaging and even comforting as he throws his revolutionary ideas and stunning facts at you. If they made a Paul Polak doll I would buy one. A psychologist by training, Paul has spent the last 25+ years working at alleviating extreme poverty for those living at the "base of the pyramid (BOP)" and released a book in 2008 called, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail. I heard him speak at a breakout session at Pop!Tech.

The Base (or bottom) of the Pyramid is an expression popularized in C.K. Prahalad's The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits (2005). The BOP is the 4 billion people, the majority of human beings, that together make up a huge potential market. Prahalad believes "if we stop thinking of the poor as victims or as a burden and start recognizing them as resilient and creative entrepeneurs and value-conscious consumers, a whole new world of opportunity will open up" for both poor people and businesses. He adds that serving the BOP will "demand innovations in technology, products/services, and business models, and require large firms to work collaboratively with NGOs and local government." This collabrative approach is a big part of IA's Accelerator Expedition.

Polak is all about the BOP. The NGO he founded, IDE, has helped 17 million people out of extreme poverty in 25 years. Its approach is to apply business models to help extremely poor entrepeneurs with innovative design of their products and to creatively and effectively bring those products to market.

He believes that there needs to be a revolution in how multinational corporations design and market to people at the BOP. In his Wed. presentation, after Bunker Roy showed the amazing work and ingenuity of poor, illiterate women, young and old, and others were doing at the Barefoot College, Polak asked, "What if we had a million amazing barefoot people, and designed a package that a multinational corporation develop as an offering to them as franchisees? What if you franchised these 1 million folks and had a product they could sell to poor people. There would be money to be made for investors, for the franchisees, and products that could help the poorest people out of poverty (e.g., efficient lighting, watering systems for small farmers, cheaper electricity, etc.)

"We need a revolution where you can create a revenue stream for the poor person and the parent company," Paul exclaimed. He talked about combining vital products with "the ruthless pursuit of affordability" for true sustainables solutions. So, embrace the profit model and we'll create a true revolution when big business enters the market place for poor people because it makes money. Once there exists a workable model, the marketplace responds and soon big corporations start tweaking products that have a real benefit to poor consumers. The world runs on bottom line process, he says.

For part II of II of this blog click here.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Identifying High-Cost High-Need Homeless People by Dan Flaming

My colleagues and I at the Economic Roundtable in Los Angeles, along with the L.A. Co. Chief Executive Office, recently released a study titled, "Tools for Identifying High-Cost, High-Need Homeless Persons." This paper provides tools for identifying homeless individuals with acute needs, the highest public costs when homeless, and the greatest reduction in public costs when housed.

We analyzed 10,193 homeless, destitute single adults in Los Angeles County – 1,007 of whom exited homelessness by entering supportive housing and were able to link records for these individuals across multiple public agencies, providing crucial information about their characteristics and the public costs for health, mental health, justice system, and welfare services they used. Supportive housing is permanent, affordable housing with on-site case management and additional on-site, or readily available, services such as health, mental health and substance abuse rehabilitation.

When we rank the overall population of homeless single adults by their public costs and break them into ten groups of equal size (deciles), we find that most have comparatively low public costs (an average of $710 per month). But the most expensive ten percent is an average of $8,083 per month, because of extensive use of hospitals and medical and mental health jails in that group. This ten percent of accounts for 56 percent of all public costs for homeless single adults.

When information about a person’s recent history is available, it is possible to combine multiple characteristics of a homeless adult to estimate his or her likelihood of being in the highest decile. No single characteristic defines the tenth cost decile, but by using combinations of key characteristics it is possible to identify these individuals with reasonable certainty. That is useful information for both the homeless person and the public entity working to help him or her.

We developed two tools for combining multiple characteristics to identify high need individuals. The first is a look-up table that shows results from profiling groups within the study population based on seven characteristics and determining the proportion of each group that is in the tenth cost decile, as well as in the combined ninth and tenth deciles. The second is a calculating tool derived from statistical analysis that uses sixteen pieces of information to determine the probability that an individual is in the highest cost decile. You can access these Excel spreadsheet tool by clicking here.

There were some surprises that resulted from this study. I was most surprised by the range of variation in public costs for homeless individuals, with over half getting by with minimal subsistence-level help. Also surprising was the level and frequency of crises that engage the attention of hospitals and jails in the lives of the individuals with the highest public costs. Their lives are very precarious without housing and greatly stabilized with housing.

Our study also has seven major conclusions and recommended action steps. Please visit the Economic Roundtable website to download the full report as well as the tools we created.

Daniel Flaming is the President of the Economic Roundtable in Los Angeles.

Second photo by Ed Yourdon.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What, Me Homeless? by Delmark Goldfarb

According to statistics, I am living way below the poverty line. I might not have known this without those good ol’ numbers. These statistics help me gain a reflection of myself in accordance to a standard of measure I might not have known otherwise.

Homeless? What does that mean? Is it the opposite of “homed?”

I thought I was just like everybody else...I tote around a laptop computer, and a cell phone and I have a taste for triple espressos. But I don’t have one of those roof-topped structures filled with furniture, gizmos, closets, windows and a doorway.

I’m portable.

My ancestors were nomads.

Nevertheless, I’m one of those persons who listens to such descriptive words and attempts to forge them into meaningful thought. When I think of “home,” I imagine a comfort zone wherein one feels most relaxed, at ease and in tune with the immediate environment. I believe that many people feel “at home” for the most part when they are partaking of their most rewarding activity, be it the workshop, the playing field, on stage or quite frequently a particular place of reflection such as a golf course or fishing hole.

If it weren’t for those statistics, I would never have applied the term “homeless” to myself. But a lot of us are getting snared by those numbers as of late. A wave of layoffs and foreclosures has introduced many hard-working people to study up on their couch-surfing skills. Even those with jobs are taking advantage of food banks and thrift stores.

One statistic that does come to mind when trying to get a handle on how times are changing is the fact that a majority of college attendees now return to their parents’ house upon graduation. Does camping out with Mom and Dad absolve the grown child of the negative sting carried by the term “homeless?”

I grew up under the influence of the ‘60s, in the era of “Route 66,” Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums,” and television shows such as “The Fugitive,” where the protagonist could ramble coast-to-coast picking up odd jobs here and there as they explored new vistas while mingling with people and cultures otherwise unknown to them.

We called it “day labor.” Show up in a town someplace, find the nearest factory, farm or warehouse and dig into some up-close-and-personal sweat equity. A day’s work earned a day’s pay, which would usually be enough to buy some food, rent a room and/or buy some gasoline if need be.

The secret was to simply keep going forward, keeping the momentum going and the wind in your sails. If you landed in some miserable sweat shop, then you made the best of it and got the heck out of there. In this manner you learned about those not so lucky, who’d be left behind in the life you’d only had a taste of.

Some would call this a way to learn to “count your blessings.” I just saw it as a reality-based standard of measure. Sort of like a politicians’ breezy “how am I doing?” quip. We can figure it out for ourselves if our eyes are open and our minds free.

“Homeless?” From what angle does it appear that way? Your perspective might not match mine. But that’s okay with me. I’m on the move.

Songwriter, bicyclist, movie extra, photographer, grandfather, deltiologist and coast-to-coast portable man, Delmark Goldfarb is known for his activism and good humor. He founded an annual food drive/music festival now in its twenty-third year (Waterfront Blues Festival), which has raised tons of donated items and millions of dollars for food banks. He is featured in the newly-released jug band documentary "Chasin' Gus' Ghost" and appears on the Give Us Your Poor compilation CD (Appleseed Recordings) accompanied on harmonica by John Sebastian.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Do the rights thing? by Keith Bender

Do the right thing, I've heard people say this like some mantra that guarantee's the desired outcome. As if you can always know what that is? The right thing to do is based on what? Some spiritual connection threading its way through our reality helping those who ask? Or boring ethics we ignored in school? Maybe it’s a new form of wishing people good luck when we really don't know what else to say. More probably, I hope it's an indication that we are advocating for behavior that we all deem is acceptable. Like putting people and the planet first before profits and other things like that.

Doing the Human Rights thing takes a little more knowledge than the ever-pleasing but self-centered world renown sentence nearly everyone can blurt out..... that pursuit of happiness thing. The proper context allows us to reclaim and gather our strength away from the noise we live with in our heads, competing forces struggling for our attention. When was the last time you took time to review your rights and a little history surrounding their creation? A tour of Wikipedia may very well restore some hope in humanity if you are currently feeling disenfranchised or outcast by the Financial Racism this consumer oriented object addicted society has nurtured. You know the one I mean. The place where no place is okay if you don't have an address with legit sleeping quarters attached to it. Where you know something’s wrong but you just can't put your finger on it. The place where the Police enforce property rights as precedent over human needs.




George Mason in the Virginia Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1 uses "the pursuit of Safety and Happiness." Thomas Jefferson used the combined reference again in his Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence. Safety somehow gives way to Life and Liberty along the way and by the time it reaches Madison's desk we cover the uncovered expanse of human needs and rights in the line:


The "Others" is rights not spelled out for reasons obvious once the context of enumeration is understood. We pride ourselves in response to everyday crisis. Begin to falter when major catastrophe like Katrina or 9/11 come along and Chronic problems of safety like Homelessness seem to somehow provide a negative payback we can use to feel more fortunate about as we play the consumer game described at the Story of Stuff.

The American Dream needs its counterpart, The American NightMare? NOT!!! As polite as I can be I admit to being one of those Financial Racists I complained about earlier. A denial mechanism? A way to allow or permit this behavior to continue while I went about my life unaffected by and disengaged from feelings that would have told me something is really wrong here. Too caught up in the CAPITALISM game to realize that falling off the playing board had no real way back.

If Ending Homelessness is really our goal then like a Gold miner knowing that you have to clear a route by blasting away rock, our last 10 feet that stand in the way of the gold, the Safety clarification, is that rock needing blasting. This clarification of safety as a right must be seen as a mandate. It really is time we did the right thing for our homeless.

Keith Bender lives in West Springfield, VA where he is a writer, blogger, advocate, and "new wave old hippy." He previously was a realtor and owner of a homestaging business. Keith was recently homeless for over a year.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

History and Homelessness by Howard Zinn

Historian, teacher, author Howard Zinn died Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at the age of 87.  Mr. Zinn was a scholar advisor to Give US Your Poor for the planning process of the documentary film by the same name about homelessness in the United States.  Below is an excerpt of the statement he submitted to the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities in support of that project (we worked on sections together, any clunky stuff is clearly mine). We post now in remembrance and appreciation of his work and generosity. - JM

BY HOWARD ZINN:  ...I have always been interested in examining history from the perspective of the rank and file. Most history books give the perspective from the top: from elected officials, industrialists, people of power and importance. Indeed, the sources are much more available for this approach: journals kept by educated men and women, documents, official biographies.

But there are also sources, though more difficult to find, which represent the conditions of life, and even the thinking, of those at the bottom end of society. It is the history of these people which needs very much to be told. And while important decisions are made by the authorities in any culture, the momentum for these decisions usually comes from below, from the movements of oppressed people.

The "homeless" are among the most neglected of this underclass, those left out of traditional histories of the United States. We get rare glimpses of these people in history through a folk song or a biographer's description of George Washington passing the homeless on a trip through Philadelphia. The impression is left that there were no "homeless" until the Great Depression, that this temporary condition of widespread poverty was remedied by the New Deal, and that it only reappeared in the 1980s. That view would lead us away from understanding the structural base of homelessness, as a permanent phenomenon in the nation's life. The result would be complacency and inaction.

The Declaration of Independence says we are all created equal, that we all have rights that cannot be taken from us - the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But these rights have never been applied to the homeless, and this film should lead people to think about that. The right to pursue happiness is meaningless if people do not have the resources for a happy life: food, a home, health care, satisfying work.

The Bill of Rights operates differently for rich and poor. The right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure is different for a family living in a mansion than for a family living in a housing project, or out on the street. We should look beyond the Bill of Rights to the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that all people, everywhere in the world, are entitled to work and decent wages, to holidays and vacations, to food, clothing, housing and medical care, to education, to child care and maternal care.

There have been books, articles and films that examine homelessness. But they have not had a significant effect on the national consciousness. A film on homelessness in America would make an important contribution to the history of the underrepresented in American society.

My role as advisor is to help ensure that "Give Us Your Poor", as a historical work, presents the perspective of those Americans who have been struggling simply to have a place to live. My hope is that the film will raise consciousness about homelessness, thus leading viewers away from the notion that it is an acceptable part of American life. By looking at homelessness in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we may learn something about how to deal with it today.

This film is a humanities project because it is steeped in history. It is not simply the history of public policy, but the history of people struggling for a place to lay their head and fight for dignity. It is the history of the American people and their answers over time to the question: "How do we treat our fellow citizens when they are most vulnerable?" To answer this question is to get at the heart of a humanist approach to the problems of society.

For more information on Howard Zinn's career and life visit http://www.howardzinn.org.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Lynne Twist and the Opportunity within the Economic Crisis

Lynne Twist is the author of The Soul of Money and the co-founder of the global NGO, The Pachamama Alliance.  The Pachamama Alliance is a partnership between the indigenous Achuar Tribe of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest and people worldwide working to save the Ecuadorian rainforest and preserve the Achuar culture.

Lynne talks and writes often about the profound abundance in life that we often overlook as we instead focus on our scarcity. It is a monetary perspective as well as a spiritual one and impacts our actions and happiness.

She recently created a short video talking about this idea as it relates to the current global economic crisis. I encourage you to check it out (it's about 3 minutes long) by clicking on the link at the bottom of this blog entry. 

In the video, Lynne says, “If we can see that what's happening is a truing, is a recalibration, it helps us see how to deal with it on a personal basis.  It doesn't mean it's not going to be painful; it doesn't mean that there's not suffering; it doesn't mean that we shouldn't be paying close attention to how we use money."

“But if we look on a larger scale, if we step back from the personal trauma, the fear, that we're all caught in and that the media's caught in, and see that we're living at a time of enormous excess that has created financial structures and systems that are inappropriate and completely unsustainable and now they're falling apart, we’ll know that, at the end of this, we're all going to be better for it, because we're going to be in a truthful, more accurate, more integrous relationship with ourself, with money and with the resources on this planet.  We can get through this.”

This has great implications for addressing epidemic homelessness, which has been for decades now the carnage of an unsustainable system.  Click here to view the video

Lynne has been a great friend to Give US Your Poor.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Gift of Music & Oneself at Christmas: Michael Severens at PIP Shelter

The week before Christmas 2009, Give US Your Poor organized a performance by classical cellist Michael Severens of the l`Orquesta Sinfonica de la Universidad de Guanajuato, Mexico at the PIP Shelter in Worcester, MA. Michael grew up in Worcester down the street from PIP and was home visiting from Mexico for the holidays. Attendance was sparse, the weather was bone chilling outside, but Severens was in fine form. He had played the night before at Worcester's Longest Night service and was moved to tears hearing about the people who lost their lives in 2009 due to homelessness, proof that homelessness is not only a moral tragedy for US all but a death sentence for too many. A number of PIP guests that evening thanked Severens for taking the time to come and perform and for thinking of them. Many talked of their own musical talent. They walked him to the door, thanking him again and again, and wishing him Merry Christmas. I was with him and struck deeply again that I was off to a warm home and these new friends were off to a crowded emergency shelter for the night, for the week, for the year.

Many thanks to the staff and guests at PIP shelter for welcoming Michael and his cello that cold night in Worcester, and many thanks to Mr. Severens for reminding me of the meaning of giving at Christmas. May we all carry that forth throughout the year! Peace out.

PIP Shelter is part of the South Middlesex Opportunity Council (S.M.O.C.)