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Archive for December, 2011

Feeding vs. Foodsharing

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Food Insecurity, Poverty

The National Coalition for the Homeless differentiates between feeding the homeless – objectifying the hungry as simply needing to be fed – and food sharing. The sharing of one’s meal with another is to participate in the mutual fulfillment of the human need to feed both in body and soul. It is the difference between blindly providing resources and services to someone and breaking bread with them.

The religious connotations of breaking bread are profound: Moses told the Israelites to break unleavened bread with each other during the Passover, Jesus broke bread with his disciples both at the Last Supper and again following his death as their risen Lord. The ancient Greeks would invite random travelers homes for a meal, fearing offending them in case they were gods. Zen Buddhists practice a tea ceremony with guests as a way to achieve enlightenment together. Each of these examples provide cultural or religious guidance for going out of one’s way to satisfy the needs of another person, often at the lower end of a power dynamic. In the relationship between host and guest, breaking bread as a way of sharing an experience with someone is to achieving spiritual fulfillment or accompaniment, as expressed in Liberation Theology.

Liberation Theology developed as a Christian movement in Latin America against traditional forms of foreign aid and charity. Its central thesis was to return to the roots of what Jesus taught about the preferential option for the poor, believing that the poor must be the focus in every Christian endeavor. This focus is enacted through the concept of accompaniment, which argues that charity must be a shared experience. The giver must give in solidarity with the recipient, and the recipient must take an active role in their liberation from poverty. In a recent article in the journal Foreign Affairs, Prof. Paul Farmer, a noted Harvard University anthropologist and physician explains that accompaniment derives from the breaking of bread together or ad cum panis.  

We are reminded further of the practice and concept of accompaniment through the life of Saint Francis. During the event of his religious conversion, St. Francis de-clothed in the public square, denounced his father’s fortune and adopted a life of poverty. Later in life, after being relieved of his possessions during a roadside robbery, he responded by stripping off his shoes and cloak and offering the robber his last possessions. St. Francis’ life was a true example of sharing one’s possessions most fully, the epitome of accompaniment or breaking bread with the poor.

In recent years, the concept of charity and service has lost much of its focus on the individual being served and unfortunately has shifted its focus to giving credit to the provider. Food sharing allows us to rebalance our relationship with charity and accompaniment, allowing us to once again see those who receive our offerings as blessed and occupying a role that enables the giver to better themselves spiritually.

Realigning oneself with charity and services provides the giver a greater appreciation for themselves and those they serve. At the same time, it allows the receiver to be an active participant in their own liberation. This relationship between the server and served is described beautifully in the Jewish Tzedakah. The philosophy describes charity as a partnership between those who possess and whose in need – the relationship of host and guest, as two who break bread together.

As a homeless advocate, the relationship to services and charity – the ability to break bread as equals -has profound consequences to the way in which we do our work. Within the framework of accompaniment, homeless services must become about quality, love, and sacrifice, rather than quantity, efficiency, and image. We must unlearn the concept of “feeding the homeless,” and take on the mindset of sharing our food with those experiencing homelessness.

By Hunter Scott, Fall 2011 Intern

Can Social Media End Homelessness?

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy

By Megan Hustings

Good thing I’m not that old, because I’m showing my age. I’ve posted my way through several generations of social networks.  In college, students at my school shared a network of “Plans,” a page that was hosted on the college’s intranet where users could make text only posts (quotes, rants, etc.) and tag their friends. After graduation, I started out on Friendster, which I barely remember now. MySpace was the next big thing, but even as it grew in popularity, other online communities began vying for internet prominence.

Today, Facebook and Twitter seem to reign the waves, but again, new online communities continue to spring up to offer unique opportunities for organizing certain kinds of communities. I can’t even begin to list all the websites that could be classified as social networks, you can look for more on this Wikipedia listing of social networks, or I love to get lost in the “Conversation Prism” – here’s the author’s blog post.

Since starting out with NCH five years ago as an AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer, I’ve seen the organization’s fundraising and outreach change quite a bit. Back then, we focused on sending out appeal letters a few times a year and writing grant proposals, but had just moved to an online only newsletter. Now, we look for more diverse funding sources, and spend a good amount of time connecting to our supporters and members through online and social media – Twitter, Facebook, the Bring America Home Blog, and many others (Change.org, MySpace, YouTube, Razoo, etc.).

The question I keep coming back to is how do we effectively engage the NCH community in ending homelessness through these networks? Can online advocacy make a difference?

We have raised some funds over the years from Facebook Causes, and have passed along several successful petitions through Change.org. Advocacy in all its forms is hard to quantify, but we know that we have the ears (or screens) of well over 15,000 advocates through various social media websites.

Recently, we sent out surveys on our social networks, Facebook and Twitter, asking you how we could improve our social networking presence. (To all of you who responded, thank you!) Through this experience, we got to know a little about you and how you interact with NCH online. Some of the things we learned were:

  • Many of you first engaged with us through social media to learn more about advocacy for the homeless
  • We Tweet just the right amount, but you would prefer if we posted more on Facebook.
  • You are most interested in the subjects of homeless organizations and services, and homeless services, but those on Facebook would like to see more direct testimonials from people experiencing homelessness
  • Interestingly, most of you work for another organization relating to homelessness

Finally, we learned that only a few of you who engage with us on Facebook and Twitter are active, contributing members of NCH. We know budgets are tight all around, but if you’re able to become a member, this holiday season is a great time to do so!

We have already begun to use this information to (hopefully!) improve our social networking interactions with you. But is there more we can be doing? Are we making a difference by educating with news stories, sharing the faces and voices of those who experience homelessness, or spreading awareness of what our great partners are doing across the country?

We’re always open to more suggestions, or examples of successes you have had in mobilizing your online community. Please feel free to leave your comments or contact me at 202-462-4822 or mhustings@nationalhomeless.org.

Occupy Homelessness

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Awareness

As the Occupy protests around the nation continue to dominate the news cycles, we have noticed several disturbing stories concerning the homeless. I felt it was time for a response. Some Occupy protests have protested the inclusion of the homeless in the movement, due to ironic judgments that homeless are only there to leech food and shelter, and give a bad face to the protest. This is after many of the protests displaced homeless populations that were formerly living in the parks where the Occupiers have taken up residence. There have been reports that at Occupy Boston, the protesters have been abusing the services provide by local homeless drop in centers. Finally, in cities around the country there are laws that have been used in the past to forcefully eject homeless encampments and prevent the homeless from staying too long in any one place. However, some of these same cities have welcomed the Occupy encampments as democratic heroes, allowing them to stay in spite of the laws against encampments. This is blatant discrimination against the homeless.

I decided to see for myself if the claims laid out by the media were true, and went to the Occupy McPherson Square protest in DC as a casual participant. I spoke to a homeless person that had been living and working with the Occupiers. He told me that he had been on the street adjacent to the park, and one freezing night early on a protester had come up to him and asked him if he wanted a tent to stay in and warm food to eat. Ever since then, he had been active in the protest, and continued to live in the same tent, which he called the “tunnel of love.” When I asked him about rumors of homeless being kicked out of the park to make room for the protesters, he said he had heard of no such thing, and the Occupy DC protest had been very gracious to him. I was heartened by this news. Nevertheless, when I asked another man about the rumors, who was a native of DC and only participated in the protest during the day, he said that before the protest came McPherson Park was a “drug haven.” He told me that those homeless who had not wanted to be a part of the protest had sat on the benches across the street and complained whenever they talked to a protester. “We do try to practice what we preach though,” he said. “The homeless are what this movement is about.”

Photo thanks to DowntownTraveler.com

From what I’ve seen at Occupy DC, the news reports of a “schism” within the Occupy movement concerning the homeless are not true. There is also evidence to the contrary in New York: Before that protest was shut down, there was a group dedicated solely to developing good relations with and serving the needs of the homeless population in and around the protest. They negotiated with the larger assembly and with the food team when anyone had a problem with behaviors of those experiencing homelessness, and also collected socks, jackets, and underwear. These are examples of members and communities within the larger movement that support the rights of people experiencing homelessness.

Of course there are still problems. There are those that are concerned with the mentally ill being a part of such large crowds, which is a legitimate concern. The Occupy Burlington protest in Vermont sent a letter to the city’s mayor admitting that they did not have the necessary training to handle some of the homeless. If someone is being violent, sexually harassing anyone, or stealing, then it is certainly defensible to ask that they be given the help that they need, somewhere that they cannot hurt people in a large crowd such as those found at the protests. Also, I think the issue of homeless discrimination in the form of city laws that don’t allow camping is somewhat moot in this case. While many cities are engaging in blatant discrimination against the homeless by allowing protesters to camp, the Occupy movements can’t do anything about this. It wouldn’t make much sense for them to protest the city allowing them to protest. However, it is an issue we need to keep in mind as we watch how different cities react to OWS.

The movement has taken off in other exciting ways that support the homeless as well. An organization based in Florida called “Take Back the Land” has been making news with its mission to move homeless people into empty foreclosed homes. They first vett applicants to the program to make sure they will not do anything to disturb neighbors, and then find them an empty house, break in, fix it up, turn on the utilities, and make it a home. In a sense, this is what the movement should really be about; if our current economic crisis was largely caused by banks making bad loans on homes, then what better and more useful way to protest than to occupy those homes? It tells the banks in a concrete way that they have failed, bringing the top 1% down, and it gives those without homes a new life, bringing the 99% up.

If you are a homeless advocate, don’t be afraid of the Occupy protests. At NCH, we say that the Occupy protests must remember that people experiencing homelessness represent the true 1% – the lowest one percent. Generally, it seems they are succeeding, especially if movements like Take Back the Land continue to identify themselves with the Occupy protests and use their energy to create tangible, big-bank-busting good. Next time you walk by one of the protests, stop by and talk to a few people, and maybe even participate in a human microphone, a general assembly, or a march. If you have time, share a meal with one of the homeless protesters, and let us know what they say, and what you think. Finally, I think more attention needs to be brought to the fact that as the Occupy protests are shutting down or being kicked out from their parks and habitations around the country, so are the homeless, even if they were there first. As a message to Occupy, whomever or whatever you may be, I’d like to say this: Don’t forget the lowest 1%. Don’t forget the homeless. As you pack up your tents and go back to your warm homes for the winter, fight so that those who cannot do say may continue to live in the parks and city squares where you made your home with them these past months. This movement represents an important moment for those in the fight against homelessness and inequality, and we all need to show our support.

For a powerful perspective from a homeless street paper, Street Roots, on the Occupy movement: http://streetroots.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/the-occupy-homeless-movement/

By Hunter Scott, Fall 2011 Intern

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