I Chose to Be Homeless: Reflections on the Homeless Challenge

From October 10-12, I participated in the National Coalition for the Homeless’ Homeless Challenge. I spent 48 hours living on the streets disguised as an unhoused person—sleeping outside, panhandling, and walking blocks and blocks to access food, a bathroom, transportation, and other services.

Emily Kvalheim Homeless ChallengeOn our first night, my partner and I walked for hours in the rain. We slept in the rain with minimal coverage. My shoes and socks and waterproof jacket were soaked; my skin became like prunes. Despite the cardboard we collected, I shivered throughout the night, completely unprepared. I lay awake for hours. In the middle of the night, I got up, in need of a bathroom; I went to a fast food restaurant—like I have done in the past—but I was denied, even when I offered to purchase something. Shocked and discouraged, I walked to a fancy hotel, where I was given a key to the bathroom. For the first time that night, I felt like a human being.

The next day, I experienced this similar feeling of overwhelming gratitude when strangers helped me. I was allowed to sleep on the floor of a worship center because it was raining, and two hours of sleep at night is not enough to compensate for all of the walking we had to do. A kind volunteer at a feeding program gave me crackers, peanut butter, and cookies. One woman slowed down her car and offered us a ride and food. In the afternoon, four or five strangers reached into their wallets and gave me what they could. I made $9.43 while panhandling, and I was relieved to know that I could eat again that day. In the evening, I was welcomed by a sit-down restaurant’s owners, despite the disgust of the other customers. A $5.00 salad had never tasted so good.

Some people were less empathetic. I was kicked out of a fast food restaurant and into the rain on our second morning. Strangers sneered and laughed as they watched us. When we went to the library, I was sprayed with some sort of perfume (without my consent) due to the aroma I had acquired after not showering, applying deodorant, or brushing my teeth for three days.

I recorded the names of the businesses that treated me like a second-class citizen (as well as those that treated me as human). I wanted to expose them and take revenge. They made me feel angry and lonely because they could not see past my stench and my grime and my grimace. They were privileged enough to ignore me, and they did.

But what good would it do to retaliate? I, too, have not been compassionate enough, and I have allowed my prejudices to distort my view of the homeless. One woman, who sat across from me at a feeding program, talking to herself erratically, may have seemed strange to me before the Homeless Challenge. But when I really saw myself as her equal, and when I took the time to watch her get up and laugh as she danced to the music playing in the background, I thought she was beautiful. She had found her own happiness, amidst despair.

I met some pretty amazing people on the streets. Unlike me, they could not quit homelessness after 48 hours. They were not able to pick up their belongings, reach into their wallets, and take a taxi home. They did not get to shower or wash their clothes. They could not shut the door, turn out the lights, and climb under my pink sheets and blankets. They were left outside to sleep on the concrete, vulnerable, exposed, and ignored. They did not choose to be homeless, and I hope I will never really know how difficult it can be.

What I do know is that homelessness is a horrible situation. It is horrible after 24 hours, it is horrible after 48 hours, and I am guessing that it never really stops being horrible. No matter how many nice people and charities there are, no matter how appreciative I am of the people who helped me complete the Challenge, homelessness will always be horrible. We, as housed people, must do everything we can to eliminate homelessness and show the same compassion to those who helped and protected me on the streets.

One way you could help is by asking your family and friends to donate to the National Coalition for the Homeless, perhaps even through a fundraising page like mine. You might also consider hosting events for National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week 2013 (November 16-24) to raise awareness in your community. For more information, visit the NCH website.

No one should have to live the way that I did. Together we can end homelessness.

By Emily Kvalheim, NCH Intern and American University Class of 2015

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The Humanity: Our response to the human experience of homelessness

As summer turns to fall and the weather starts to cool, are American hearts getting colder as well?

That’s the sad conclusion of a recent study by Princeton professor of psychology and public affairs Susan Fiske, who used neuroimaging to study test subjects’ reaction to images. She found, as the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported, that when shown photos of the homeless and the poor, “their brains responded as though the images depicted things and not humans.”

In fact, after a summer during which the nation was forced to once again confront its complex relationship with race in the wake of the George Zimmerman trial and controversial court rulings on voting rights and police searches, it may be some surprise that Fiske found anti-poverty feelings to be “the most negative prejudice people report” — even beyond racism.

Fiske, who has studied America’s attitudes toward poverty for more than a decade, was sadly unsurprised by the results of the study. She told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Americans “react to the poor with disgust.” One formerly homeless woman, now a counselor to others who are homeless, agreed, telling the newspaper, “You’re looked at like you’re trash. It’s like they think you want nothing out of life. Like you’re not still a person.”

Fiske says most people do not vocalize their contempt for the poor. But this lack of empathy eclipses charitable instincts, due to the perception that the poor do not deserve to be helped since they are somehow lesser than their more successful — or lucky — peers.

Years of widespread economic hardship exacerbate the problem. Yale psychology professor John Dovidio says prejudices against the poor get worse during hard times, as the belief that “if you work hard, you get more, and if you have less, you deserve less” is amplified by harder times for many.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow, writing about Fiske’s study, says this coldness has seeped into politics as well. While America once invited “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Blow says too many elected representatives are “insular, cruel and uncaring,” blaming welfare “for creating poverty rather than for mitigating the impact of it.”

Blow notes a June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that found that Americans believe the top cause of continuing poverty is “too much welfare that prevents initiative” — an attitude mirrored in the House passage one month later of a farm bill that leaves out the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program entirely, at a time when nearly 50 million of us depend on it.

But there is hope, in the attitudes of individuals if not the masses. As we wrote last month, Americans are still concerned about homelessness, even if the ongoing nature of the crisis keeps it from leading the evening news. A sizable majority opposes SNAP cuts, and one in four Americans say they know at least one person who is or has been homeless. It is easy to disdain a faceless other, but harder to condemn a personal acquaintance.

Adam Bruckner of Philadelphia’s Helping Hand Rescue Mission would agree. He told the Inquirer that his “brain would have lit up with his personal prejudices” in Fiske’s test if he had taken it years ago. What changed his mind?”

“Once I met the mom, and the homeless person, it changed me,” he said. “I saw the humanity inside.”

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Compassion Fatigue?

Image borrowed from Reston Mom: http://mattmorgan.typepad.com/reston_mom/we-care.html

Image borrowed from Reston Mom: http://mattmorgan.typepad.com/reston_mom/we-care.html

In an era when each new tragedy appears on our Facebook feeds and smartphone screens within minutes, with donating to the victims as simple as texting a five-digit number, compassion fatigue is quick to set in. The caring public, genuinely interested in helping, faces a rush of ever-changing news — hurricanes and tsunamis, chemical plant disasters, refugee crises, and on and on. It is therefore understandable that ongoing crises like homelessness and hunger may slip off the radar.

But Americans are still concerned about homelessness. A Gallup poll from March of this year found that 43% of us “personally worry about” homelessness and hunger a “great deal,” and 32% a “fair amount.” That’s a full 75% of the public. Just 25% of respondents said they worry about these issues “a little” or “not at all.”

This concern persists even with the budget deficit and the sequester at the top of Washington’s agenda. A Hart Research Associates poll this spring on behalf of the Food Research and Action Center found major resistance to cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Seven out of 10 respondents said cutting SNAP is the wrong way to reduce the deficit.

Some of this concern may be because homelessness is closer to the average American than often thought. A 2011 poll found that one in four Americans personally know someone who is homeless, with 35% of African-Americans and 32% of respondents between the ages of 18-29 having a homeless acquaintance.

In a statewide poll in Michigan in 2010, 47% of respondents said “homelessness and the risk of homelessness is a serious problem in my community,” and 71% said “being homeless or at risk of becoming homeless could happen to anyone.” In a survey conducted in central Florida a year earlier, 55% of respondents said homelessness was a “major problem.”

That Florida poll says a lot about how we view the homeless. Clear majorities said most homeless people possess “good job skills” (59%) and that “it is hard for homeless people to be safe and free from harm” (79%). Tellingly, three out of five respondents said homeless people can generally not “be identified by appearance alone,” while four out of five said it was not true that “the homeless are more likely than others to commit violent crime” and that programs to aid the homeless “are too expensive.”

Paul Toro of Wayne State University told AlterNet that compassion fatigue about homelessness is largely limited to the media, which has lost interest in the homelessness crisis even though the public has not.  But in a face-to-face encounter, things are still different. Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, who was homeless for several years, said, “The closer that poverty is to the face of people that aren’t in poverty, the uglier it is. And the unfortunate part is that often gets manifested as the person is ugly — not the poverty is ugly. And poverty is ugly. It’s unpleasant. It doesn’t smell good.”

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Welcome our Summer Interns

Summer is in full swing and our interns are hard at work! From co-coordinating our National Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week to cataloging our in-house library, these students are actively learning and contributing to NCH’s work. Get to know our interns and what has driven them to stand against homelessness.

*****

Intern - Brian
Brian Brazeau
Senior, College of the Holy Cross
Political Science and Italian


“I have lived in the same city in Rhode Island for most of my life and never took the opportunity to witness the suffering of those around me. While I worked for my local congressman last summer, I began to hear the stories of those impoverished in my local district, but still took very little direct action to help the situation.  During my junior year, I studied abroad in Bologna, Italy, finally leaving my New England safety net for the first time. However, what I did not realize was that I would be directly witnessing those who were truly suffering from homelessness and poverty. Throughout the day, I would see people panhandling for money and at night, the same people would be sleeping under doorways and on public benches. It was sad to know that many had been suffering in Europe and, after having been in DC, to know that there are many suffering here in our own nation.

“Now as an intern for NCH, I hope to do all I can to help those who are suffering from homelessness through my work on the Homeless Bill of Rights. While it will not completely eradicate homelessness, I believe it will be the first step in gaining collective action to provide equal rights to all who are homeless.”

Intern - Liz
Elizabeth Jo Mason
2nd Year, University of Maryland College Park
Masters of Library and Information Science


“Living in Baltimore, Maryland most of my life, I have always been aware of the struggle of homeless people around me. I have passed by many people in the city who needed money or otherwise looked like they were in need of shelter. However, I did not think to do something about it until a friend from high school was personally stricken with homelessness.

“I chose to become a Cataloging Intern at NCH because it would allow me to become more directly involved in the process of educating homeless people and making a difference in their lives while gaining more cataloging experience for my Masters of Library and Information Science degree.”

Intern - Keith
Keith Meyer
Junior, Allegheny College
Political Science and Philosophy


“I have always felt inspired to engage with the world through a more objective standpoint than merely my own. I had overlooked the perspectives and lives of those experiencing homelessness for too long, which is an issue that remains discrete if existent at all in my small, rural hometown. The internship offers a unique way to engage with this and also interact with our country’s political framework as a basis for institutional change.”

Intern - Sylvia
Sylvia Precht-Rodriguez
Junior, Vanderbilt University
Political Science


“Active citizenship includes addressing the inescapable and mounting issue of homelessness in our nation. This lesson I have learned from my upbringing in Brooklyn, New York and teachings at Vanderbilt University. This summer I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by the staff of the National Coalition for the Homeless who are dedicating years of their lives to alleviating the conditions of those who do not have homes. My role as a Research Fellow, and the work to publish the 2012 Hate Crimes Report Against the Homeless, will hopefully advance their efforts of which I am just beginning to understand. I am learning and I am being humbled by my time here.”

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Citizen Engagement: Educating City Council About Solutions to Homelessness

On June 24, Baltimore’s Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau held a first-of-its-kind speaking engagement by Bureau members who shared their perspectives and experiences of homelessness with members of the City Council, area service providers, and other invited guests (including Michael Stoops and Brian Parks of the National Coalition for the Homeless).

Earlier this year, many members of the Bureau were involved in organizing efforts to stop the city from forcibly removing a community from an encampment under the Jones Falls Expressway in downtown Baltimore. While advocates were not able to stop the City from closing down the encampment, they successfully drew attention to the injustice of closing down an encampment without providing any place for campers to go. City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke called a hearing to revisit commitments five years in to the city’s “Journey Home” 10-year plan to end homelessness.

Comments made at the hearing indicated misconceptions about the causes and experience of homelessness.  A University of Maryland Social Work Intern who was involved in the organizing efforts around the encampment began reaching out to Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke about organizing discussion with members of the Speakers’ Bureau.

The Baltimore Speakers' Bureau at a recent event.

The Baltimore Speakers’ Bureau at a recent event.

Many emails and several months later, the Speakers’ Bureau finally set a date to meet with City Council in late June and dove into preparing for this very important speaking engagement.  The Bureau aimed to keep the discussion focused on solutions and opportunities for collaboration and hoped that City Council members would walk away with an understanding that while there are a myriad of individual circumstances that contribute to a person losing their home, underlying causes of homelessness all relate to poverty, lack of affordable housing and insufficient health care.

Members outlined goals for the meeting through an agenda that included an introduction on the common misconceptions and stereotypes held about people experiencing homelessness, personal stories from Speakers Bob Jankowiack, Bonnie Lane, and Damien Haussling, as well as a roundtable discussion on pressing issues facing the homeless community. Faces of Homelessness Speaker Tony Simmons who moderated the presentation challenged the audience to think about how themes emerging from Speakers’ stories can point us toward solutions.

The Baltimore Bureau was thrilled by the level of engagement of Council Members during the discussion. Speakers’ Bureau members and advocates from the homeless community were also present to weigh in on the roundtable discussion which focused on changing perspectives of homelessness and an upcoming shelter transition facing the community.

What made this event so important was that for the first time, the real experts on homelessness—those with lived experience—led elected officials and leaders of the service provider community in a discussion on the state of homelessness in Baltimore.  Speakers demonstrated the importance of partnering with individuals that have experienced homelessness in the struggle to end it.

The event captured the essence of a favorite poem of mine by Julia Dinsmore, a poet and activist for social justice from Minneapolis (my hometown):

Take another look, don’t go away. For I am not the problem, but the solution. And… my name is not ‘Those People.’

By Vanessa Borotz
NCH AmeriCorps*VISTA volunteer

Read more about what the Baltimore Speakers’ Bureau is up to: http://citypaper.com/arts/stage/i-am-i-said-1.1517758

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