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Don’t Obstruct the Personal Act of Giving

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness

by Neil Donovan, NCH Executive Director

The people of Memphis want to know if they should put up “parking meter – contribution stations” to replace the method of directly donating to a person in need, often referred to as panhandling. If they asked me, I’d confidently say “No” to the parking meter plan, and “Yes” to promoting compassion through the personal act giving to those in need.” I’d also recommend not asking me, or any national advocate or your local city planners. Instead, ask those in need and those that serve them best. The answer you’re looking for resides within them.

The practice of installing meters has been done unsuccessfully in dozens of communities across the country and most recently in Nashville and Orlando. What these new cities will learn too late and Memphis may learn just in time, is that parking meter plans are often an act of frustration in disguise.

Homelessness has been with us for far too long. No one will agree with you more than a homeless person. But, the responsibility belongs to all of us: national advocates, federal, state and local governments, homeless service providers, the intolerant and dispassionate… and the homeless.

But, let’s not punish one group and call it innovative giving. “Parking meter – contribution stations” are small memorials to a community that’s stopped trying to end homelessness and started to circle the wagons. Most mainstream religions and community organizations can look to their teachings and missions for advice on interacting with those less fortunate: We all become richer in body, mind and spirit through the personal act of giving to another.

Response to Homelessness: Hot or Cold?

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness

In January, NCH released a report on Winter Services that detailed extended shelter hours and other services that work to decrease the risk of hypothermia deaths among people who are homeless. Hypothermia refers to the life-threatening conditions that can occur when a person’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

HypERthermia is just the opposite referring to a myriad of conditions that can occur as a result of a person absorbing or producing more heat that the body can dissipate. Just as with hypothermia, people most at risk of hyperthermia are the young and elderly, those who have persistent medical conditions, and those exposed to extreme environmental conditions.

NCH’s Winter Services report found that 700 people experiencing or at-risk of homelessness are killed from hypothermia annually in the United States. A similar report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) that looked at data from 1999 to 2003 found that on average 688 deaths each year were due to hyperthermia. While the CDC report does not mention the housing status of those who passed away due to heat-related illnesses, we can relate the risks to people who are homeless (my comments in italics) to the CDC’s recommendations for preventing hyperthermia:

Suggestion #1: Drink more fluids, regardless of your activity level.

Many people who are homeless do not have ready access to water. Restaurants will charge, soup kitchens may only be open at certain times during the day, there are fewer and fewer publicly accessible water fountains, can you imagine not having a refrigerator full of cold water or even a sink for tap water?

Suggestion #2: Don’t drink liquids that contain alcohol or large amounts of sugar.

Sodas can be cheaper than bottled water! People who are suffering from alcohol dependence are at particular risk for temperature-related illness.

Suggestion #3: Stay indoors and, if at all possible, stay in an air-conditioned place. If your home does not have air conditioning, go to the shopping mall or public library.

There are few day centers available for people experiencing homelessness, and often, people who “look” homeless (have lots of bags or who have not been able to shower or do laundry) are turned away from establishments like libraries and restaurants.

Suggestion #4: Electric fans may provide comfort, but when the temperature is in the high 90s, taking a cool shower or bath, or moving to an air-conditioned place is a much better way to cool off.

Electric fans (anything other than a small battery-operating or hand fan), taking a shower or air-conditioning are simply not options when you have no home.

Suggestion #5: Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.

Type of clothing is often not an option when you cannot pay for appropriate pieces or do not have somewhere secure to store clothing.

Some communities have stepped up efforts to prevent the risk of hyperthermia among people experiencing homelessness: the Arizona Department of Health Services published a guide on where to find cooling centers; a Columbia, South Carolina shelter has extended weekend hours to provide a cool refuge during the hot summer months; and DC opens cooling centers and emergency shower locations (though I’ve only heard from a couple of people who know about these).

But it seems that the level of response to heat emergencies is not matched even to the number of cold-weather emergency services available to people who are experiencing homelessness. Are we wrong about this? Does your community (homeless services or health departments) have cooling centers or make other extra efforts to ensure the homeless population has refuge from the summer heat? Let us know!

Other resources:
Change.org Post May 30, 2010 – How to Help the Homeless Beat the Heat
Health Care for the Homeless Council Hyperthermia factsheet

What Would Mitch Snyder Say and Do Today?

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness

By Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing

Twenty years ago, the movement to end homelessness lost its most charismatic leader, Mitch Snyder. Snyder and Robert Hayes, NCH’s founder, are considered to be the two leading national homeless advocates in the 1980’s.

If Mitch were still alive today, I wonder what Mitch would do and say about how homelessness has become a way of American life and so acceptable by societal norms? Think homeless children, the elderly, or even veterans.

Mitch would definitely not be seen attending the proverbial annual homelessness conference where too few homeless people can be found. Nor would he spend a year to write a plan about ending homelessness ten years down the road.

Regardless of the political party in power, he would be pounding on the White House doors or jumping its gates and roaming the Halls of Congress shouting that people are literally dying homeless and action is needed now!

Mitch would be doing the same tried and proven effective tactics (living on the streets in solidarity with the homeless, using the media to prick the American conscience, civil disobedience, hunger fasts) that resulted in his shelter being opened and renovated, the passage of the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act in 1987, and in the gathering of 250,000 people (including 25,000 homeless people) for the 1989 Housing Now march here in Washington, DC.

While traditional lobbying is still essential, I wonder if Mitch’s tactics of the 1980’s should be resurrected in these troubled economic times? Probably yes.

His legacy is evident today at the Community for Creative Nonviolence shelter in Downtown DC that continues to save lives and is one of the few programs nationwide run by the homeless volunteers.

It can also be found in the legions of youth and homeless people that he inspired who are the homeless advocates, providers, volunteers, and donors today.

As time marches on, people still remember that there was some fiery homeless activist back in the 1980’s, but have forgotten his name. I always delight in letting people know his name. And without fail, that taxicab driver or shelter volunteer always speaks of their respect and admiration for Mitch who was willing to go to jail or even risk death by fasting for homeless people.

Do we need another national leader like Mitch? Probably not. Our movement now has many mini-leaders including homeless and formerly homeless people.

I just hope that there is a little bit of Mitch Snyder in all of us which keeps our eyes on the prize of stopping this injustice of homelessness in our midst.

Forget about how he died by suicide, but how he lived his life as a true blue advocate for the homeless.

See a young advocate’s perspective on Mitch Snyder’s legacy here, or read more about Mr. Snyder’s historical impact here.

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