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August 15, 2007

Open Invitation to Presidential Candidates:  Be Homeless!

Congratulations on your candidacy for public office. Between now and the 2008 elections, your run for national office will have you traveling thousands of miles at the mercy of the weather, eating all kinds of bizarre foods, kissing uncounted babies, shaking innumerable hands, and sleeping away from home in unfamiliar surroundings for weeks on-end. Much of this activity is essentially meaningless, but is deemed necessary if you are to succeed in your quest. Both you and I know that. So I want you to consider a campaign activity that is, in fact, full of meaning and significance. Minus the kissing babies and shaking hands, you might even say it’s not a lot different from what you are already doing.  Let me explain.

A couple of months ago, the mayoral candidates in Nashville, Tennessee, made history. After participating in a Homelessness and Housing Mayoral Candidate Forum, organized by the Nashville Homeless Power Project, all six agreed to “take the plunge.” In this case, that means The Urban Plunge, a program devised by the National Coalition for the Homeless more than 20 years ago, to give economically privileged people the chance to dress down, do without showers or baths for a few days, empty their wallets, and try their hand living on the streets overnight. Although many thousands of people from nearly all walks of life have participated in Urban Plunges since the 1980s, politicians running for office had not been among them. Until Nashville.

In Nashville, the purpose was to provide all the candidates with a firsthand experience of homelessness, so they could more-fully understand the impact of public policy decisions on those who live in the streets. They all committed to spending ten hours on the streets of Nashville. That’s not the 48 hours the Plunge normally entails. But, it’s a start. In their short stints as faceless indigents, the candidates had a few simple goals, including …

• Find a legal place to sleep outdoors
• Sleep on a bench in a public place for 20 minutes or more
• Enter a restaurant and ask if they could sweep the sidewalk or do some other menial work in exchange for food
• Find a place to eat breakfast
• Ask for money (“panhandle”) in a place where they would be least-likely to be recognized
• Find a place where they can go to the bathroom when necessary…

One of our supporters has suggested that we invite—or challenge—all candidates running for national or statewide office in 2008, to take the same bold step as the mayoral hopefuls in Nashville. So here’s your invitation/challenge: Take this chance to show your commitment to a population that really needs your commitment. Take the opportunity to show your supporters—or even your opponents—that you really care about the downtrodden and want to help. Take the time to learn what life is like when the safety net of friends, family and community that most of us take for granted, has holes big enough to walk through.

I promise you an experience you won’t soon forget.  And, unlike those who are living there already, your sojourn will be completely safe. You will be accompanied the whole time by an experienced homeless person, serving as your guide, whom we will provide for your stint on the streets. I can send you the stories of hundreds of people whose lives have been enriched and ennobled by seeing what life is like without money, food, showers, or shelter. Yours will be too. And think of the power that will flow from your post-Plunge press conference.

I sincerely hope that all the candidates we contact—and we are writing to them all—will take us up on this offer. But why don’t you be the first? Please contact me at your earliest convenience, so I can send you more details and information on the program, and reserve a place for you at a Plunge location in your home state, or here in our nation’s capital. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Michael Stoops
Acting Executive Director


National Coalition for the Homeless
2201 P Street NW
Washington, DC 20037-1033

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