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Remembering those lost to Homelessness

Written by admin on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness, Hate Crimes, Mortality, Violence Against the Homeless

For nearly three decades, advocates for people experiencing homelessness nationwide have taken one day out of the year to remember those who have passed due to the trauma of homelessness. Symbolically commemorated on December 21st, the winter solstice and longest night of the year, National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day serves as a reminder of the daily violence experienced by those who are without permanent housing.

Every year, we mourn those we have lost and bemoan persistent homelessness that does not seem to be getting better. DC memorialWe have lost so many of our neighbors due to violence perpetrated by those who see people experiencing homelessness as less than human, or the structural violence that exacerbates easily preventable disease or shortens life expectancy by 20-30 years. I remember my fellow AmeriCorps volunteer and colleague Jesse, whose heart gave out after only a handful of years off the streets. I remember Cliff, the talented photographer and vegetarian, conscripted to eating American cheese sandwiches in the shelter, even as his health failed due to cancer. These, and so many others, were our friends, our colleagues, our family members, who became victims of a lack of affordable housing.

The fact remains that a lack of housing is unhealthy, traumatizing and significantly shortens an individual’s life expectancy. People who experience homelessness have an average life expectancy of around 50 years of age, almost 20 years lower than housed populations. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that people experiencing homelessness are at a greater risk of infectious and chronic illness, poor mental health, and substance abuse

They are also more susceptible to violence once experiencing homelessness, a fact confirmed by over 20 years of reports on bias-motivated crimes against people experiencing homelessness showing 1,769 reported acts of violence against people experiencing homelessness, 476 of which were lethal.

In 2017, there were 22 cities that reported the number of people experience homelessness who lost their lives without a place to call home. Out of those cities that reported, 2,525 homeless community members passed away. Consulting reports about deaths of people experiencing homelessness in 2016, we estimate that at least 13,000 people pass away each year while without housing.

Homelessness is the most extreme expression of structural housing poverty. This form of extreme poverty hasn’t always existed at the levels we see today, and doesn’t have to be a permanent state in all of our communities. We need to invest in our shared humanity through investment in publicly affordable housing. We need to build healthier and more compassionate communities, that ensure all residents’ basic human needs are met. May this Memorial Day be a reminder to all of us that working together, we can build our housing infrastructure, and reinforce our safety net of food, cash, medical and housing assistance, so we don’t lose another brother and sister to the streets.

We invite all of you to register your Memorial Day events at https://nationalhomeless.org. If you are not able to host your own event, please participate in a nearby event to memorialize our fallen community members that passed away without the dignity to have a place to call home. Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day is co-sponsored by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council and the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Spring into Action

Written by admin on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness, Community Organizing, Criminalization

We have seen so many movements and actions since the 2016 elections – which means our communities want social and economic justice! We recently recorded a video of solidarity with the March for Our Lives and #NeverAgain campaign for gun reform. We are also partnering with the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival on public actions working to fight the root causes of homelessness.

Here is what you can do this Spring:

Our Homes, Our Voices

We hope that you will join us in taking part in the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Our Homes Our Voices week of action, May 1-8, 2018. Learn more about the event, and how to get involved here.

Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival

We also hope you will join us in joining the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. This is a ground up movement being led by faith leaders and people who are struggling with an economic and social system that only benefits the most wealthy among us. The campaign has just launched its list of demands, which outline
how the evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and the war economy and militarism are persistent, pervasive, and perpetuated by a distorted moral narrative that must be challenged.
 The campaign states,
We must stop attention violence and see the human and economic costs of inequality. We believe that when decent people see the faces and facts that the Souls of Poor Folk Audit presents, they will be moved deeply in their conscience to change things. When confronted with the undeniable truth of unconscionable cruelty to our fellow human beings, we must join the ranks of those who are determined not to rest until justice and equality are a reality for all.
Mother’s Day, May 13th, will kick off 40 days of nonviolent action, and we encourage you and your network to join the campaign and take part in changing “not just the narrative, but who is narrating” our national political agenda.

Public Education

Finally, we know one of our biggest hurdles to housing all of our neighbors is public perception and prejudice against both people of color and poor people. To this end, we have created shareable documents that we encourage you to print and distribute: PUBLIC NOTICE for class action lawsuit - DHOL 2018
  1. A list of demands for the American Dispossessed: Created by Denver Homeless Out Loud in support of the Right to Rest and presented as a public notice, it is meant to be posted outdoors in places where our neighbors are forced to live in encampments or on public land. Click here to download

  2. State of Homelessness 2018: A brief (3 pages) overview of why we are seeing increased visible homelessness in our communities, covering everything from housing to HUD funding to criminalization. Click here to download

Reflecting on Michael’s Legacy

Written by admin on . Posted in Advocacy, Civil Rights, Community Organizing

The first thing I did when I became the Director of NEOCH in 1995 was call Michael Stoops at the National Coalition for the Homeless and talked to him about civil rights for those who did not use the shelters.  We were engaged in a series of lawsuits that began before I was a member of the Coalition, so I needed a tutorial.  Michael was a quiet man who was a peacemaker.  He never asked for the spotlight but accepted it to save the National Coalition for the Homeless.  Sitting down and looking for a solution with a group of persecuted homeless people was the way he wanted to spend his afternoons.  Michael Stoops passed away on May Day 2017 after a two year struggle following a stroke.

Stoops grew up in Indiana and moved to Portland, managing a shelter in the 1970s.  Stoops loved sitting in the office and helping to distribute the donated food on Sunday afternoon to the forgotten and downtrodden.  He helped organize the Housing Now march in DC, provided input on the McKinney Vento national funding of shelters, and helped found the National Coalition for the Homeless.  Stoops was a community organizer with a keen ear for listening to homeless people. He had experienced homelessness and hunger and slept at the CCNV shelter in DC in the past.  He knew what it meant to be swept off the streets, and he cared about the intrinsic value of every human being.  He understood that each person had their talents and a place in our society.  He rarely wore a sport coat and was often confused for the homeless individuals that City Councilmembers and Congressional staff walk over on their way into their offices.

Michael loved bringing people together and working to raise the voice of those who slept outside with his quiet but powerful voice.  He stepped up to write grants, send in payroll, complete the 990 tax return and manage a VISTA program because he had to in order to keep the organization functioning.  Stoops met with funders and in his soft spoken style asked them to open their checkbooks to help in a non-traditional manner.  It was not money to buy food, housing, a shelter bed or clothing; he was asking for a donation for social change.  That is the hardest thing to try to get across in an elevator speech, but Michael never lost his thirst for righteousness.

Michael took on the executive director position at NCH when I was a board member.  It was a temporary interim appointment for the summer that lasted for years.  He testified before Congress, always yielding time to others who had slept on the hard sidewalks of America’s streets.   Stoops worked for NCH when it was a large vibrant organization with 20 staff and he helped to unionize that staff.  He saw it crippled by the downturn and the loss of  prestige and influence.  Michael put in place a speaker’s bureau that has become a mainstay of NCH programming.  The speakers under Michael’s guidance taught other formerly homeless people to overcome their nervousness to talk at colleges, high schools and religious gatherings to put a face on homelessness.  We will never know how many shelter workers, volunteers, health care professionals or housing developers were inspired by Michael to work to reduce poverty in the United States.   I met a doctor at the CDC in Atlanta who was inspired to work in the area of TB after listening to Michael Stoops at a college class.

Stoops loved the street newspaper movement and helped to keep many street newspapers in business, planting the seeds of a few others.  The best street newspaper in the United States, Street Sense in DC, was founded by Stoops and NCH’s director at the time, Donald Whitehead.  The paper has remained close to Michael and he continued to act as a mentor to Street Sense and many of the vendors in our nation’s capital.  There are thousands of newspaper vendors who were able to make the rent or pay for dental work because of Michael.  He loved to empower individuals willing to try to sell free speech on the cold, rainy, harsh mean streets of America.

Michael came to Cleveland on a few speaking engagements and to help with the North American Street Newspaper Association conference at Case Western Reserve University in the late 1990s.  He helped to get the Canadian and US papers together and host listening and learning sessions in various cities.  He organized newspaper conferences in Seattle, San Francisco, Cleveland, Boston, Montreal, Edmonton, and Chicago that I was able to attend.  He always helped homeless people attend the conference and hosted a series of vendor competitions to see which vendor would sell the most papers in a foreign city. One of our vendors dressed as a cow (with cow head) on the plane to fly to Edmonton to get that extra edge in the vendor competition. This was pre-September 11th.  You can’t dress as a cow on a plane anymore, but she won.  Even back in the late 1990s and early 2000s it was hard to get homeless people with problematic backgrounds across the US/Canadian border, but Michael handled it.

He lived, breathed and voraciously ate up the news about homelessness and poverty from around the US.  He would read nearly every major newspaper everyday and that dramatically expanded when he got access to the internet.  He knew as much about the sweeps taking place in San Diego as the local Coalition just from the news accounts and the telephone.  He would call us in the field and get an update on the status of a lawsuit or negative encounters with the police when he heard about a problem.  He knew more about the struggles facing homeless people in America than every board member in the 30 year history of the Homeless Coalition in Cleveland combined.

Michael would put us in contact with a homeless person in some of the rural communities two or three hours outside of Cleveland who happened to call the NCH office for help.  Homeless people, advocates and service providers could call Michael day or night and they would get a response.  They could call about being arrested or threatened by the police and he would get them a local contact who might help.  The religious groups would call to tell Michael that the police did not want to serve a hot meal to a homeless person and he would hook them up with a lawyer friend of his. Michael worked with health care advocates to read the names of those who had passed away on the first day of winter.  That somber service is done at every major city in Ohio and hundreds of cities in the United States thanks to Michael and the National Health Care for the Homeless.

Stoops heard about those horrible videos (remember video tapes?) of homeless people fighting that were being sold at major retailers and went to war.  In the most meek and understated way possible, he successfully fought to get every major retailer to stop selling for profit these horrible tapes.  He asked Sean Cononie of Florida to take on Dr. Phil and condemn the awful people who were making money off other’s mental health or addiction issues.  This was one of the benefits of Michael’s long career; he had allies who would support him throughout the country.  Michael appeared on the Colbert Report, CNN and many other news programs.  He was the reluctant face of national homeless advocacy in the United States. Stoops understood the tremendous weight on his shoulders to carry the horrific stories of violence, crime, poverty and a lack of education that people overcame in order to find stability.  I never knew if he was mourning or praying or just trying to process the tragedy that he saw on a daily basis, but he was a deep thinker.

Michael would fly to Florida to testify against a restriction on churches serving food on the beach and then to Austin to argue that disabled people should be able to rest on park benches, then to San Francisco to try to breathe some compassion into a City Council trying to restrict begging for money.  Homeless people living in the big shelters in Boston or St. Petersburg knew of Michael’s efforts, and he tried to bring justice to Covington Kentucky with the forgotten homeless guys sleeping in abandoned farms who were finding it impossible to get into housing with their criminal background.  He gave of himself every day to help those forgotten by capitalism.  Michael was poor of spirit, and was always trying to lift those around him. He did not raise his voice and was merciful even to those he disagreed with or those who he felt were doing harm.

I think that the most significant legacy from Michael’s work came toward the end of his career in 2014: after years of Hate Crimes reports published; after years of publishing Criminalization reports documenting all the municipal laws passed to hide homeless people; and after all the meetings with hundreds of Congressional staff members, the Justice Department added their voice to a police sweeps case out of Boise Idaho. This was important because for the first time someone in the national government put down on paper what we in the field have known for decades: local policies on homelessness are crazy.  How can a city not offer enough beds to everyone who shows up for help, and then turn around and give a ticket to those who sleep on the streets?   The Obama administration said it was immoral to not offer enough shelter and then paradoxically arrest those who cannot find a shelter bed. This was the Bell vs. the City of Boise lawsuit over the police sweeps of homeless people, but it should be called the life’s work of Michael Stoops.

I will miss Michael every day.  The struggle to end homelessness has taken a hit that will be take years to recover.

-Brian Davis
Full post at: http://www.neoch.org/cleveland-homeless-blog/2017/5/1/a-reflection-on-michael-stoops-of-nch.html

Read more reflections:
Street Sense
National Low Income Housing Coalition
Video: Interview with Michael Stoops

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