Street Sense: Homelessness Doesn't End December 31

Photo Courtesy of StreetSense_DC

“If aliens landed on earth, they’d think homelessness was only a problem between November 1st and the end of December,” says Brian Carome, executive director of Street Sense in DC.

His observation is not without humor, but it’s laced with deep frustration. I ask why homelessness isn’t covered more often by the media given the numbers, and the fact that Street Sense’s model isn’t unique to DC.

“It’s not just a media problem, in general we try to simplify everything, and it’s not a single-faceted issue,” says Jan Sacharko, Director of Development and Communications at A-SPAN (Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network). He added that it’s also hard for advocates to tell a more compelling story because someone experiencing homelessness is also entitled to their privacy, and may not want to tell the full story.

Carome is more matter-of-fact.

“You’d have to ask them,” he says, despite having worked on the issue for decades. And that response is more resigned. Because as Carome notes, “Somewhere in the last 30 years, homelessness became acceptable and a part of our social fabric.” And the key words here are not “the homeless” but “experiencing homelessness.”

I’m going to go out on a long limb here and suggest two reasons why we don’t pay more attention, or rather pay all our attention only during holiday season. Please feel free to disagree with me.

First, I think we register homelessness faster in the winter. To wit, the photo of the barefoot homeless man who moved New York City cop, Larry DePrimo, to buy him shoes last month–over 219K shares and 614K likes so far, and counting.

I know for a fact that the cold is why I stopped short when I came across people sleeping on the grates above Metro Center in DC recently. Then I registered the other pedestrians, dozens of them, walking by while four people lay down, back-to-back, arms around their things, eyes shut but clearly not asleep. All of us slowed down a bit, but kept moving. Many of us were probably wondering the same thing: “Where do they go when the trains stop running?”

Second, as Carome observes, “homelessness is a regional problem.” Meaning, it isn’t the same everywhere, and in some places it’s easier to hide. And the key word for both Carome and Sacharko is “homelessness.” Sacharko says, “There’s no such thing as the homeless. People experience homlessness.”And there’s a huge difference.

Think about it, what is your idea of homelessness? Street people asleep in building entrances? Always wearing the same clothes? All their belongings in a shopping cart? Those are the stereotypes we see most, can speak to. When Sacharko holds “visualization exercises” to asks people to describe the last person they saw who they thought was homeless, the answer, and the composite is invariably “a middle-aged to older male, who might be ill, intoxicated, might be crazy, and always sad.”

But what if homelessness isn’t what we think it is? What if is more invisible? What if it’s the employed family with school-going kids who don’t have shelter? Maybe it’s the person next to you at the library or on the train, all dressed for work but not actually on their way to anywhere after spending the night on the trains and cleaning up in time for the morning? What if it’s the tent city in suburb and exurb woods, decades old, but past the highway walls on our daily commutes? Is that when the problem becomes “out of sight, out of mind” until the holiday solicitation letters arrive?

I’ve wondered about that a lot in the last few months with a new arrival where I volunteer. M didn’t “look” homeless upon arrival. Still doesn’t, always nicely dressed. But something is clearly off. Because when we’re done and the rest of us head to our cars in the parking lot, M’s either trying to get a ride to Metro or shlepping to the nearest bus stop with seemingly *every* earthly belonging neatly organized in a plastic box and a folding cart.

If there was no talking to oneself from time to time, you’d never think to pry, or wonder how M makes it to the appointed hour on a semi-regular basis in a car-centric suburb where the buses are infrequent. M would just be a quirky addition to the group. But M is homeless. And like a lot of people experiencing homelessness, M does not have the privacy, dignity, and community that comes from having a roof over your head. We all have not-for-primetime moments. But we have closed doors that allow us respite, and M does not. So instead M dozes off over the cheapest cup of coffee at the local Starbucks, and mostly everyone offers wide berth–in volunteering, in the parking lot, and the coffee shop.

And while that is respectful of the person’s choices, it is also part of the problem. Because M’s case really illustrates the problems that Carome says are key to homelessness: aloneness, and disconnectedness.

The daily rhythms, routines, and relationships the rest of us have from birth–at home, school, work, the grocery store–that we depend on for everything from sanity to paychecks to health and safety, all that gets lost in homelessness. Street Sense’s vendors can try to overcome that because they aren’t just selling papers. Standing on that street corner and seeing regular customers allows the homeless vendor to rebuild connections, be less isolated, and enter a working community of writers who share a unique experience. And that’s incredibly important because Carome notes that it’s much easier to fall into homelessness than come out of it.

So what can you do in the absence of more coverage? Well, there’s the obvious: buy a paper from the Street Sense vendor. But more than that, you can help break that isolation and disconnection, perhaps narrow the wide berth if only for a moment.

“Have a conversation with someone experiencing homelessness, someone on that journey when you pick up a Street Sense paper,” Carome says. Sacharko encourages reaching out as well, because, “It can take hundreds of interactions before something we say will get someone off the street.”

And last but not least? Support Street Sense. I ask Carome if it would be more helpful to publish this article after holiday season, when the solicitations end and the winter’s colder. He had to think about that one because while additional eyeballs in February would be great, direct giving in 2011 was 28.4 percent of Street Sense’s total income and of that 40 percent came in during December.

It’s not too late to make a difference for the homeless this year. It’s also a good time to make a note in the calendar for later in the year when the homeless aren’t as apparent. Defy the aliens. Resistance isn’t futile.

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