Abiding Love and Grace

Guest blogger Heather Thompson is an artist, mother, and graduate student in Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry‘s Master of Divinity program.  Her ministry revolves around “the healing power of art, walking with those on the margins, and exploring a theology of daily living.”  Heather writes about her experience meeting a man named Bear at the window of Facing Homelessness, and the love and grace she observed there in the connections between people.

Facing Homelessness represents one of the ways that people find small grace in strangers.  To get involved and respond to asks like Bear’s, visit Facing Homelessness’ Facebook page.  There you will find photos, stories and requests from people experiencing homelessness in the Seattle community.

Facing Homelessness - IssaquahHeather has since started a branch of Facing Homelessness  in her own community of Issaquah. Visit Facing Homelessness – Issaquah to learn more and get involved.


By Heather Thompson

A man named Bear approached the window of Facing Homelessness. A constant stream of people arrived at the window before him with requests ranging from food to socks to water to boxer shorts.  Two women specifically requested sanitary pads along with hygiene kits after they were finished at the needle exchange next door.  Others simple stopped by to check in, sharing stories of pain, suffering and ultimately resilience – broken bones, drugs, terrifying police encounters, a blood soaked sleeping bag, all a reality of daily life for those living outside.

I met many people that day, but it was Bear that stuck with me.  He was covered in tattoos and his head was partially shaved.  The skull rings on his fingers reminded me of Ozzy Osbourne, yet it felt shallow to draw such a comparison.

Bear approached the window and asked for Rex, the founder of Facing Homelessness.  “I am getting my tools today,” he said.  “Rex and I are supposed to meet up.”  The hope beamed from his piercing eyes.  Then I remembered seeing his face once before.  He had been profiled on the Facing Homelessness Facebook page as a carpenter in need of tools just a few weeks before:

Bear - Facing Homelessness 4-16-16

Stephen “Bear” Gibson. Photo Credit: Facing Homelessness

needsTOOLS:

Please meet Stephen, you can also call him Bear, he won’t mind, he’s a friendly guy, Bear is his street name in the U-district, where he feels connected, loved by the beautiful street family there.

 Bear is 38 years old, there’s been lots of struggles in his life, like the devastating stabbing death of his 18 year old son January 1st of this year, it consumed him, they were close, it was his son that got him clean off heroin and meth, it’s his son now too that he draws daily strength from.

Bear recently found labor work at Everything Under the Sun Construction, he was told if he was able to get carpentry tools, they would give him more responsibility and a raise, a bigBIG step towards long term employment.

 To all of you who have an extra hammer in your garage, and extra carpenter’s belt, speed square, tape measure, chalk-line, gloves, skill-saw, battery drill, goggles, or whatever is in good working shape, please consider donating them to our friend Bear.

Facing Homelessness is an organization rooted in LOVE.  With more than 35,000 people gathered around the Seattle page alone, people in NEED are able to ask for help… and those with the resources to GIVE have a means of contributing directly to the lives of others.  Within a week, the Facing Homelessness community responded with a BIG donation for Bear, as documented by this follow up post:

Bear---Facing-Homelessness-4-27-16

 

Back at the Facing Homelessness window, I was standing with Bear as he spoke about what the gift of tools meant to him personally.  Tears filled his eyes.  “Thank you,” Bear said. He grabbed his cup and took a long sip while his eyes turned a deep shade of red. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a home. A very long time.”

In that brief conversation with Bear, I felt shivers on my arms, and I realized that authentic connection is something ingrained in all of us. It is the awakening of an inherent knowing that everyone and everything comes from a single source, like waves upon a deep and vast ocean.  The Facing Homelessness page concluded with the following:

Bear starts to tear up, he says, “Thank you, you guys gave me a chance to prove what I am worth, you saved my life, now I get to go to work every day, thank you all for taking a chance on me, for giving me the opportunity to get off the streets.”

 Bear then went on to talk about his dreams, for changing his life in this beautiful way, for honoring his son with a new dedication to living good, healthy, and strong and giving back to those in need.

 After a long hug, I walked back to the office, tearing up the whole way, so happy for Bear, so veryVERY happy to be in this beautiful compassionate community that gives LOVE so freely.

Every experience at the Facing Homelessness window deepens my awareness and appreciation of the active, collective and immanent nature of LOVE. It doesn’t come from me. It doesn’t come from another. It is a presence that becomes known in the moment. Some may call it the Holy Spirit. I simply know that it is always there, just yearning to be noticed like the air we breathe. Grace.


THINGS YOU CAN DO:

  • Join the Facing Homelessness community. Though it started in Seattle, there are now groups based in Tacoma, Everett, Issaquah, Renton and Vancouver, WA, and in cities across the country and world.
  • Say hello. Honor the dignity in everyone by making eye contact and saying hello. Folks who are experiencing homelessness and/or living in deep poverty often feel ignored and marginalized. You’d be surprised what a simple acknowledgment and “hello” can do.
  • Explore the healing power of art, as Heather has, by connecting with organizations and groups like Path with Art, Love Wins Love, and Art from the Streets (a program run by Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission)
  • Go further. Share stories and encounters like Heather’s and Bear’s with neighbors, friends and family. Advocate. Educate yourself about local, state and federal policies that impact housing, healthcare, employment, homelessness and contact your council members and legislators to encourage them to act for justice. Consider getting on lists for actions alerts from organizations like the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, Firesteel, and the Housing Development Consortium.

heather3Heather is a graduate student at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry in the Master of Divinity program. She is a former award winning CEO turned working artist. Heather’s ministry focuses on the healing power of art, walking with those on the margins, and exploring a theology of daily living. She lives in Issaquah with her daughter, horse, baby goats, bulldog, and cats. You can learn more about Heather at www.bluephoenixart.com.


Cover image is excerpted from “Surrender to Fluidity,” an original painting by Heather Thompson.

Advocacy Art for Social Change Faith and Family Homelessness

Global Street Paper Summit Comes to Seattle University

This week marks one month since we hosted INSP’s Global Street Paper Summit here at Seattle University. The Summit was an inspiring few days populated by an international group of journalists and street newspaper staff, fabulous art and photo exhibits by Rex Hohlbein, Kyle Kesterson, Dan Lamont and local artists as part of the Real Change Portrait Project, and incredible speakers from near and far (including former Seattle Times journalist, Mike Fancher, journalist and author, Eric Liu, and our own Director of Marketing, Hannah Crivello, among many others). We felt immensely privileged to be part of such an important and energizing event.

On the first night of the conference, Dean Mark Markuly welcomed the attendees to the “Portraits of Homelessness” exhibition, which featured Rex Hohlbein, local architect, photographer, activist and founder of Facing Homelessness, as keynote. In his remarks (featured below), the Dean spoke eloquently about the School of Theology and Ministry’s work in convening and educating people around issues of poverty and homelessness and applauded the many journalists in attendance for “stand[ing] squarely in the tradition of the power of the pen to give voice to those who are not allowed a place setting at the world’s table.”


By Dean Mark S. Markuly, PhD, Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry

Reblogged from the Dean’s blog, Soul Improv / Spiritual Meaning in a Time of Constant Change

2015 INSP Global Street Paper Summit flyerOn June 24-26, Seattle University hosted the Global Street Paper Summit. This annual conference put on by the International Network of Street Papers brings together hundreds of representatives from street papers all over the world to engage in networking, discussion, and education. Street papers are publications that serve two purposes: to spread awareness about poverty-related issues as well as provide employment for people experiencing homelessness. The conference serves as a way for people engaged in this important work to meet, share, and learn from one another. This was the first time the conference has ever been held in the US. The School of Theology and Ministry welcomed participants and facilitated workshops throughout the week. The workshops covered everything from programs developed to serve Seattle’s homeless population to low cost marketing strategies to utilizing social media.

Here are some remarks I shared with the attendees during the conference:

It is a great honor to have you with us this week on the campus of Seattle University, for the first-ever INSP summit in the United States. I hope you are getting a chance to walk around our beautiful campus, spend a little time outside in the sun, and maybe explore the city or take a ride on a ferry. You may have heard that we get a little rain in Seattle sometimes. While that is a bit of a caricature, it doesn’t always look like this in Seattle at this time of the year, and when the sun comes out like this, Seattleites emerge from their homes and buildings like moles leaving their holes, squinting at the bright light in the sky.

In case you haven’t felt it, yet, you are meeting on the campus of a Jesuit university that is a kindred spirit with the visions and missions of your newspapers. Within Roman Catholicism, the Jesuit tradition has two distinctive qualities – a commitment to the intellectual life, and a dedication and passion for educating future leaders to work for peace and justice, whether the motivation of that work is from a faith-based perspective or not. From the university’s engagement with poorer neighborhoods around the university through the Seattle University Youth Initiative, to our equally creative engagement with coffee growers in Nicaragua and the Jesuit university located in Managua, to the countless student internships and immersion experiences that are occurring throughout the city, the state, the nation, and many countries in the world: we are a university that tries every day to live up to our mission to focus our intellectual resources on the promotion of activities that will lead to a more just and humane world.  

Mark Markuly and Rosette Royal - INSP Global Street Paper Summit (6-24-15)

Dean Mark Markuly (L) and local writer and activist, Rosette Royale, at the INSP Global Street Paper Summit’s “Portraits of Homelessness” event which featured photo exhibits by Kyle Kesterson, Dan Lamont, and Rex Hohlbein of Facing Homelessness.

In the past few years we have had an exciting and dramatic university effort to respond to the realities of homelessness, especially family homelessness in the Pacific Northwest. In the true Jesuit tradition of the Italian Renaissance, which promoted the fine art of rhetoric and persuasion: we want to persuade everyone we can that it is unacceptable to have fellow humans beings living lives of quiet desperation, particularly in a city with the educational and industrial achievements and unprecedented levels of wealth as this one.  As you heard this morning from Dean David Powers, our communications department in the College of Arts and Sciences has engaged the journalism profession directly on the issue of family homelessness. 

Mark M. and Fr. Ryan

Fr. Mike Ryan and Dean Mark Markuly participate in one of the School of Theology and Ministry’s poverty workshops at St. James Cathedral.

My own School of Theology and Ministry began a faith and family homelessness initiative four years ago, due to the generosity of the Gates Foundation. In the past few years we’ve had a team of people from the school logging hundreds of hours as they have worked across the region to assist religious congregations and organizations in the deepening of their faith communities’ commitment to alleviating homelessness. Our primary effort began by working intimately with 14 Jewish, Muslim and Christian congregations, assisting their more than 18,000 congregants to organize their own community efforts to reduce the number of families living in shelters or on the streets.  In the process, we’ve also created a near educational cottage industry with a “poverty immersion workshop.” After getting featured in an Op-Ed in the Seattle Times, this workshop, which allows people to have a life-like experiential encounter with the frustrations and burdens of poverty and homelessness in the United States, became our school’s most popular extra-curricular activity, with hundreds participating across the region. We’ve had some remarkable results in this effort, and have in some ways had an opportunity to change the conversation about the potential of faith communities to move society’s needle on this complicated social problem. If you are interested in this effort to “breathe” the importance of working to end family homelessness into the Seattle area’s religiously plural population, you can talk to Lisa Gustaveson, the program manager for our school’s efforts.

Lastly, let me applaud you for the way you are spending your life as journalists of street newspapers. As a former journalist, with a degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism, I think street papers are one of the most important evolutions in news reporting. When you look at journalism as a field, most people miss that the industry is not a dispassionate organization in search of the truth. It is a business, and often a complex one, requiring a substantial cash flow that requires all kinds of compromises between corporate and journalistic values. The larger media outlets have to dance to the tune of many pipers, and this can mute, if not extinguish, the deepest nobility in the profession of the Fourth Estate. Your newspapers stand squarely in the tradition of the power of the pen to give voice to those who are not allowed a place setting at the world’s table. 

2015 INSP Global Street Paper Summit poster with hashtagI love the title of your conference: INSPired together. This is, indeed, the only way humanity will make a substantive change in the world’s plight of homelessness. We have to do it together. But, I’m sure most of you also know that etymologically “inspire” comes from a Latin root (inspirare) meaning to “breathe or blow into.” Originally, the word referred to the blow of a divine or supernatural being into someone, in the sense of “imparting a truth or idea.”  

By nature of your missions, you stand with the populations in your cities and nations that have no discernable voice in the fast-paced, competitive and chaotic world of the second decade of the 21st century. In doing so, you breathe into your societies a truth about an issue many contemporary people do not want to explore, let alone understand, let alone change.  You go beyond good journalistic ethics to pursue the truth: you live, and move and have your being in the unsavory truths of modern societies, where poverty and homeless and marginalization exist in the shadows of unprecedented human wealth and privilege. Many of you represent the best in the tradition of the Progressive Era’s muckrakers, and the best of the tradition of a Charles Dickens, who gave voice and image and feeling to the lives of the poor of their era, or Rachel Carson, who convinced her generation to ban the pesticide DDT and create the Environmental Protection Agency, which made her one of the first people to capture the imagination of westerners around the issue of the environment. Carson gave voice and image and feeling to nature, to our Mother Earth. You, too, are giving voice and image and feeling to the lives of the poor and homeless.

Keep up the good work. We are delighted to have you here and I hope and pray you find new ways to collaborate with each other on your “inspir-ed” mission and vocation.

Read more about the summit on the school’s website, here.

Art for Social Change Faith and Family Homelessness Real Change Seattle U Social Justice

 My Inspiring Friends: a Message from Mark Putnam

By Lisa Gustaveson

What difference can one person make?

Just ask the homeless child who calls the back seat of a car home. While Mom is frantically trying to find a shelter that has space for them, the nervous kindergartener knows she has a new backpack thanks to the Project Cool school supply drive. Your donation makes a big difference to her.

Or, when you roll down the window of your car and hand the homeless vet a few bucks to get something to eat? When you meet their eyes and smile, you might be giving them the strength they need to get through another day on the street.

As the Director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, Mark Putnam is responsible for the development and implementation of the community’s Strategic Plan. It’s a very difficult job, filled with meetings, policy research and negotiation.

I am honored to call Mark a friend, and even prouder to witness the value he places on relationships and simple acts of kindness. You see, it’s not easy (some would say impossible) to measure the impact of a kind gesture. That doesn’t stop Mark from acknowledging the importance of those gestures amongst official policy and strategies.

Read his heartfelt post below, and reflect on how your simple acts of kindness and generosity make a big difference to local efforts to end homelessness.

By Mark Putnam, Director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County

It takes all of us — and our friends, and our friends’ friends — to help the 10,000 or more people experiencing homelessness each day in King County.

This past week a few of my friends, and their friends, blew me away with their compassion and activism.

Helping people manage the heat. Last night, I got a call from an old high school friend. He’s currently living in his car, homeless as a result of health issues and significant health costs. He’s working full-time, but not able to rent in King County. He’s concerned about people living outside not having a place to dispose of garbage or human waste – and worried that they do not have enough water to survive the heat of summer. He’s been bringing gallon jugs of water to people living in tents by the stadiums in Sodo, doing what he can, even as he struggles to get by himself.

Community pillarGetting landlords involved. Another old friend, Rebekah, has launched a program at her company, Zillow, to connect vulnerable renters with housing. The Community Pillar program works with landlords who are open to modifying their screening criteria to help people with potential rental barriers. These landlords will get a Community Pillar badge on their Zillow profile, and renters will be able to find them in the Zillow directory to view active rental listings.

Helping people who are living in their vehicles. A group of friends – Sinan, Graham, Rex, and Bill – and their vast networks of friends – rallied around a group of people living in their RVs in North Seattle. Rex from Homeless in Seattle organized a garbage cleanup. Subsequently, the RVs got notice from police that they needed to move their RVs or be impounded. These guys held informal meetings of RV residents, neighbors, Seattle Police, and local business owners to discuss and problem solve. Their grass-roots leadership has led to finding stable places for a few RV residents, but others still need places to go. Please do what you can to help.

To each of you – I feel honored to be your friend, and thank you for all you did this week, and will do next week, no doubt, to support our neighbors in need. We all have resources we can share – jugs of water, a website to recruit landlords, parking spots for people living in vehicles – but the most important thing we can share is our hearts.

Committee to End Homelessness Faith and Family Homelessness

Holding the Paradox: The Band-Aid and the Long Haul

Margeby Margie Quinn

Margie is a native of Nashville, Tennessee and  graduate of the University of Georgia. After graduating with a Women’s Studies/French degree, Margie moved to Seattle to begin a one-year “Justice Leadership Program” through the United Church of Christ (UCC) church.

Margie made many happy when she decided to stay with us in the Pacific Northwest after completing her program. She is now the Program Manager for Facing Homelessness, a national effort to build a new awareness about our relationship with homelessness. She also manages Homeless in Seattle, a local effort to raise awareness for those living without shelter and other basic needs through the sharing of photos and personal stories that highlight their beauty.

This is Margie’s second post for our blog. Her first, The Power of Interruption: A Call for Advocacy  remains one of the most popular posts on our site.


1140x400px-6-26-15-Facing-Homelessness-(Margie)-blog-header-v3

We are a verb-heavy generation. Helping, doing, serving, saving. “We are not human beings, we are human doings!” we shout, determined to accomplish it all. So naturally when I took a job at Facing Homelessness in the fall, I prepared for an active role, one that would allow me to help people in need every day and see them benefit from our work.

Our organization began from a Facebook project, Homeless in Seattle. While we have reached outside of this community to do other projects, we still use our Facebook page as our main awareness-raising and people-helping machine.

Here is how our Facebook page works. Every week, we post photographs and stories of people in need with the intention of showing the beauty of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle. We then invite our community of over 17,000 people to help these individuals by providing them with a tent, a pair of boots, or even a month’s rent to get them through a rough spot.

It is a rewarding feeling to post about someone in need and, within two hours, see that need filled by a number of caring people. The phrases that ring through my head are, “Instant gratification!” “Wow, that was fast!” “We did it! One down, 3,771 to go!” While I want to honor how quickly our community comes forward with compassion, I have to admit that my “fix-it” mentality is a slippery slope.

It’s tricky, this fix-it game. I can become so overjoyed when we help someone that I close the book on their story, assuming that they are now on an upward trajectory toward healing and hope. I know, I know. Total Millennial. But it takes a lot to fight against that part of me that longs for the happy ending, every time.

I met a man in the fall who changed the way I see homelessness. Let’s call him Jim. Jim would come to our office almost every day and help me sort donations or hand out socks to people on the street. Despite being homeless himself, Jim was diligent about doing street outreach with us in his spare time. We made a post about Jim a few months into knowing him, just announcing what a beautiful person he is. He’s a got a big heart.

A few months ago, Jim called our office and told us that he had gotten into housing. He would be moving from his shelter that weekend and couldn’t wait. He was elated and so were we.

I can’t explain the joy I felt the day Jim got housing. Enthusiasm, relief, victory. Jim had become a close friend of ours and his success felt personal in a new way for me.

What I couldn’t have known at the time is that Jim’s mental illness and psychological issues would not go away as soon as he got housing. In fact, as Jim transitioned into a single room in a big building, I started to hear from him less and less. He would send emails sporadically, saying that he was going out of town for a few weeks or that he couldn’t come by the office. Clearly, Jim was going through something and I couldn’t help him.

Here is what I am trying to say: I want the happy ending. I want to know that Jim gets better and stays better. I want to know that Jim is a happier man now. And so do many of our Facebook friends. When people drop off donations in our office, they ask about many of the people with whom we post. “How is she doing? Did she make it to that recovery appointment?” “How is he doing? Is he back on his feet yet?” I love it when my answer is a positive one, and it often is. But in the times when I have to say, “I don’t know, we haven’t seen him in a while,” or “He is back on the street,” I feel heartbreak.

Craig-3xWe talk about local minister Craig Rennebohm (pictured left) a lot in our office. Craig did street ministry in Seattle for a number of years and introduced a new way of helping people, in which you recognize that you yourself need help, too. He calls it Companioning. (read our 2012 post about Craig’s work here and  learn more about the Mental Health Chaplaincy here.

Companioning is not fixing. It is walking with someone through their suffering. Companioning is not telling someone what to do. It’s listening deeply to their wants and needs.

Companioning is not giving someone a dollar and wishing them luck. It’s showing up in someone’s life, time and time again, to bear witness to their existence and humanity.

This is the paradox, isn’t it? It’s finding how to celebrate the small victories and the acts of kindness pouring forth without forgetting the slow work of God. Because sometimes, God’s work is slow. Real slow.

Lately I’m trying to hold the paradox: The beautiful, quick fixes that our community provides for people in need with the slower, deeper process of walking with someone experiencing homelessness. There is no right or wrong here. Both the Band-Aid and the friendship are necessary in changing someone. But more importantly, both are necessary in changing ourselves.

♥ To join the Homeless in Seattle community visit their Facebook page.

♥ Want to start a movement in your community? Learn more at Facing Homelessness.

Action Ending Homelessness Faith and Family Homelessness Seattle U Social Justice

Social Media Advocacy: Whose Story Is It Anyway?

In case you missed it, we’re reposting recent Seattle U grad Paige McAdams’ blog post on the importance of filtering your good intentions through a critical lens when approaching social media advocacy. She critiques the recent  video sensation “The Homeless Read Mean Tweets,” questioning the ethics and effectiveness of a public service announcement that exploits vulnerable individuals’ suffering without giving these same individuals agency in sharing their narrative and their truth.

Paige also interviewed Rex Hohlbein, executive director of Facing Homelessness. The nonprofit’s Facebook page “Homeless in Seattle” has more than 17,000 followers and their “Just Say Hello” campaign has popped up all over the city, with its simple but compelling message:

“We can begin by simply acknowledging those suffering, trusting that we are all the same, all wanting to love and be loved. When we take the time to listen to another person’s journey, we begin the process of turning a stranger into a friend and opening our compassion for another human being” (from Facing Homelessness’s “Community” page).

Paige applauds Rex and Facing Homelessness’s compassionate and transparent approach to advocacy through partnership and solidarity with those experiencing homelessness as a model for all social justice advocacy.

Read the piece to learn more, and join us next week, on Wednesday, June 24th, at 7:00 p.m., for a remarkable interactive art experience, “Portraits of Homelessness & Multi-Media Exhibition,” that features Rex Holhbein as its keynote. This community event is part of the 3-day Global Street Paper Summit, an international gathering of more than 120 journalists, entrepreneurs and activists from street papers in 22 countries, hosted by INSP and Real Change. 

For tickets and to learn more about the powerful art and stories being exhibited, go to http://ow.ly/OrGnC.

*Featured images above are from the Facing Homelessness Page, Homeless in Seattle’s “Just Say Hello” campaign, and the YouTube video “The Homeless Read Mean Tweets,” respectively. 


Social Media Advocacy: Whose Story Is It Anyway? 

Written by Paige McAdam, project assistant, Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness

Note: This post was originally published for Firesteel. Read the full post on Firesteel’s blog.

Social media has played a huge role in activism geared at ending homelessness. Sometimes it can spur us to action. Other times, it backfires. In fact, that was my reaction to the recent social media sensation, “The Homeless Read Mean Tweets.”

This video was inspired by Jimmy Kimmel’s popular “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” segment. In thisalternate version, created by homeless advocacy organization Raise the Roof, people who are either currently experiencing homelessness or who have experienced homelessness in the past read “mean tweets” about homelessness.

But what can we learn from this? What’s the right way to tell stories of homelessness?

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Traditional mainstream news outlets often perpetuate the negative stereotypes associated with homelessness, and as my colleague Lindsey Habenicht found in her research on social media and homelessness, many people are now looking to social media as an unfiltered news source. Social media is in a unique position to advocate for ending homelessness in the information age, and many organizations have begun to use this opportunity. But there’s a right and wrong way to do it.

To me, the Mean Tweets video is the wrong way.

Even before I hit “play” on this video, there were knots in my stomach. Something about the entire premise just didn’t sit well with me, and as I watched, it only got worse.

While the video itself is only 1 minute and 20 seconds long, it dragged on agonizingly slowly. The utter devastation on the people’s faces as they read the tweets immediately brought me to tears. All I could think about was the blatant pain in the voices and eyes of these individuals who are already experiencing such a huge amount of personal hardship.

The first time I watched it, I had to stop halfway through and compose myself. The second time I watched it, I did not make it all the way through and had to turn it off.

As an advocate with a well informed perspective on the causes and issues surrounding homelessness, I felt that the tweets read by these individuals began to chip away at my belief in humanity. They were not simply mean. They were even beyond what I feel comfortable calling cruelty.

With tears in my eyes, I became determined to learn more about the ways in which advocacy can take a wrong turn.

THE BIG PICTURE AND THE BURDEN OF EDUCATION

While well intentioned, this PSA demonstrates a few issues beyond just my own emotional reactions.

First, when celebrities read mean tweets, they are reading something solely about themselves. They are not being relegated to a faceless mass of other individuals.

For many experiencing homelessness, these messages are one more reminder of the collective dehumanization that happens daily. Rather than being individuals experiencing homelessness, they are “homeless people” or worse, “the homeless,” who are walked by and looked away from every day with assumptions made about their moral character.

Secondly, the pain evident in the voices and faces of the people in the PSA strikes me as a result of being exposed to unnecessary cruelty for the benefit of attempting to educate those who treat them as sub-human on a day-to-day basis. Why does the task of humanization land on those who have been most dehumanized?

SHOCK VALUE OR PROGRESS?

The homeless read mean tweets screenshot (for Paiges 6-17-15 post)

A screenshot captured after Paul reads a “mean tweet” for the camera. Taken from YouTube.

As Perry Firth so memorably wrote, studies show that the part of the brain which empathizes and recognizes others as human does not register those that are most marginalized (particularly people who are homeless or struggling with addiction).

Is an 80-second PSA going to change the wiring of the human brain in such a way that leads to real change each time a person walks by someone who is homeless?For me, the video holds a stronger element of shock value than it does legitimate progress.

The video is heartbreaking, and the responses to it on the Internet are largely positive, lauding it as a progressive social move. Apparently, the shock value of the video is effective; as of today, the video has more than 1.3 million views on YouTube since its posting in March of this year.

The traction that it gained in such a short period of time is staggering, but like any media, the video must be viewed through a critical lens. It allows us to examine bigger questions around advocacy:

  • How do we truly fight something so deeply ingrained in the social aspects of our psychology?
  • Is it worth risking putting a person through pain in order to advocate on their behalf?
  • And most importantly, who is responsible for telling their stories?

THE IMPORTANCE OF INTENTION

I recently wrote a post regarding the power of storytelling and the exemplary April community showcase with The Moth. Storytelling provides an opportunity for individuals to own the agency of their own narratives—but often, this agency can be lost in cyberspace with the widespread use of social media.

When we can tell stories in 140 characters or less, click share on any photograph and have it viewed by hundreds of our friends, and upload just about anything we want on Instagram, issues of autonomy and agency need to be examined.

Leroy Ambrose portrait (for Paige's 6-17-15 post) - Facing Homelessness

A portrait of Leroy Ambrose from his profile on Facing Homelessness.

That is not to say that all social media advocacy removes agency from marginalized populations. Facing Homelessness is the new nonprofit organization founded by the creator of Homeless in Seattle, a Facebook page that introduces stories of individuals and allows for specific donations based on the immediate needs of those individuals.

Additionally, the Facing Homelessness community page features dozens of portraits of individuals experiencing homelessness. To read a person’s story, simply click on their photograph.

LESSONS FROM “HOMELESS IN SEATTLE”

I spoke with Rex Hohlbein, executive director of Homeless in Seattle, about how his organization conducts online advocacy. Homeless in Seattle is unique in that most of its participants approach them hoping to meet specific needs from benevolent individuals who might see their photo and request online.

According to Rex, the biggest thing to look for in any kind of advocacy is intention. If the intention comes from a grounded place and comes from love, the individual being affected by it should be able to tell. 

Continue reading on Firesteel→

Advocacy Art for Social Change Firesteel Project on Family Homelessness