Is Today the Day?

By Lisa Gustaveson, Program Manager, Seattle University School of Theology & Ministry

On the first Tuesday of every month you will find a handful of Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry faculty, staff and students at the Emergency Family Shelter. We finish up our work day, grab our families if they are joining us, and meet down at the Belltown shelter with a prepared meal. Sometimes we bring homemade sauce, meatballs and pasta, other times we pull together something easy like a taco bar.

The food we bring is greatly appreciated – the families love the variety and recognize the time and money it takes to organize these monthly visits.

STM faculty, staff and grad students at EFS (August 2015)

School of Theology and Ministry graduate students, staff, faculty and their families at the Emergency Family Shelter.

The best – and most needed – part of our visit happens after we dish up the meal. That’s when we join the families at the tables and share stories about our day. We complain, or rejoice, about the weather and the joys and challenges of parenting. We laugh at the antics of children showing off for the visitors. We open our hearts to hear stories of heartbreak and frustration from mothers who just want to find a better life for their children.

The last time I was at the shelter I met Mary (not her real name). When I asked if I could join her she smiled brightly and welcomed me. There was something about her smile that put me at ease. I felt the stress of my day melting away, and I let myself relax.

“How are things going for you?” I asked. Over the years I’ve asked this question of people experiencing homelessness hundreds of times. Sometimes people shrug and say, “o.k.” This lets me know today is not the day for them to share their story with me.

More often than not the question is met with a smile and “good, and you?” This opens the door to a more personal exchange.

This time, Mary and I quickly connected and found ourselves laughing about the funny things that happened to us that day. Her two-year-old daughter took advantage of her distracted mom to eat a couple packets of butter (at least one with the wrapper still on) before we noticed. We laughed some more about how much trouble kids get into when Mom is focusing her attention elsewhere.

In a short time I learned that Mary was the daughter of a very young mother, and was placed in foster care at age 11. She bounced around from foster home to foster home until she turned 18 when she “aged out.” That means, at an age where many kids are still relying on their parents for support, Mary was left to support herself.

Without a supportive community to rely on, she fell into a crowd that wasn’t always on the right track. Somehow, Mary managed to stay out of big trouble. She told me she didn’t have her daughter until her 20’s because she knew how hard it was for her mom to raise her alone.

Firesteel-Blog - ACE Score and Relation to Adult Homelessness (Infographic)

Infographic created by Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness.

Like so many of the homeless women I’ve met, there was a man who came into her life that didn’t treat her well. She didn’t go into the details and, frankly, she didn’t have to for me to understand how instability, trauma and violence led her to the place she is today.

At this point in the conversation I asked her how her housing search was going. Mary was quick to tell me that the first thing she does every day is check the Capitol Hill Housing website to see if there’s an open unit that meets the requirements of her Section 8 voucher.

Like all homeless families, receiving that housing voucher was a big deal for Mary. For almost a year she’s held onto that voucher – bouncing between couches and shelters – searching, searching for that one break that will change everything. She told me that all she wants is a place to call her own where she can rest and play with her daughter after a long day of work.

One thing became crystal clear to me: Mary really wants to break the generational cycle of poverty. “If I had a job I would be so grateful. Even if it’s at McDonalds I would treat it like it was a 5 star restaurant.”

Suddenly, it was time to clean up for the Therapeutic Play program run by volunteers from Ballard Church on the first Tuesday of the month. (Watch for an upcoming post about this important program.)

I walked out to my car with Mary’s words running through my mind: if I had a job….

But I know the deck has been stacked against Mary since she was a child. She didn’t get a great education – each move meant she fell further and further behind in school. Bouncing from place to place made difficult to build trusting relationships, especially with caring adults. It’s never going to be easy for Mary.

What is so incredible to me is that Mary gets up every day, turns on her phone and looks to see if today is the day she gets a break. Is today the day everything changes?


THINGS YOU CAN DO:

  1. Watch All Home’s “I Am” video about local community responses to homelessness and visit allhomekc.org/get-involved/ to learn how you can use your passions and gifts to help your neighbors.
  2. Sign up to volunteer/serve a meal at the Emergency Family Shelter (as an individual or as a group) and get to know the families there, sharing stories, forming relationships and offering support and much needed respite childcare for stressed and exhausted moms.
  3. Read blog posts on Firesteel about homelessness, poverty and the brain – how toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) affect outcomes for children as they grow up.
  4. Learn about the One Home campaign and invite friends and acquaintances who are property owners/landlords to consider modifying their rental criteria to help families move out of homelessness. Consider hosting a Landlord Coffee Hour to reach out to landlords in your faith community. (Contact us to find out more.)
  5. Do something to help homeless individuals and families RIGHT NOW:
    1. Volunteer with one of Union Gospel Mission’s many shelters or meal programs – there are special opportunities for Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up.
    2. Volunteer with or donate to Mary’s Place, which serves homeless families through rotating and permanent shelter and a day center.
    3. Donate your time and resources to one of Seattle’s sanctioned encampments, two of which are opening at new locations this week – Tent City 5 in Interbay and Nickelsville in Ballard; or to one of the other many encampments in the greater Seattle area: Tent City 3 (currently at Bryn Mawr UMC in Skyway), Tent City 4 (currently at Hans Jensen campground in Issaquah), and Camp Unity (currently at Bear Creek UMC in Woodinville). All of these communities list their specific priority needs on their websites, so please check them out!
    4. Firesteel has other great ideas here (see the list at the end of the post).
All Home Faith and Family Homelessness Homeless Families School of Theology & Ministry Women

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

Storytelling, Human Connection and Advocacy: Transforming Numbers into Faces

By Hannah Hunthausen, Program Coordinator, School of Theology and Ministry Faith & Family Homelessness Project

Often, when we talk about homelessness, we talk numbers. Numbers convey information powerfully and provoke instant (hopefully productive) outrage. Take this little taste of regional homelessness by the numbers: in January of this year, at least 3,772 people were living without shelter in King County; last school year, Washington state school districts identified 32,494 Washington students as homeless; and, as of this March, over 800 families were homeless in King County – on a waitlist for housing while living in emergency shelters or in places not meant for human habitation.

Affordable Housing in King CountyWhen we talk about the affordable housing crisis in our region, we consider the almost 300,000 households that spend more than 30% of their income on housing and the sad reality that a single parent would have to make over $27/hour in order to afford a 2-bedroom apartment in King County.

These numbers pack a punch. (The idea that over 30,000 children are homeless in our state is particularly distressing; more so when we consider research on the lasting effects of childhood trauma.) And yet, numbers don’t give us a face, a human to connect to. People experiencing homelessness might easily remain “the homeless” in our minds if we approach them exclusively through statistics and infographics. For those of us who have never experienced homelessness, they’re a group of people whose lives can seem remote and profoundly different from our own.

And data won’t tell us their stories. Numbers can’t force us to recognize and honor the human dignity of the grizzled guy with the cardboard sign on the side of the road or consider the day-to-day struggles of a single mother and daughter living in their car.

Lynie and Dinkus

Lynie and Dinkus sharing a moment of friendship on the bench by the canal. Photo Credit: Rex Hohlbein, Facing Homelessness

Our brothers and sisters experiencing homelessness have been increasingly and systematically devalued and dehumanized in our society (see also), and, while data paints a picture, it can’t rebuild our lost human connection.

For that, we need stories.

As Paige McAdams wrote recently in a blog post for Firesteel, stories are bridges. They bridge the gaps between us – our real and perceived differences, but also our gaps in awareness and empathy. Storytelling allows all of us to enter into the reality of another person or group of people, if only for a moment. As we listen to or read about the personal experiences of others, our humanity recognizes the humanity of the tellers, and giving voice to a story can lend both the storyteller and her listeners incredible strength and agency. As Franklin Gilliard, a formerly homeless Tacoma husband and father, recently said at a community event celebrating the StoryCorps “Finding Our Way” project, “Giving people my story makes them stronger. They know that people can relate to them, and people are not always looking down.” Storytelling makes us feel closer to one another and gives us purpose.

Gilliards

Sherry and Franklin Gilliard. Photo: StoryCorps

Many of us who are advocates have felt this particularly strongly in the last few months. Powerful personal stories of experiences with homelessness have been in the air quite literally – streaming and playing on the airwaves of KUOW. It’s been a season of stories, first with The Moth’s “Home: Lost and Found” showcase in April, and more recently, at community events at the WA State Conference on Ending Homelessness in Tacoma and at the Gates Foundation celebrating the incredible StoryCorps project, “Finding Our Way: Puget Sound Stories About Family Homelessness.

And stories like those of the participants in the StoryCorps and The Moth projects not only fill our hearts, they serve as powerful tools for advocacy. When you can share with a city council person or a legislator the story and challenges of someone who has experienced homelessness in their city or district, you give the startling data and statistics they already know a face. You humanize the issue(s) and begin to bridge those gaps.

Firesteel now has a website that puts this power at our fingertips. At firesteelwa.org/storycorps, advocates can access dozens of oral interviews recorded through the the StoryCorps “Finding Our Way” Project. Some have been edited down to 2 or 3 minutes, others exist only in their full 40-minute form. All can be accessed and used upon request and searched for by subject, key words, and by legislative district. Visit the site to learn more and to explore this incredible advocacy tool.

When we tell and listen to stories, we give faces to the numbers, and we come to find that people aren’t “the homeless” – they’re just people without homes. People who, like us, have a fundamental right to housing.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Advocacy Faith and Family Homelessness Social Justice
Vince Matulionis and Catherine Hinrichsen, StoryCorps

“Stepping Into Homelessness”: Domestic Violence and the Power of Empathy

Check out this fabulous blog post written by Haley Jo Lewis for our partners at Firesteel. Haley edited and shares below a conversation between Project on Family Homelessness director Catherine Hinrichsen and Vince Matulionis of United Way of King County that came out of this summer’s StoryCorps project in Puget Sound. Read or listen to their conversation and learn about how domestic violence can push families out of their homes, as well as some of the ups and downs of working in the business of ending homelessness – what’s frustrating and discouraging, but also what gives Vince and all the rest of us the hope and inspiration we need to carry on.

Vince Matulionis and Catherine Hinrichsen talked about ending homelessness in their StoryCorps recording. Photo courtesy of StoryCorps.

Vince Matulionis and Catherine Hinrichsen talked about ending homelessness in their StoryCorps recording. Photo courtesy of StoryCorps.

Written by Haley Jo Lewis, Seattle University student and project assistant, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

Lisa Gustaveson vividly remembers a day in 1999 when she and Vince Matulionis were sitting in a cubicle at United Way of King County, talking about how to take on the issue of homelessness in our community. Fifteen years later, says Lisa, “Vince continues to work day and night to make a difference in the lives of those on the margins of society.”

That’s why our partner Lisa, who’s now leading the Faith & Family Homelessness Project at Seattle University, invited Vince to participate in our StoryCorps “Finding Our Way” project this summer at Seattle’s YWCA Opportunity Place.

Vince’s partner for his StoryCorps recording was my supervisor, Catherine. During their 40-minute conversation, Vince talked very movingly about domestic violence and its role in family homelessness.

So we decided to create an edited version of the StoryCorps conversation and share it here on Firesteel during the final few days of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Give it a listen:

The StoryCorps story of Erika and Kris Kalberer aired on National Public Radio in August. Photo courtesy of StoryCorps.

The StoryCorps story of Erika and Kris Kalberer aired on National Public Radio in August. Photo courtesy of StoryCorps.

You might have heard the first story to come out of ourStoryCorps project. On Aug. 22, National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” aired the amazing StoryCorps piece about the Kalberer family, who had been living in their car in Seattle.

This story with Vince is different from the Kalberer family story, because we edited it ourselves. StoryCorps allows partner organizations to edit recordings, and encourages them to share the stories widely. This is the first of what we hope are many more recordings that you can hear on Firesteel in the months to come.

STEPPING INTO HOMELESSNESS

Storycorps recording - Vince Matulionis and Catherine Hinrichsen

Each StoryCorps participant receives a CD of their recording.

I haven’t met Vince yet, but I learned a lot about him by listening to him on the recording. Vince is determined; he’s determined to end homelessness, determined to build a movement and determined to change the way people see homeless families and individuals.

As a young man, Vince set his sights set on a medical degree. Read more on the Firesteel Blog →

Action Advocacy Ending Homelessness Faith and Family Homelessness Project on Family Homelessness Women
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