A few months ago, I was invited to a homeless awareness event where people would be sleeping outdoors for the night in an effort to understand the plight of people experiencing homelessness. At this event, they would be giving out a prize for the “best makeshift shelter” and a prize for the best “street performance.” I was up front with this group and commended their desire to raise awareness about homelessness and the issues surrounding homelessness in West Virginia. Though their intentions were really good in that they were aiming to raise awareness about homelessness, homelessness is a traumatic event that should not be taken lightly.
Do you think they they stopped to think that their “best decorated makeshift shelter” could be someone’s only place to stay out of the rain? Did they think that the best “street performance” could be someone experience homelessness’ only source of income? I understand that they wanted to raise money and awareness, but why pretend to be homeless?
There is no way that one night camping out is going to give you the full experience of being homeless.
I want you to close you eyes, take deep breath, a pause for a moment (then you’ll have to open them to keep reading)...
- Imagine that you are sitting alone in an abandoned alley with only a few blankets and some cardboard. It’s getting dark and the wind is picking up. Are you cold?
- Imagine that not only are you sleeping outside tonight, but you’ve have to worry about potentially being robbed or beaten up by the guy who sleeps on the bench by Subway because you take Xanax and Percocet to deal with your PTSD and chronic knee pain from an injury during your time in Vietnam. Are you scared? Apprehensive about going to sleep?
- Imagine that you have not had a hot meal in 4 days and you’re not sure where you will eat tomorrow because the local church only serves meals on the weekends and today is Wednesday. Are you hungry?
- Imagine that you resorted to drinking the mouthwash that the Street Outreach worker gave you yesterday in your hygiene pack because you do not have money for the vodka that keeps you from shaking. Have you started the shakes again? Are you panicked because you know what comes next?
- Imagine that you traded unprotected sex for your last heroin fix and you do not know what diseases you may have encountered. Are you even more scared now?
- Imagine that you were told you needed a job to get on the list for housing resources, but you have no resume, no appropriate clothes, and no where to shower to look presentable to even attempt to find a job. Are you embarrassed?
- Imagine that you tried to go to the local emergency shelter to get warm, but failed the breathalyzer test. Are you angry? Angry at yourself or angry at the shelter?
Cold. Scared. Hungry. Nervous. Physically ill. Embarrassed. Angry. Imagine trying to survive. For days. Months. Years.
These are real situations, encountered daily across West Virginia by people who are experiencing homelessness. So I hope you will think about these situations as you lay down to “sleep out.” Tomorrow, you will wake up, go to your apartment or your dorm room but someone else will hunker down again homeless in West Virginia while you sleep in your warm bed. Was your event effective for them? Or did it just make you feel good? How did your event would affect someone who had experiences homelessness if they saw it on the news or in the paper? Or how did it affect someone who lost a family member or a friend to homelessness?
Thanks to efforts like an adoption of a Housing First philosophy and an influx of Rapid Rehousing funding in the state of West Virginia, the number of people sleeping outdoors each night in 2016 has decreased dramatically in the WV Balance of State Continuum of Care's geography, a 75% decrease in fact. (The BoS represents 80% of WV). Only 84 people are sleeping outside on any given night in the WV Balance of State CoC. Both Housing First and Rapid Rehousing puts people directly from the streets into permanent housing without preconditions to sobriety, service participation and income and have lead to this massive decrease over the past year.
So how to do you make your awareness event one that is not kitschy to one that is productive?
- Go out and do some outreach instead of pretending to be homeless for the night. Go meet people who are experiencing homelessness. Ask them about their lives. Learn their stories. Direct them to housing services in your community.
- Raise money for HOUSING. Only housing ends homelessness. Partner with your local Rapid Rehousing providers or Permanent Housing programs. Find out how you can help them in their quest to rapidly end homelessness for individuals and families. Panhandle for a purpose.
- Keep in mind that this type of event should not be FUN. This isn’t a fun time to get together with your friends, giggle, play games and win prizes.
- Invite advocates to speak.
- Just stop pretending to be homeless.