“Homelessness is not a life sentence. In fact, it is a solvable problem. We have learned more in the past ten years about how to solve the homelessness problem than we did in the previous twenty to thirty years of providing maintenance for those people experiencing homelessness,” said David Pirtle. Pirtle, from the Faces of Homelessness Speakers Bureau, knows what he is talking about. He experienced homelessness from 2004 to 2006 due to mental health issues.
Pirtle and Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, examined plans for National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, which is a critical part of National Homeless Awareness Month.
“At this point, we have over 750 college and community organizations who are planning to participate, which is more than last year,” said Stoops. “Plus, every year we find out after the fact there were participants we never knew about.”
Pirtle and Stoops discussed success strategies that they have developed to increase participation. A combination of public education, literature, lobbying, and working with natural idealism of young people has proven to be successful so far. But the real secret to success is connecting the capable, energetic college students with people who have experienced, or are currently experiencing, homelessness. “In the past, that may be what has been lacking—we need to put together the idealistic with people experiencing homelessness. When you put them together, you develop leaders,” said Stoops.
Stoops said that one of the most high-impact activities is the Homeless Challenge, in which people spend forty-eight hours on the street to see what it really means to have nowhere to lay your head. With no barriers in place, participants in the Homeless Challenge come to fully understand what it means on the ground to have to survive this way. “Everything is supervised and in 25 years we have never had a serious problem or incident,” said Stoops.
Pirtle found that increasing participation for the Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week starts with increasing awareness. He recommends that organizations tap the Faces of Homelessness Speakers Bureau to find people who are currently or formerly homeless to come speak. “It is important to have a question and answer session, and to bring in local experts to explain what resources are and are not available in specific communities, to discuss what is needed,” said Pirtle. “This moves the discussion past education and into advocacy.”
Stoops has been working to end homelessness for forty years. “If it is just about sharing food, sheltering, acts of kindness and mercy, that’s all well and good. But if that is all we do, we will be doing these same stuff indefinitely. Homelessness increased on my watch. We need to decide to end homelessness in America, to move beyond charity towards social justice. People experiencing homelessness can eat eight times a day on Thanksgiving. What about the other 364 days in the year?”
“We know what works,” said Pirtle. “Housing must come first: rapid rehousing to those who lose their homes, more emergency programs like rent assistance and mental health care. These work and are in fact cheaper than other forms of assistance. We need to expand these efforts. We have made huge strides in the past ten years, and we need to take even bigger steps.”
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