The following is an interview with Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). Stoops has dedicated more than four decades of service to people who are disadvantaged.
Stoops: NCH is a national network of people who are experiencing or have experienced homelessness, activists and advocates, community-based and faith-based service providers, and others committed to a single mission: to prevent and end homelessness while ensuring that the immediate needs of those experiencing homelessness are met and their civil rights are protected. NCH was founded 32 years ago by local organizations to get the federal government to do something about homelessness. Our successes include significant lobbying and legal victories over the years.
Although the name “National Coalition for the Homeless” contains the phrase “for the homeless,” what is unique about NCH is that we involve people who are homeless in all levels of our work at the local, state, and national levels. Our programs are centered on public education, policy advocacy, litigation, and community organizing and are focused on the justice issues of housing, income, health care, and civil rights. The members of our Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau share their personal stories and talk about the causes of homelessness and solutions to ending it.
Dickerson: How did you come to this work?
Stoops: I have worked over four decades advocating on the homelessness issue. I credit this to early events in my life related to my religious upbringing and my grandfather. My grandfather was an alcoholic back when alcoholism was not considered an illness. Everyone knew he was struggling, but we did not know what to do. While he was homeless, he died from hypothermia on a cold winter night. Looking back, I have often wondered what our family could have done differently.
I remember hearing President Kennedy ask, “What can you do for your country?” He mentioned that you could join the Peace Corps and help people who are poor around the world. Even at age 11, I wanted to join the Peace Corps, but you were required to be 18 years of age and have a college degree. I went to college with the goal of joining the Peace Corps upon graduation. It was in college that I started doing volunteer and community service work. I discovered that there were poor people right here at home. I did not need to go overseas as a Peace Corps member to help people.
Dickerson: What do you think is important for people to remember when working with people who are experiencing homelessness during this holiday season?
Stoops: People always think about helping people around the holidays, which is a good thing. Many years ago, we noticed that on Thanksgiving Day, everyone wanted to donate turkeys and to volunteer to serve the traditional dinner. It became a management issue of too much food on one day and too many volunteers. We had to turn away people wanting to help. So we started a program to do pre-Thanksgiving meals from the Saturday before through Thanksgiving Day.
During National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week (November 15-23), more than 800 colleges and communities will conduct pre-Thanksgiving events. On or around December 21 (first day of winter and the longest night of the year), nearly 200 communities will hold local observances of National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day to remember those who have died while homeless this year.
Dickerson: When people doubt that they can make a difference, what would you say?
Stoops: I believe that if people have the opportunity to do good, they will. NCH appreciates the person who volunteers only once a year or does so on a regular basis. Whatever a person can do is better than doing nothing.
If you do volunteer work with people experiencing homelessness, I would encourage you to get out of the kitchen or from behind the serving counter and get to know the person you are serving. It only takes a conversation and a smile. It can mean a lot to that person.
Also, people who are homeless during the holiday season are not with their families. So when you take the time to do something, people appreciate it. When individuals and families give up a holiday to reach out to people who are experiencing homelessness, their sacrifice is always appreciated.
We get many calls and emails from people who want to volunteer on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Easter Sunday. We often have enough volunteers for a limited number of slots. People can get frustrated. When I tell the person that we don’t need anyone that day, I always ask if they could they sign up on December 15 or some other day. Most people are okay with this, but some react with dead silence. It is important for people to remember that homelessness is 365 days a year, and there is always a need.
If you meet someone on the street, introduce yourself and find out their name. Be sure to use their name when you depart. When you are homeless, you can go weeks without being called by your name. Ask what they need—don’t assume you know. It may even be something small, such as a new pair of socks.
Dickerson: I echo the sentiments of Mr. Stoops, “Remember people are homeless 365 days a year!” and “Whatever a person can do is better than doing nothing.” So walk the talk!
This article was originally published to highlight the December 2014 theme of Housing and Emergency Preparedness.
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