by Rachel Ramsey
How can we cultivate a conversation around homelessness that encourages constructive empathy and change? How can we look into the eyes of those experiencing homelessness and communicate that we are present and that we care?
“Change happens when we open our hearts, when we give others a chance to open their hearts,” says Richard Gold, founder and executive director of Pongo Teen Writing, a non-profit organization focused on teaching young adults who are incarcerated or living in shelters or physiatric hospitals how to express their stories through writing and poetry. The goal of Pongo is to help these folks heal childhood trauma through self-expression.
The core message of Pongo is that, “We believe you have something to say, and I’d love to hear it,” according to Gold. “Listening is at the heart of what we do. Everyone feels validated, enriched, and helped,” he says. Healing ourselves is a crucial step in allowing others to heal. When we see people experiencing homelessness, we should ask what preconceived notion we can heal in ourselves to bring empathy and compassion.
Homelessness is not a failure of the individual but of the system. As a society, we are failing to care for those who need it the most. It is a failure on a structural level.
Danielle Winslow, assistant director of All Home—a homelessness organization that brings together a wide variety of religious institutions, non-profit organizations, philanthropist groups, and local governments—speaks about the impact our society has on perpetuating homelessness. “We know the criminal justice system is biased, and in many circumstances racist, and when we go to get a job, we have to give a background check, we push that system onto employment or rent,” says Winslow.
Such systems perpetuate the crisis of homelessness.
In the annual Count Us In report conducted by All Home, 98 percent of respondents said they would move into safe and affordable housing if given the opportunity. We know legislative action is needed on a large scale, but as individuals we need to take care because sometimes when we recognize change needs to occur on a systematic level, we can adopt the attitude that “It is not my problem, someone else will help them.” This approach is immensely toxic to society and detrimental to the well-being of not only those experiencing homelessness but also to the mental and spiritual health of all of us. Whether we are housed or unhoused, it is in our human essence to care for others—to share our vulnerabilities to communicate that we are not alone here. And when we fail to do so, we suffer.
“Why are people afraid of homelessness? Why are people afraid of poverty?” asks Gold. “I think it’s because they feel vulnerable themselves.” Rather than building walls in attempts to shield ourselves from our brothers and sisters living on the street, we can open our hearts and build relationships by extending empathy.
Jenn Romo is the volunteer manager at Real Change, a weekly newspaper reporting on racial, social, and economic justice issues that provides employment to over 300 vendors, most of whom are homeless. “Individual help really comes down to pushing your own boundaries,” says Romo. “It’s all about changing your mindset about who is homeless and why. When you can change your own attitude about who is homeless and why, you can influence others. Educate yourself, then educate your friends and family. Get them to care, get them to smile back.”
According to the Count Us In report, currently, an estimated 12,112 people are experiencing homelessness in King County. Included in this number are over 2,000 youngsters (under the age of 18) and young adults (between the ages of 18-25). Thirty-three percent of these young adults reported a history of being placed in foster care.
“We’re either trash or rats to people,” says Ivy who is currently experiencing homelessness for the first time in her life. “We’re just people trying to get out of a crappy situation.” Ivy and her boyfriend have been living out of her RV since this past February. “I never thought I would be homeless,” she says. “Think about putting yourself in my situation. Think about what it feels like to be cold and hungry every day.”
Chad, a veteran, is also experiencing homelessness and says he wants people to acknowledge him on the streets, make eye contact with him, and say hi. Chad works hard to maintain a positive mindset and prays in his times of hardship. He has a “humongous goals list” that he is determined to accomplish, including finding full-time employment.
Amy Sagerson, co-director at St. Francis House Seattle—a volunteer-driven non-profit that provides the homeless warm meals, clothes, hot coffee—urges people to volunteer, donate to shelters, and think about, “treating [those experiencing homelessness] with respect.”
“We all want that. We are not better than them. We are all equally loved by God. We’re all in this together,” says Sagerson.
Molly Woerner is the associative director at Ryther Center for Children and Youth—a leading organization in psychiatric and behavioral health services for children. “We can change our language. Don’t think about it as it’s their problem,” says Woerner “I think we can talk more compassionately and start a conversation, whether it be among friends and family, and choose not to blame people or victimize them.”
The complexity of preventing homelessness can make the challenge feel insurmountable. But if we simply give in to the overwhelming feeling of “I don’t know how to help,” we fail to recognize that we can create change through our everyday actions. We can donate old clothes and other necessities. We can extend kindness to those less fortunate. We can question our beliefs about homelessness. And we can advocate for our brothers and sisters on the streets.