You may not know this, but I have an alter-ego. For the past year and a half I have been privileged to serve an incredible team at Hope Services Hawaii. Because homelessness is a topic of interest to many community groups, I've been invited on occasion to speak on behalf of HOPE.
The content of my presentation (below) comes directly from the incredible work of my friend, Iain DeJong. Iain is a (fo real kine) genius who also at one point in life experienced homelessness. Iain has created amazing tools that services providers worldwide use to become more effective practitioners - and he gives it away for free. He is incredibly generous - not only with the tools he creates, but also with his time and spends most of his life on the road sharing knowledge, wisdom, grace, and humor to transform lives and end homelessness. Iain has introduced me to awesome books like Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, and awesome poets like Shane Koyczan.
The lessons I've learned from Iain and from the work of the team at HOPE have made me a better social service practitioner and leader. They've also made me a better mother, a better neighbor, and a better human. Thank you, Iain. Thank you, HOPE.
I’d like to share a few things I learned during my first year with Hope Services Hawaii.
I’ve learned the difference between social service, and social control. This has been a difficult and powerful lesson that forced me and the entire staff at HOPE to get very real and very vulnerable. Acknowledging that our programs exercised social control required us to face our assumptions about the 22% of the homeless population who live with mental health disorders and the 14% who live with substance use disorders.
It required us to face our judgements and beliefs about who deserved to be housed and whether someone who was homeless, then housed, then homeless again really deserved to be housed again. And in asking if they deserved to be housed a second time, we also had to ask ourselves, does anyone really, deserve to be homeless?
Most of all, confronting social control required that we face our fear. Beyond our fear of drunk people, or high people, or “crazy” people that come out during the full moon (which scientifically, is a myth), was our fear of not having control over another human being. And once we got real and honest about power and control, we could get real and honest about our role in ending homelessness. We could say with all honesty and humility that homeless programs do not heal or fix people. They house people.
In the past, housing was used as a reward, and we told people, “If you stop using drugs, if you get clean and sober, if you address your mental health issues, if you get a job, THEN, we will assist you with housing”. It was a power trip. We held all the power. Power and control were hidden in words like safety and compliance – which sound really good, until you wake up and realize your safety and compliance document has grown to 4 pages of over 100 rules that people had to sign and adhere to, or they would be cited for violations. And after so many violations – you’re out – no housing for you.
Earlier this year after a series of raw and difficult conversations with our staff, we looked at every rule, one by one, and asked ourselves, “Is this social control or social service? Who stands to benefit from this rule?” We got rid of the rules, we got rid of mandatory, random, supervised urine testing and transitioned to just a few agreements that directly align to the goal of permanent housing and building good tenant behaviors.
Pay program fees on time and in full each month.
Abstain from behavior that is disruptive to others.
Keep unit and common areas clean.
Contribute to the HOPE community, do your kuleana.
It was a difficult transition for our staff. Social control to social service. On some levels, it created an identity crisis. Part of the transition was a change in their job titles from Shelter Specialist to Housing Navigator. The Housing Navigator job description contains a paragraph that reads, “In the course of performing the duties of the Housing Navigator it is not uncommon to see, engage or be confronted with first hand the following: violence and threats of violence; profane, racist and/or sexist language; bodily fluids; conflict; interactions with First Responders; alcohol and other street drugs; cigarette smoke; death of service participants or her/his associates; nudity of service participants or her/his associates; friends/family dynamics with service participants; people involved with sex work; people involved in the drug trade; persons used against their consent, will or knowledge; people in conflict with the law; and/or other situations that may be unsettling. Measures are taken to train staff to appropriately deal with these situations, but those in the position should reasonably expect these types of things to occur.” Those that sign THAT job description - they are true role models of social service.
The second lesson I have learned is applied mathematics. In the story of ending homelessness, applied mathematics goes like this: How many hours, per week, does a single mom with 2 kids earning minimum wage on our island need to work to afford rent on the average 2-bedroom apartment? The answer: 120 hours per week. That single mom must work at least 17 hours, every single day to pay her rent.
Applied mathematics in the homeless conversation also looks like this: Of the nearly 950 people surveyed on our island during the Point In Time Count, 40% or 379 were individuals in families. 44% were children under the age of 18 - which my inner math wizard tells me – is one too many children tonight who will shower at the pool, or beach, or maybe not at all.
We received this message on our Facebook, “My family is experiencing homelessness. My boyfriend is working but we don’t have anywhere to stay. It is not only us but we also have a 7- month baby. We used to live with my boyfriend’s family but they were not good to me and my baby. We got into an argument and they kicked us out. Now we sleep in our car with our baby unless a friend invites us to spend a night. I really hate to see my baby not sleeping on a bed. Please, can anybody help us”.
Which leads me to my third lesson. Neuroscience and the effect that trauma has on the brain. Because homelessness is traumatizing, and especially so for children. Our brain’s response to stress, particularly toxic stress that includes strong, frequent, and prolonged activation of the body’s response system impacts the:
Corpus callosum: Responsible for intelligence, consciousness and self-awareness.
Temporal lobes: The part of the brain that helps you to see another person’s perspective.
Hippocampus: Responsible for learning, memory and bring cortisol levels back to normal after a stressful event.
Amygdala: Also knows as fight or flight. Helps determine whether a stimulus is threatening and triggers emotional responses.
I’ve learned that many of individuals living in chronic homelessness have experienced head injuries and I’ve learned about the impact this has on the frontal lobe which is responsible for self-control, judgement, deferred gratification and emotional regulation. Typically, the frontal lobe begins developing around age 16-17 and isn’t completely developed until the mid-twenties.
I met with the County Parks and Recreation staff last year to thank them for their partnership and open communication with HOPE – because if anyone is in regular contact with the chronic homeless, and if anyone knows where to find them, it’s our County parks staff. One supervisor was really frustrated. He said, “I don’t know why, when there is a rubbish can right there, they can’t just pick up their trash and put it in the can.”
I said, “Yes, I ask myself the same thing about my teenage daughter.” That damn frontal lobe.
The fourth lesson I’ve learned is that charity will not end homelessness. And no matter how good it feels for me, my donated hotel shampoo is never going to end homelessness.
So, how should we respond to homelessness? In his book Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton writes, “There is no simple or immediate way to discern the right response without a relationship.” He continues, “Becoming a neighbor to less-advantaged people is the most authentic expression of affirmation I know—becoming a real-life, next-door neighbor. When connected neighbors move into the struggling world of those who are poor in order to be friends, new possibilities begin to appear. Authentic relationships with those in need have a way of correcting the we-will-rescue-you mind-set and replacing it with mutual admiration and respect.” Lupton’s entire message can be captured in a single word: compassion.
Compassion in its purest form means to suffer together. Ending homelessness in our community will never be realized until we commit to suffer together. Can you get make more money by keeping rent high? Yes. Will that help end homelessness? No. Suffer together.
How do we even begin, as a community to embrace this? For me, compassion is a daily practice of reminding myself to be brave and be kind. And the only way I become brave is one terrifying step at a time.
And last, I’ve learned that in the story of ending homelessness, I will never be the hero. A hero, defined by Superman - Christopher Reeve - is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure despite overwhelming obstacles.
When it comes to ending homelessness, I will never be the hero because I will never know the overwhelming obstacles that a homeless person faces. I will not know, how it feels to be told that in order to apply for housing, you need to have an ID, and in order to get an ID, you need to have a birth certificate. And in order to have either you need to have a mailing address and a bank account. And remember, in order to open a bank account, you need to have an ID.
In the story of ending homelessness, I do not personally know about the overwhelming obstacle of facing a life threatening medical condition or work injury that leads to loss of a job, that leads to loss of income, and loss of home. So they end up living in their car, still with the life threatening medical condition or work injury. And they are sick and in pain, and living in a car or in a tent. If you were visualizing that scenario, and the overwhelming obstacles, now add children.
I met a family during the 2016 Point in Time Count. They were living in a tent in Puna. The husband was injured on the job, lost his job, and with the single income from the wife they could no longer afford rent. They had 2 sons – one teenager and one who was in elementary school. I saw the younger son lying in the tent. It was a school day, but he was not in school. He was sick – diagnosed with Dengue fever. In the story of ending homelessness, the heroes are the ones who find strength to persevere and endure despite overwhelming obstacles.
I have so much more to learn. I know there is only one way to end homelessness and it ends with housing. But how do we get there? Where do we begin?
In his poem titled Shoulders, Shane Koyczan writes:
“I remember how my grandmother tried to explain our world to me-
She told me a story
She said the ground and the sky, they love each other
But they don’t have arms
So rain; that’s just how they hold one another.
I began to see how the earth and sky need each other.
But I wondered about us.
In this perfect design, where do we fit?
Which piece of the puzzle are we?
We are faced with a seemingly impossible task.
And it’s okay to be afraid.
We lay in our beds curled into question marks, wondering
What can we do?
Where do we start?
Is hope a glue
crazy enough to hold us together
while we’re falling apart?
The burden seems immense.
But we can do this.
It is not a myth, there is no debate, facts are in
Fact is, there’s never been any question.
We are facing crisis.
We dismiss the truth not because we can’t accept it,
but because having to commit ourselves to change is a scary prospect for anybody.
The most alarming part of the statement ’we are facing crisis’
Isn’t the word ’crisis’,
It’s the word ’we’.
Because those two letters take the responsibility away from one
and rest it squarely on the shoulders of everybody.
Our strength will come from finding a way to share
in shouldering the responsibility
of turning the impossible
Somehow, we will do this.
We can do this.
We can dismiss apathy; we can reject uncertainty
We can be the new chapter in our story
We will not see change immediately
We must act in faith
as the hour hand grips the minute hand and they land on the eleventh hour
We must believe like the seed that change is possible to see.
Never sees the flower, it grows knowing it must become more than what it was
It changes, because in growth, all of its potential can be unlocked.
Change is like rain, it starts with a single drop.
we are connected to one another, we are bound.
We must behave as the arms that connect the ground to the sky.