By now we’ve all heard the statistics about homelessness, and the news is not good. The details change from year to year, but the trends remain troublingly constant: the number of homeless people in our community continues to grow; more families are homeless; more children are homeless. What can we do as neighbors, as members of our communities, as citizens and voters?
One answer is that we can do nothing and hope the homeless will magically disappear. We’ve tried that. We already know that when it comes to homelessness, doing nothing doesn’t work.
Another answer is that we can build more shelters, donate more blankets and beds, create a new shelter “industry.” We’ve tried that too. It helps, but we shouldn’t be fooled – a shelter is not a home.
That is the answer we should all be aiming for: a community where everyone has a place to call home. That’s not pie in the sky impossible, but in order to achieve it, all of us will have to get more involved than we have been. And the first step requires getting past the feeling that homelessness is too big to tackle. Here’s my list of five easy ways to get involved and make a difference.
1. Join a Group
It is always harder to take on big problems by working alone; that’s a sure prescription for getting discouraged, feeling lonely, and “burned out.” Group efforts have just the opposite effect: we all get energy and power from being part of something bigger than ourselves. Plus, there is the advantage of having access to every one’s ideas and capabilities; and whenever someone in a group gets discouraged, there are plenty there to spur them on. Equally important, groups are able to accomplish more, and they have a bigger impact with elected officials (and the media). So, one way to make a difference is by joining a group that is working to end homelessness in our community.
You could join the Seattle-King County Coalition for the Homeless, the Low-Income Housing Coalition, Habitat for Humanity, or the Church Council’s Task Force on Homelessness – to name just a few.
2. Help Out
Anyone can help people with short term needs get back on their feet by supporting temporary shelters. Shelters also provide basic safety for people at a specially vulnerable point in their lives. Another approach is to increase the services people in crisis need – like child care, help finding a job, clean clothes for a job interview, a place to take a shower, a way to see a dentist or get health care, but fare or go look at apartments.
Whichever you choose, there are several ways to help: by giving your time (volunteer hours), your dollars, your talents and expertise, your compassion, or your votes.
3. Use Your Voice
Too often the only ones being heard are those saying “no” to better services, affordable housing, or other forms of help for the homeless. They may be in the minority, but that’s not how it seems if they are the only ones speaking up. (At a recent Seattle City Council meeting, most of those who spoke up said they opposed the proposal under discussion. Then one of the Council members asked everyone for their zip codes; it turned out that none of the nay-sayers lived in Seattle; only those few individuals who’d spoken in support were. Suddenly the “minority” became the “majority.”) It may seem like a small thing, but it is important to speak up – like when others make nasty comments about those who are homeless, oppose those who provide emergency shelter, or when a neighbor argues against putting transitional housing in the neighborhood.
4. Use Your Vote
Few individuals can afford to give a homeless family a house, but every voter – rich or poor – can accomplish the same result by voting in support of more affordable housing. For example, you can call, write, or visit the officials who represent you and say you want them to vote in favor of programs that prevent eviction, expand housing subsidies, or increase the amount of money in the Housing Trust Fund. And all of us can use our votes to elect candidates who are committed to work for more low-income housing. That’s especially important in this election year.
5. Flex Your Economic Muscles
Anyone who has a personal bank account, or works for a business or an agency with a bank account, has economic leverage. Account-holders can tell the bank you’d like to examine their record under the Community Reinvestment Act (it is a public document) with respect to investing in low-cost housing, rehabilitating low-cost housing, and making loans in low-income neighborhoods. Let them know you intend to compare their record with other banks in the community, and put your bank account in the bank with the best record. Then ask the place where you work, the school you or your children attend, the congregation where you worship, the city or county government where you live, and the social agencies in your neighborhood to do the same. If everyone who is troubled by homelessness agreed to shift their money to the bank with the best CRA record, all the banks would compete to have the best record. – and a lot more money would be invested in housing that someone besides Bill Gates could afford.
Nothing on this list is costly or complicated, and none of it requires a fancy education. All are low-to-nothing in cost, minimal in terms of the time required, but high in potential impact. Moreover, you can do one, a few, or all five to end homelessness. The one thing you can’t do is nothing.
This article is adapted from a speech delivered in March 1994 at the annual press conference of the Seattle King County Coalition for the Homeless. Nancy Amidei teaches at the University of Washington School of Social Work and is Coordinator of the University District/University Partnership for Youth.