First off, I must let you know that I’m talking specifically about advocates for the homeless in the United States. I understand that the word “advocate” means different things in different countries. In the United States, an advocate for the homeless is someone who speaks out publicly about, or on behalf of, the homeless. They are not, as a rule, professional lawyers.
Very few people make a living talking about homelessness. But, there is no guild, or association of homeless advocates. There is no institution that teaches people how to talk about homelessness. There are some schools of sociology that offer courses on the subject, but there is nothing available to prepare someone to be an expert on the subject. There is no test one must past before becoming an advocate, no certificate to achieve before doing so. There is no over site. Anyone for any reason can declare themselves an advocate for the homeless – regardless of actually knowing anything about it. And from what I’ve seen, many of them don’t.
Homelessness is a complex issue. Even after nearly three decades of being in and around homelessness, I’m just now beginning to understand some of its whys and wherefores. It certainly does not help matters that the scientific community that we depend on to help us understand the world, and to develop cures for what ails us, has for the most part neglected this aspect of life. Very few sociologists has studied homelessness at length, and what information they have garnered, they are not doing much to disseminate it to the general public.
Still, there are many people now posturing themselves as authorities on homelessness. Perhaps they have some personal experience with being homeless, or they ran a soup kitchen feeding the homeless. They then turn up at churches, schools and other public arenas, and talk with authority about homelessness. But proximity to homelessness does not make one an expert. What they say about homelessness may or may not be accurate. How would anyone know? I have listened to a lot of homeless advocates in my time and know that a lot of what they say is hogwash. Sure, there are some very basic truths about homelessness that they talk about, that anyone can find by searching the internet. Yet a lot of the information available on the internet is suspect as well.
When I challenge these advocates, they often become defensive, accusatory, or they will back peddle, and attempt to deflect my points by saying something like, “it’s important that people talk about homelessness, and I’m just trying to help facilitate the discussion.” To me, that’s just a big loophole used to justify not knowing anything about it. They say it’s enough to just get people talking about homelessness. Something they can still take credit for as an advocate.
But I don’t buy that.
Remember what happened to Moses and the Jewish people when they left Egypt? They wandered around the desert, lost for 40 years. You can talk all you want about homelessness, but without some direction, without someone knowing where they’re going, you can end up talking about homelessness for 40 years and not get anywhere, and not learn anything. And you end up helping no one that way.
When I became homeless for the first time in the early 80’s, it coincided with a nationwide spike in the homeless population. And the homeless population growth continues to out pace attempts to feed, clothe, and shelter them. Yet, homelessness is a very popular. Google the keyword “homeless” and you’ll find over 25 million references. One would think that with so much discussion being had, that our country would be adequately dealing the homeless population. Clearly, discussion is not enough. Answers need to be found. Cures need to be discovered and implemented. We need to be heading toward the end of homelessness and not just wandering around yacking.
When you engage any advocate for the homeless, don’t just take their word for what they say. Challenge them, especially if what they say doesn’t seem to make sense to you. That goes especially for me.
In a later post, I will give some examples of bad information coming from homeless advocates.