The Problem With Advocates For The Homeless

17 May

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.

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7 Responses to “The Problem With Advocates For The Homeless”

  1. MiepRowan May 17, 2010 at 6:04 pm #

    Kevin; I think you make an especially good point with "Let him see that you need someone to talk to." People like to feel useful. It really helps.I once asked a beggar to give me advice on adopting a dog from the shelter, said I'd pay him $10 for it. He brightened right up and gave me quite good advice, which I used to some extent when I adopted my dog. Definitely worth the $10.

  2. MiepRowan May 17, 2010 at 5:56 pm #

    I'll add that there are plenty of damaged people out there who do become problematic at times. But however we react to that, we have to recognize a couple of things. One is that is that we allow this to happen by not focusing adequately on homeless prevention, and child welfare. These damaged people should shame us; instead, we try to shuttle them away so we can pretend they don't exist.The other is that there are people who are just like those people outdoors, who live indoors, merely out of luck – they have family money. To the extent that we see those people as not being a problem, and the outdoors people as being a problem, reflects our social attitudes about money.

  3. Kevin Barbieux May 17, 2010 at 5:54 pm #

    Scott-Here's how I see goose's story, as you related it. He says he gets beaten at shelters. I seriously doubt that. Even in shelters, people don't just go around beating each other, not without serious provocation, and especially not someone in a wheel chair. Sure, shelters are unhappy places full of angry people, but those people are there because they want shelter, and they know good and well that if they engage in any kind of violence they will be barred from the place, usually for life. He says no one will hire him because of his handicap, that too is BS, many handicapped people have jobs. That is, unless he refers to his drinking as his handicap. And, he didn't ask you to leave because you gave him something, and their was a chance of you giving him more stuff, the longer you hung around. It may very well be that he has children that he hasn't seen in a long time. In his condition, his children may not want to see him, or if the children are still young, his exwife wouldn't want the kids seeing him. That's the hard truth of what I in goose. He sounds pretty hard core. It will take a long time and a lot of patience to get to know and potentially help him. Start slow. Take him cigarettes from time to time and just talk to him. And at first, you should do the talking. Let him see that you need someone to talk to. If he sees that you trust him with your personal info, he may eventually start opening up to you.Good luck with it.

  4. MiepRowan May 17, 2010 at 5:02 pm #

    I consider myself an advocate for the homeless, but for me that mostly translates as being an advocate for tolerance. Really, the homeless part is just a subset.Bigotry against the unhoused or underhoused is a very real phenomenon, and should be challenged at every opportunity.

  5. rivers May 17, 2010 at 4:36 pm #

    hey man. I just found this blog while searching for… what to do. To move beyond the guilt and feeling of weakness. I met a man that called himself "goose" on friday night. He was in a wheelchair, had no feet, and slept wherever he could roll to. I bought him some food and we went to a parking lot as I tried to talk to him. He didn't want to open up, but never asked me to leave. He answered my questions, said he had three sons he hasn't talked to in forever, said he gets beaten at shelters, said no one would hire him because of his handicap. When I asked how I could find him again, he raised his voice, almost upset, but seemingly out of sadness and frustration with it all. He said, "I'm around man! I got no where to go! I sleep where I can, that's it.. that's it!" After an hour of trying to talk with him, I had to go. I keep thinking about him. I want to help. I asked him to try and meet me at a specific restaurant this week. I feel like he won't be there.I just wonder if there is any real solution. Any real way to help. He never ate my food. He just wanted cigarettes and beer, but it was too late for beer. I don't know…- Scott

  6. gavin richardson May 17, 2010 at 10:26 am #

    i'm no advocate, but just someone trying to seek to understand and help where i can.

  7. The Elephant May 17, 2010 at 7:51 am #

    Interesting. Thank you for the post

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