December 9, 2008

ON POINT: The basics

Did you miss last week’s ON POINT article? If so you can catch up below.

While serving in the Corps aboard Camp Pendleton I lost a bet with my buddies and as the part of the deal, the loser had to serve in a soup kitchen line. That was a chilly winter night seventeen years ago which changed the course of my life forever. It was supposed to be a onetime shot to show the community that we Marines care, ladle some soup real quick and get back to the base. But this homeless dude named Steve (nickname Wolfman) messed up my plan and ever since I’ve been on this crazy divinely navigated mission of trying to SOLVE homelessness for both an individual and a community.

I decided to do these “On Point” articles because while working with and for the homeless, I’ve met a lot of people who care about this issue who want to understand the problem on a deeper more thought provoking level. They, like me, want to feel as though their involvement has purpose and meaning AND actually solves the problem they are working on. People call me a social purpose entrepreneur; but I just simply feel like I have an addiction to finding solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems with no money, no good looks (although my wife might argue that one) and no time.

I don’t know how long I’ll write these, I suppose as long as you find them interesting and useful. I’m working on putting together an ON POINT – ON IMPACT series for 2009. I’d like to hear from you so feel free to share with me your comments, suggestions or criticisms.

There are some very important lessons I’ve learned while working with the homeless and with the people who get involved, either for or against, helping the homeless. These lessons have come both from my own personal struggles and from the insights of those who I have struggled with. I’ve been personally involved with tens of thousands of interactions and transactions of compassion, indifference, pity, fear, spite, guilt, anger, joy, love, courage, defeat and victory as it relates to homelessness. Examining my own ideals while honestly trying to deal with these feelings has shaped some fundamental beliefs about homelessness, both as it impacts a human being and as it impacts our community at large.

Throughout these articles you’ll run into those beliefs and the lessons behind them. I’ll introduce them to you for seemingly no logical reason and in no particular order. Sometimes you won’t like or agree with what I say and sometimes you will. My purpose is to get us, as a North County community, to think deeper about solving one of the most pressing social ills that we as a people face. Yeah, I know its “bad timing” right now to be talking about the homeless when we’re confronted with these tough economic times ourselves. I get that. I guess all I can offer you is one of the tools we use here when things are tough, which is basically all the time for a mom with two kids who is on the comeback trail from homelessness. We here at Solutions for Change are big believers in the power of contribution to others. Let me say that clearer. We are always looking for ways that our clients can help others.

That means that we tell the mom here (we have a few dads here too, but 85% of the burden of recovering from homelessness falls on women, the single mom), that even though she has experienced major loss and consequences, to get out there and help others both within our centers and outside in the community. And she does. You see, by helping others, the grip that the problem has on our attitudes and therefore our actions lesson, they become more and more insignificant instead of more and more overwhelming. Helping others allows us to get outside of ourselves and when we do, clarity usually follows. Weird huh? Why would a “homeless shelter” be engaging its residents to find ways to help others when they all need so much help themselves? This is but one of the many differences that define Solutions for Change. And it is the first Lesson Learned that I am going to share with you today.

Lesson Learned #4: Engage the homeless person as an asset, not a liability. Government, church and not for profits must stop treating the homeless like liabilities that have to be contained, managed or controlled. These people have gifts that when realized and tapped will make them healthier and happier and make our community stronger. Both can and should happen simultaneously. But instead we see all the time that one happens at the expense of the other. Homeless providers or churches try to open homeless programs and communities rally to stop them. Or shelters and soup kitchens open and then we see impacts in our parks and public spaces. It doesn’t have to be this way. Both the homeless person and the community can win. Both individual homelessness and community homelessness can be solved. But the thing is that it’s not going to happen with the same old schematics, the same old containment plan.

Getting a homeless person to realize and tap these gifts doesn’t happen by simply giving them a bowl of soup, a warm bed, a hug and a “social worker”. It happens with a plan that includes the soup, bed, hugs and case worker but goes WAY beyond those things. It happens strategically with first recognizing which one of the three kinds of homeless person we are engaging. Is the person stuck in an active addiction to drugs or alcohol (The Will Not), is he or she suffering from a severe mental illness (The Can Not), or have they lost their job, been a victim of domestic violence, or been raised in a poverty situation (The Have Not)? We fail because we have only scratched the surface with developing customized intervention and engagement strategies for each one of these three groups of homeless. And when we treat a Will Not like a Can Not, we set ourselves up for huge and very expensive experiments which eventually fail us. And its not only the community that gets burned with their parks and public spaces impacted, it’s the homeless person too. Because we can do better than just feeding them and keeping them warm at night.

In fact, if we could engage the homeless person as an asset, not a liability as a matter of deliberate programming, acting on this belief alone could transform how America deals with homelessness. It is part of the Solutions for Change vision, that one day the homeless that we help will also be developed and empowered as the resources that we need to win this battle and defeat homelessness for people and communities, permanently. We do it now at Solutions, but there is so much more we could do if other efforts embraced this concept.

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