The “Give Us Your Poor” Project Thinks Out of the Box about Homelessness
By Gabrielle Gurley
Printed in Spare Change News, March 7-17, 2004
“Let’s do an inventory of what we’ve got right now.” Taking his cue from the movie, Apollo 13, Give Us Your Poor project director, John McGah issued that challenge to the 90 people who braved a recent icy Saturday to attend “Out of the Box: A Community Action Forum to End Homelessness in Greater Boston” held at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
McGah, a senior research associate at the McCormack Graduate School’s Center for Social Policy, told participants Give Us Your Poor “aims to create a public awareness revolution in the United States” about homelessness. He urged them “to think small and doable and think big” to make a difference in the lives of the homeless men, women, and children. The forum, the first in a series of nationwide events, brought together business, community, government, and social services leaders-people not always found in the same room- to brainstorm solutions to Boston’s homelessness epidemic.
In a later telephone interview, McGah explained how his views on homeless helped jump-start the Give Us Your Poor project. “I was struck by the disconnect between my misperceptions and the reality I was seeing, talking to homeless people, talking to shelter directors, talking to government officials,” he said. McGah also realized that despite numerous studies, only narrowly focused groups regularly confronted the issue. “The problem is so entrenched,” McGah said, “We need to really engage the whole country and have a paradigm shift in how we address homelessness.”
Launched in 1999, Give Us Your Poor takes a three-pronged approach to educating Americans about poverty and homelessness. First, project organizers harnessed the power of the mass media via a film, Give Us Your Poor: Homelessness and the United States. The trailer features a group of homeless young people from Illinois on a road trip to Capitol Hill to share their stories. More than 40 percent of the funds needed to complete the film are in the bank. Two goals remain: securing corporate and foundation donations to complete the 90-minute documentary and nationwide television distribution through PBS. The project also incorporates an educational outreach plan geared toward middle and high school students.
Finally, the community action forum component strives to assemble diverse voices. The voices of the homeless and the formerly homeless are powerful elements in this mix. McGah’s 2002 study of homelessness in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Hungary under the auspices of the Eisenhower Fellowship program influenced his determination make sure that the voices of the homeless are heard. In the Netherlands, he discovered that Dutch policymakers periodically meet with homeless individuals to discuss public policy. They use the encounters to help gauge the impact of their decisions on the daily lives of homeless people.
The Boston forum showed that community dialogues using the Give Us Your Poor film as an introduction to homelessness could spark wider responsiveness to an issue that often drops off community radar screens. The attendees viewed the trailer and were clearly moved. Formerly homeless UMass Boston graduate student Charlotte Lumpkins felt the producers identified issues that might start neighborhood conversations.
Next, using an “open space” format, 27 volunteers or “convenors,” were asked to suggest discussion topics and facilitate breakout sessions. In the cloudburst of ideas that followed, each “convenor” got down on the floor, took a marker, and wrote one subject down. “Better Support for Homeless Children” “Housing for Ex-Inmates,” “Creating More Affordable Housing,” and “Psychological Effects of the Built Environment” were just a few of the ideas that soon plastered the windows overlooking Dorchester Bay.
The burning issue for Joe Crispin, an advocate for the homeless, was reinventing the shelter system. Formerly homeless, Crispin experienced shelter life in a number of cities including Philadelphia, Tampa, and Wichita. According to Crispin there are “a lot of avenues that people aren’t looking into.” He identified a number of critical needs including more single room occupancy (SRO) shelters instead of dorms, more and better care management, improved food systems, free job training and college courses.
Fostering respect in the shelter system was another concern. Shelters are “set up like a correctional system” for the homeless, said Crispin. There is “the assumption that they’ve spent time in prison.” Mark Stevens, of the Homeless Emergency Action Task Force, added most shelter conflicts center on noise, food, and the use of shelters as social services’ “waiting rooms.”
Marie Sullivan, of the Boston Public Health Commission’s Homeless Services identified breaking stereotypes about homelessness as a key priority. “If you say you’re homeless, people shut down,” said Sullivan, Her group looked for ways to convey the fact that becoming homeless is easy. They concluded raising public awareness by making homelessness personal would help to dispel myths.
Later in the day, Mike Murray, who is homeless, also stressed that most people fail to understand the how and why of homelessness: getting hurt on or off the job is often all it takes. “People don’t have a clue,” he said. “A lot of people are one paycheck away.” Tyrone Davis, a Boston real estate agent working to set up a sober house for ex-inmates in Dorchester, also zeroed in on improving attitudes toward the homeless. Advocates for the homeless, he said, should move forward with community groups interested in constructive partnerships.
To keep the momentum of these talks going, Give Us Your Poor envisions follow-up sessions to build upon these contributions and engage new people. Planning is also underway for a second forum in Detroit. In addition, project organizers are collaborating with the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and have partnered with organizations in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and six other states. And like many small programs with finite resources, Give Us Your Poor relies on the Web to spread the word.
For McGah, the forum linked interests that affect everyone: creating healthier communities and ending homelessness. “Even though it’s nothing new, people just don’t get the depth of the issue and the complexity of it,” said McGah. “And there is a real need for public awareness, to involve more people, but also to have support for policy initiatives and how we spend our public dollars and our public time.”
For more information about Give Us Your Poor, go to http://www.giveusyourpoor.org