Make a More Lasting Impact on Homelessness & Housing This Holiday Season

This holiday season I am making a plea that well-intentioned people do more than make a financial contribution to a homeless serving agency, or donate a non-perishable food item to a food bank, or volunteer at a community meal. The spirit of giving this time of year is dandy, but I know that many people want to do more…they just don’t know what to do. Here are some ideas:

Do something for the staff in non-profits working to end homelessness and support people in housing.

These are the unsung heroes in each community. The general community does lots for their clients during the holiday season. But I’m asking you to do something tangible for the staff in these non-profits that support those clients day after day. These folks chose to work in a non-profit. For that, already, they should be commended, most often choosing (yes, choosing) a lesser wage in return for greater social good. You could:

  1. Send them a note signed by all the people you work with or socialize with or worship with (or all three) thanking them for what they do day in and day out.
  2. Get enough movie gift cards for all the full time staff so that they can be treated to a night out at some point during the year.
  3. Sponsor a thank-you lunch for them in, like, February. More impactful? Have all the people you work with serve them lunch.
  4. Create a mentorship collaborative or learning community with people who work in the non-profit sector.
  5. Turn over your holiday bonus or a portion thereof to the staff at the non-profit. They don’t get a bonus for what they do. Imagine how amazing they will feel knowing that you wanted them to have your bonus for the bonuses they bring to the community at large.

Write letters.

You can do this by yourself, but it is more impactful if you can get together a group to do it with you. Again these could be people you work with, socialize with or worship with – to name a few.

Each person should write his/her own letter. Each letter is going to have the same type of question: How will the recipient (elected official/senior person receiving the letter) help build more housing that is affordable for those with the deepest needs and the supports required to help people be successful in housing?

People to write include your local alderwoman/alderman/city councilor; Mayor; state/provincial representative; federal representative; leader of your country; senior directors in high-ranking bureaucratic positions.

In almost all instances you will first get a written response filled with political fluff about the meager investments being made or how what you have asked is really the responsibility of some other order of government; or that the sort of thing you wanted to know about is outside their purview.

Once you get that response, write again, thanking them for writing you back, respectfully noting that the response was impersonal and without sufficient detail to tell you what they are going to do. Heck, do something wild and ask politicians them to slightly raise your taxes if it means the most vulnerable in your community are housed with supports. When was the last time elected folks had people writing them asking them toraise their taxes?

Organize a four season clothing drive.

‘Tis the season for boatloads full of winter coats, gloves, scarves and toques to be dropped off. And there is good reason for that in communities that get cold in the winter.

If you want to make a lasting difference, though, get together a small group that will undertake a four season clothing drive throughout the year specifically for a non-profit organization that helps people get housing and stay supported in it. Have a place to store the clothing in-between seasons rather than dropping it all off to the non-profit where space is likely at a premium.

Establish a local rent supplement.

Subsidies to help people in housing are scarce and usually come with a litany of eligibility requirements that make some of the most economically desperate people with very complex issues ineligible. Some can get general welfare but not additional assistance. For others it is vice versa. It is one of the great injustices.

While local housing markets dictate rental costs, a rather modest amount can go a long way. Team up with a non-profit that helps homeless people with chronic, complex issues access housing. If you and a group of pals can generate $5,000 in most communities that is a good sized top-up to be matched with whatever other resources are available to keep a chronically homeless person in an apartment for a year. And don’t do this with an expectation that you get to screen the recipient or meet the recipient. The non-profit will be able to undertake a better assessment than you, and this isn’t “homeless people at the zoo”.

Read about the issue.

Homelessness, as well as housing for people with complex, co-occurring needs is frequently sensationalized in media, and not readily understood by the general public. Get yourself a book or two this holiday season and read about the issues so that you are more aware of the dynamic that is homelessness. I suspect many books could be added to this list, but I would recommend:

  1. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate. This will help you understand community amongst marginally housed people and what addiction is and how it works.
  2. Down to This by Shaugnessy Bishop Stall. It’s the story of a tent city and the people that weaved in and out of it. Oh, and it’s a love story too.
  3. Homeless: Policies, Strategies and Lives on the Streets by Gerry Daly. It is a heavy, policy laden read by my fave professor in Grad school.

Start a YIMBY campaign.

Yes in my backyard is of course the opposite to the seemingly ever prevalent Not in my backyard. Find out where there is a public meeting of any sort to discuss a new affordable housing project or program that supports homeless people. Make an effort to show up and speak in support of it. If your community is a lot like others, many of the people in attendance will be against it in some way, shape or form (location, size, amount of funding, urban design, impacts on transportation, misguided opinions about impacts on public safety or property values, etc.) You showing up demonstrates to decision-makers that there are a range of voices to be heard. It also sends a strong message to people experiencing affordability issues and/or homelessness, as well as non-profit service providers that they are not alone in wanting to do this in the community.

Innovatively challenge common stigmas.

You can set up a challenge at your work place or with your friends to challenge some of the common stigmas that are experienced by people that are homeless or live in affordable housing.

One idea is to make an effort to live off the same amount of money that a person receiving welfare gets in a month. Keep a blog about it or write a letter about it to share with others.

Another stigma faced by many people can be compromised mental health. Host a “Check up from the Head Up” event. Take mental health out of the shadows and into the light.

Yet another idea to tackle stigma is the notion that people choose to be homeless and live outside as a lifestyle choice. Research generally does not support this. Host an event that gets a group of people together to sleep outside to raise awareness for homelessness and affordable housing in your community.

Create an entry-level job or paid internship at your place of work for someone moving out of homelessness.

Most people that experience homelessness for a longer period of time become dislodged from the work force. Trying to get back into it often comes with great difficulty. Some employment programs are even more stigmatizing than the experience of homelessness.

But imagine if where you worked was absolutely accepting of holes in a person’s resume, lack of recent references, and patient to accept that learning new skills or becoming reacquainted with old skills can take time and mentorship. The opportunity you provide can be the permanent path out of economic poverty and housing instability.

Invite a frontline worker from a non-profit to your place of work to explain what a typical day is like for them.

Work in the homelessness and housing sector is an often misunderstood profession. People who don’t work in the field frequently fail to realize the professionalism of the work. While much is made of how the private sector can help teach non-profits lessons, there is an overlooked opportunity for private enterprise to learn from non-profits. Start by inviting a frontline worker in a non-profit over to your place of work for a “lunch and learn” where they can explain what they do, how they do it, and lessons learned that may be transferable to your place of private business.

Learn to express empathy instead of sympathy.

Do not feel sorry for the plight of others. Do something about it. Do not just acknowledge that others are “worse off” than you; try to meaningfully put yourself into their shoes. Attend a “sleep out” event; or try to live on less money for a week or two (or a whole month); or observe how a homeless shelter or street outreach program operates; or any other activity that allows you to come closer to the emotional experience of homelessness and affordable housing.

Perhaps around your holiday table a blessing or prayer may include a tidbit to “remember people less fortunate than ourselves”. Challenge yourself to change this year to something like “to better understand homelessness and housing needs in our community and to be actively involved in solutions”.  The social return on investment of doing exceeds that of simply remembering.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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