Friday, August 28, 2009
Standing in a Circle
Imagine that each of us who cares about and works to solve the problem of long-term, street-dwelling homelessness in Dallas is standing in a circle. In the center of the circle is the problem — one that is enormous and complex: it is a given that each of us sees it and its solutions from a different perspective because of the position in the circle which we stand.
Some of us sit at desks inside nonprofits and make policy. Maybe we ‘make the rounds’ to see how things are ‘on the ground’ within our organization, or maybe we don’t. This alone will help determine our perspective. Those who do make the rounds and who attempt to be the link between the employees on the ground, the homeless guests, those who sit upstairs making policy, and the public have a particularly hard job.
Others inside nonprofits work closely with the homeless population in a direct way, talking to them, touching them. Some of us befriend them; others think we should keep our distance. Friendship is vital to those on the street who have nothing: so are boundaries. Which looks more vital depends on where we stand.
Some of us take our homeless friends into our churches and homes for meals and prayers when no one else wants them. Others of us go out on the street and offer hungry people food and drink people. All of it matters.
Some of us go out, from time to time, and talk to people where they live in cardboard boxes under freeway overpasses, or where they sleep, as best they can, out of sight in the city. This is one of the things I occasionally do (there are others who do much, much more.) I listen to and try to understand their problems and struggles; I bring them clean, dry clothing; I drive them to the doctor. I go home and research what services are available to help them, and I share the possible solutions with my friends under the bridge, offering to aid them in getting through the system. Sometimes I plead with them to get help a particular kind help if I think it’s vital. But they are human beings and are free to choose what is best for them.
For one of my friends, her place ‘in the circle’ this week was at the gates of a highly visible and well-funded nonprofit serving the homeless population in Dallas. There, she observed and documented abusive language by guards directed towards homeless people trying to gain admittance to the property. Not every guard. Not every homeless person. But any is too many. This verbal abuse by some employees has been a common and persistant practice since this facility opened. Why is it still happening, my friend wants to know? She shared this information with the staff of the nonprofit itself and with others in the service community.
Others ‘in the circle’ criticized how and why she did what she did. Why didn’t she do it differently? Better still, why didn’t she ask them how they wanted her to do it? The answer is that she stands at her own place in the circle, and it’s a place very few have the ability or fortitude to stand. She is one of the very few people who successfully brave the often thankless role of ‘linking person’ between the ‘powers that be’ regarding homelessness in Dallas and the extremely vulnerable people on the street. I don’t know anyone who could do what she does. I most certainly could not.
How things look when I stand with my friends who are living under the freeway overpass is quite different from how things look sitting in an office making policy that determines much of how they live, but that does not mean my view is more right or that it’s better. It simply means that I have information — in my mind, in my heart, in my soul, in my experience — that someone who has not been there doesn’t have.
It is equally true that someone sitting in an office in a nonprofit agency or at City Hall may have a great deal of information that I don’t have — an overview, or an awareness of the scope of certain problems. From this, perhaps they design a policy that seems good and even vital, but that policy may look untenable from where I stand.
I try to carry forward with me as I go along my path the assumption of good will from everyone in the circle toward our friends on the street. It is easy to become cynical as I listen to expert public relations and know full well that what happens in practice is quite different from how it seems in a sound byte, and that how it sounds is going to have a great deal more impact on public policy and opinion than how it is — because the people experiencing the results of policy generally don’t have a voice.