The Intermittent Volunteer’s Weblog

Befriending People in Dallas Who Are Homeless

Standing in a Circle August 28, 2009


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.




4 Responses to “Standing in a Circle”

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  2. scotty Says:

    Those who attempt to provide services will never see eye to eye with those who are standing on the “outside” being critical of them. You may share the same goals but face different challenges and when you are dealing with a uniquely different individual with each attempt to serve it is unrealistic to expect like responses. What may be good for one is not for another. The level of frustration at the service level is something the “outsider” looking in will never understand until they step up to the plate and work at the same level. Until then, it is easy to be critical of someone or something you really can’t possibly understand or comprehend.

  3. Karen Shafer Says:


    How right you are. Those working outside the service provider network cannot possibly understand the pressures upon those who work at a professional level with individuals experiencing homelessness. You may have missed the central point of my post, which was exactly that: each role implies — indeed necessitates and dictates — a different perspective.

    I know from talking to friends who are service providers that they face challenges I don’t understand and that are very difficult indeed. If you are one, I salute you for taking on such a daunting but undoubtedly rewarding role.

    “when you are dealing with a uniquely different individual with each attempt to serve it is unrealistic to expect like responses. What may be good for one is not for another.”
    ‘One size does not fit all’ is a perspective I adamantly share, and, in fact, is one of the motivating factors behind most of what I write and do regarding homelessness. Oddly enough, that was one of the points of this post also, but evidently that was not entirely clear to the reader.

    Of course, those of us who only befriend our homeless neighbors and engage them with our love and offers of assistance, trying to persuade them to go in to see service providers, can only aspire to “work at the same level” as you. I sincerely hope you feel good about your efforts.

    Nonetheless, another thing you seem to have missed in my post is this: those of us Standing in the Circle alongside you vitally important service providers do believe that we are “stepping up to the plate” — each in our own way — and that what each of us does matters.

    And sometimes that includes pointing out where things are going wrong.

    Thank you for commenting.

  4. advocate Says:

    About those in the circle who sit at the top earnestly trying to write good policy:

    A friend of mine pointed out that if a group of homeless people went to Highland Park and offered to help them solve their problems, what kind of reception would they get?

    Food for thought…

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