Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Hands On Help For The Homeless--"The Home Van"

A homeless advocate is defined as one who speaks for, works on behalf of, or in some way supports the homeless. The legions of homeless advocates across America are made up of some people who are "hands on" advocates, and other people who are "hands off" advocates. Those who are "hands on" are in direct contact with the homeless.

An example of "hands on" advocacy is "The Home Van" in Gainesville, Florida--the basis for this column. "Hands off" advocates are those who work to help the homeless, in various ways, from afar; while also working to end homelessness. Many of the latter group are professionals, who earn their living by working for advocacy organizations. While, as a group, they are compassionate and caring about the work they do, and about the people they strive to help, they cannot know the deep feelings and emotion that come with personal, up-close knowledge of the homeless, and they cannot give to the homeless what they need as much as food and blankets--friendship. They cannot look into the face of a homeless person, and say in so many words, "I care about you. How can I help you?"

Time and conversation are as important and welcome to a homeless person as the necessities of life. That is where "The Home Van" comes in--striving to provide for people whose needs, material and emotional, are not being met elsewhere. I described my personal experience with "The Home Van" in an editorial, which first ran in the Gainesville Sun last spring, and which was published again, in this space, on October 21.

I was blessed with the opportunity to go on a drive-out with dedicated "hands on" volunteers, to four different locations; and while a lot of homeless people benefited from the home-made chili that I doled out, I got a lot more than a bowl of chili from sharing their company that evening. "The Home Van", which was launched seven years ago by Arupa Freeman, goes out looking for homeless persons twice a week. It carries freshly made sandwiches and hot soup made by volunteers, pantry-type, non-perishable food, blankets, clothing, toiletries, and whatever other items might have been donated.

There is no one involved with the operation of "The Home Van" who receives any compensation. No one. It is also important to note that "The Home Van" neither applies for, nor receives, any government help or money, or grants of any kind, from any source. Its revenue comes entirely from donations.

Due to the closing of Tent City in Gainesvillle, and the limit placed on the number of people that St. Francis House soup kitchen is allowed to serve (130), "The Home Van" has seen the need for its supplies and services grow by leaps and bounds in the last few months-- far exceeding the donations of money and material goods it has received. Most folks are tapped out these days--barely able to keep themselves afloat. But just in case you are able and willing to help, we are providing the following information. Donations are welcome in ANY amount--nothing is too small to be appreciated and to be put to good use. Checks should be made payable to The St. Vincent de Paul Society and earmarked for "The Home Van". They should be sent to 307 SE Sixth St., Gainesville, Florida, 32601. All donations are tax-deductible.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Homelessness And Murder On Hogtown Creek

A lot of dedicated homeless advocates put an awful lot of effort into making the general public more aware of homelessness, and more understanding of the homeless. Marjorie Abrams has come up with a unique way to spread the word. Marjorie, who writes as MD Abrams, has incorporated the subject of homelessness into her latest novel. She writes about a homeless campsite, which affords the opportunity in two chapters to discuss issues of homelessness. Marjorie is a former university professor and college administrator; as well as an accomplished author. Murder On Hogtown Creek is her third successful novel in the last five years--following Murder On The Prairie and Murder At Wakulla Springs. She also wrote the award-winning play, The Cellphone. Midway through the writing of her latest book, Marjorie put her work aside for a while, in order to arrange and promote speaking dates for me in the Gainesville area; and she has honored me by including me on her Acknowledgements page, for the now-completed novel. In this newest murder mystery, which will be available by year's end, there is mention made of the man who rides Greyhound. With her creative mind working full speed as author and advocate, Marjorie is one more bright beacon of hope for reducing, and eventually eliminating homelessness.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Someone Who Has Seen It All

Former Cheyenne Mayor Jack Spiker and Virginia Sellner, Executive Director
Wyoming Coalition for the Homeless

Virginia Sellner was a homeless advocate before the expression became household words. She was helping folks who were homeless, hungry, hurting--or all of the above--even before the early 1980s, when America was first beginning to realize that it had a serious national problem with poverty. Virginia is the Executive Director of the Wyoming Coalition for the Homeless, and has devoted her life to helping others--always with a close-up, hands-on approach. She is one of the country's most respected authorities on, and one of the most dedicated advocates for, the homeless. When I decided to write a daily column--to do a blog, Virginia was among the very first persons that I sought out for help. I met her in Cheyenne some weeks ago for conversation over a quick lunch--which turned out to be a fascinating two hours of information and education. Dr. Michael Stoops, of the National Coalition for the Homeless, has worked with Virginia for nearly a quarter of a century, and I believe that his affectionate description of Virginia as a "trooper" is accurate and appropriate. What struck me most during my time with Virginia was the freshness of her approach to the ever-changing face of homelessness. After all these years, she is still ahead of most of her peers in her thinking. For example, Virginia believes, and I agree, that shelters must get away from the "they're all the same" approach that many have in housing homeless persons. Even if it's an invisible curtain of separation, those who have a history of addiction, mental illness or violence, should be in an area as far removed as possible from those who are simply homeless, period. Just as I came away from my meeting with Virginia feeling that it was time well-spent, a visit to Virginia's website will have you feeling the same way--time well-spent. http://www.wch.vcn.com/

Saturday, October 3, 2009

This Morning In Tallahassee.....

Saturday's dawn started a day oh, so beautiful, in more ways than one. There was the blue sky with just a few small puffy clouds here and there. There were those giant oak trees with hanging Spanish moss. And there was that refreshing coolness to the air. But this morning, Mother Nature had to share credit for a beautiful day with something man-made. The Tallahassee Downtown Farmer's Market was setting up shop in the Chain of Parks. This once-a-week happening is a beautiful setting, with its white canopies and green grass and foliage and comfortable wooden benches. And there is beauty also in the Norman Rockwell-like portrait of smiling vendors scurrying about getting ready--taking time, though, to exchange greetings and pleasantries with their Saturday morning neighbors. There was also an abstract beauty about this morning--something you felt, rather than saw or heard. It was the peacefulness of it all. It seemed to me how wonderful--that for a few precious hours-- it was like any worries and all problems were out of sight and out of mind. It was like--for just a little while, all was right with the world.

A Warm And Wonderful Mission Of Grace

The Episcopal Charities luncheon Thursday was a beautiful event in every possible way. The venue--The Rusty Pelican Restaurant in Key Biscayne-- afforded a spectacular scenic backdrop for the gathering of compassionate and concerned homeless advocates from throughout the greater Miami area. I spoke from the heart when I told those assembled that it is truly an honor to be invited to speak at an Episcopal Charities event; but to be invited to speak for the second time within a year--that is really very special and quite humbling. Back in January, I was privileged to give the keynote address at an Episcopal Charities luncheon in Palm Beach. Also speaking Thursday was Desmond Meade, an impressive young man who has gone in four years from intermittent homelessness and involvement with drugs, to being "clean" with realistic hope for admission to law school. A long list of charities from Palm Beach down to Key West receive financial support from Episcopal Charities.

Friday, October 2, 2009

"Not Enough Rain, Not Enough Food"

That was the headline for a front page article in Tuesday's Miami-Herald. It caught my attention because it was about Guatemala. That is where Mario and Christy Castejon live, in a little village named Santo Tomas de Castilla, on the Caribbean side. I met Mario and Christy sometime ago in the Greyhound terminal in Nashville. It was one of those special occasions when strangers immediately become friends, and continue to correspond long after that one relatively brief meeting. The amazing part of this is that the Castejons are not completely fluent in English, and my espanol can best be described as "poquito" (very little!). Still, we have enjoyed the long-range friendship, and therefore, something that I know is hurtful to them, also saddens me. The drought and shortage of food for the children in Guatemala must be especially painful for Mario--for he is a pediatrician. He is responsible for a medical project that saw the installation of an intensive care unit and creation of an educational program in the public children's hospital, where he works. In his "spare" time, Mario writes a weekly column for the local newspaper, works on a historical novel he is writing, and is an advocate for the conservation of nature and wild life. Mario is another one of my super heroes. He works with the children in the face of two discouraging facts. According to the Guatemalan government, some 400,000 farming families have seen their crops severely damaged by drought, and are at risk for going hungry. And according to UNICEF (the United Nations agency), almost half of Guatemala's children under five already suffer from chronic malnutrition. Immediate help is needed, and neighboring countries have begun to provide that help. Venezuela, Ecuador and Chile have been shipping in food. Other countries are expected to jump in with assistance. Will it be enough? Here we go again with that word hope!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Ripple Effect Of Homeless Advocacy

One simple act of human kindness can have a ripple effect. Likewise, one sincerely-spoken expression of hope can have a ripple effect. And there is one more important ripple effect--that of homeless advocacy---as one person's efforts to help the homeless encourages other people-- who in turn encourage even more folks to create awareness and further understanding.

This ripple effect in homeless advocacy is one of the reasons for realistic hope in reducing and eventually eliminating homelessness.

I have witnessed a number of examples of this ripple effect. Following are just two. After I spoke at the Episcopal Charities luncheon in Palm Beach in January, a dedicated advocate--Carl House--read "Homeless Isn't Hopeless", and passed it on to a friend in Ohio--Bill Parke. Bill--who had little prior experience with homelessness, was moved to help produce this blog and to set up a sales outlet on Amazon.com--for which he purchased copies at the full cover price. He did this to give the book exposure. One of those who purchased the book from Bill was Pat Terry in Maryland. After reading the book she emailed that she has shared it with friends and is more active than ever in helping the homeless.

A second example begins with Dr. Malcolm Sanford, one of the world's leading authorities on beekeeping--whom I met on a bus and who purchased my book and then passed it on to Arupa Freeman,in Gainesville, Florida. Arupa, who operates the Home Van in Gainesville to help feed and supply the homeless, read the book and passed it on to Marjorie Abrams, author and award-wining playwright. Malcolm and Arupa and Marjorie took time from busy schedules to arrange and publicize my speaking engagements in the Gainesville area.