The other day I was at an event for incoming senior social work majors who are looking for internships. At the end of presentations, two students came up to me expressing interest in interning with the Homeless Coalition.
This, of course, was exciting. We want more social workers and future social workers to be involved in the work of the Coalition. Adding to the excitement; the two students explained how their interest in the work of our organization began.
The first student explained that in high-school she had taken part in our Streetvibes Distributor Shadow; an opportunity for participants to walk and talk with one of our many Distributors, learning about her or his experience of homelessness, while attempting to sell Streetvibes to the general public. Afterward, the participants discuss with our staff and Distributor the ways in which people reacted to them and what systematically may have caused those reactions.
The second student explained that in high-school she had taken part in our Citywide Shantytown; an annual event in which students from around the county set up shantytowns on their campuses. The purpose is not to “experience homelessness” because homelessness cannot be mimicked by people who are housed. Instead, the purpose is to get students together so that they can hear the stories of one of our Speakers’ Bureau Speakers who has experienced homelessness and learn about the systematic causes of homelessness from one of our staff and eventually discuss solutions. While doing this, students, faculty, parents and other community members are spurred to ask what is going on thus starting new conversations about the realities of homelessness in Cincinnati. These are two examples of public education programs we offer.
In addition to our Streetvibes Distributor Shadow and Citywide Shantytown we also complete over 100 Speaker’s Bureau speaking engagements in area school, universities, faith settings and civic groups annually. We offer a Social Justice Walking tour; participants walk with us learning about affordable housing, gentrification, displacement and solutions that are right in front of them. Groups of college students from local schools and from around the country also join us for a week at a time. Half of their time is spent volunteering with our direct-service member organizations and learning what they do and why. The other half of their time is spent with our Streetvibes Distributors, Speakers and Director of Education learning about the systems, politics, legislation and societal decisions that cause homelessness and poverty. Every year we reach thousands of people with the truths of homelessness and the ways to end homelessness.
When years later someone tells us they are involved or want to be involved in ending homelessness or when we are at city hall speaking for new legislation and a group of people show up in support or we get a note from someone saying she or he went back to school and changed their major in order to be involved in the fight for economic justice or perhaps they started a group on their campus; when we hear this we are so thankful. We are thankful to work for an organization whose mission statement specifically says that a part of ending homelessness is educating the general public. Getting this feedback, means that our education programs are having success; attitudes are being changed; empathy is being fostered and passions are being found.
The most important part of our public education programs that makes them effective is the fact that people who are currently or have in the past experienced homelessness are in leadership roles. It’s one thing for our staff to share the systematic causes of homelessness with a group, it is a whole other thing for someone who has experienced homelessness to tell her or his story and show the group on a personal level why ending homelessness is so important.
Of course, I could not say all of this without mentioning that our public education programing requires funding. We pay our Speakers shadowed Distributors. While they would probably do the work for free; we know that their work is very valuable and deserves an income. We also employ a Director of Education who pulls all of this together in what really could be more than one full-time job. In the case of most of our education programs, the participating organizations pay a small fee which we are thankful for but very partially covers our cost. If a group cannot afford the fee, we still go because this is a part of our mission. Donations and grants have to make up the difference for us to continue this work and grow it because the need is certainly greater that we are currently able to meet.