Homeless People Matter, But We Don't Act Like It: Volunteering, Community Aid, and Social Change

Author: A. Hannah Spadafora


Homelessness in the United States

It’s estimated that in 2018, approximately 553,000 individuals in the United States were without a stable living situation that they could call a home. Out of these 550,000+ individuals, about 36,000 were youth under 25 years old. Individuals experiencing homelessness may deal with being out of work, underemployed, and/or be suffering from physical/mental health issues, kicked out of family situations—particularly, due to poverty, intolerance, ‘tough love’, and lack of stable social networks or sufficient compensation for affordable housing. Even those in professional occupations have been shown to fall vulnerable to situations ranging from car-sleeping, forced-couch-surfing between social network spots that may keep one constantly on the move, or outright need to take shelter in homeless centers, public benches, or any place that feels less dangerous to sleep in. The barriers for less fortunate individuals to work can be insurmountable for people who do not have resources for basic life stability or personal self-development. Lack of food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, dentistry, grooming, and behavioral-professionalization techniques basically disbar certain individuals from potential hire. Upsurges in unemployment and situations where family care is neither seen as obligatory nor given as kindness nor possible due to shared poverty fuel a trend of increasing in-need populations. Short of socialist revolution in housing that ensures everyone has a safe and healthy place to sleep via vouchers, quality assurance, rent profit caps, or other measures, we have people across non-profit organizations working tirelessly and honorably on limited funding to try to help anyone who ends up hungry, homeless, and otherwise in need of basic and necessary goods—a place where any of us can be, and where some of us have been to varying degrees.


It’s heartening that community members still pull together to find strategies to deal with the fallout of a flawed system. The system is broken, and more than just charity and volunteer work is obviously needed, but there are many good people trying to help, today, to relieve the suffering of those hit with the brunt end of this broken system. Caring is important in ways that are more clear when you’ve both given and received, or both suffered and witnessed others suffering (in some ways, a great deal more than one's self, whispers perspective.) Organizations dedicated to caring facilitate aid to the suffering, bringing kindness as a first valve of relief. It’s an honor to take part in collaborations such as this, when one can, but a deep ended frustration to see first hand an organization that is trying to help others fall short of funding goals necessary to provide resources for the target populations. My experience volunteering with Young People Matter held both this hope and this despair, alike.


Young People Matter

The Atlanta chapter of Young People Matter © was a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting homeless youth in gaining necessary resources to get on their feet from 2011 to 2018. YPM started in Dekalb County in 2011, when the organization was endowed with a $580,000 HHS grant intended to last three-years. Originally a 24-hour shelter that as of 2014 served exclusively girls, young women, and LGBTQQAI+ youth in an Atlanta branch homed in Tucker, Georgia, dwindling funding for the center moved the location to two drop in sites close to the Hill Street library in downtown Atlanta, Georgia— a library downtown and one office in a nearby building to this location. Low funds then pushed it out of operation. From these drop-in sites, YPM offered the use of computers, job-search assistance, personal-grooming supplies, leisure activity such as board games and free internet, and snacks or other light meals to all young adults (and sometimes, some less than young adults) in need.


YPM was funded by government, business and private donors, with funding from federal sources totaling about 80% of resources bestowed in 2013. Businesses that have been significant contributors to YPM have included AT&T, Oracle, Inc. Dollar General, and Wells-Fargo. Also contributing was the United Way of Greater Atlanta. Perhaps the most famous individual donor has been Tyler Perry, an event which has sparked later social media campaigns aimed at gaining celebrity funding. As the organization shrank drastically during the last months before it was shut down, the day shelter was only open three days per week (Tuesday-Thursday)—a noticeable downsizing in its organizational mission. At the time, a fundraising campaign to remedy a lack of sufficient resources was set in place to try to gain wealthy and celebrity funders to restore it to a safe, 24-hour shelter—or ideally, a fulfillment of a proposal for a “YPM Village” set in Mozley Park. The nonprofit also raised public awareness campaigns about problems faced by homeless youth but was not involved with lobbying behind specific bills or to any particular candidate, as standing with the constraints against such.


Though the focus was formally set to be on homeless youth, the age requirement has shown itself to be more of a guideline of mission rather than an inflexible rule of practice. As a primarily locally-controlled nonprofit organization, Young People Matter © was most accountable to the people served; when someone is in-need and you are an organization dedicated to giving, you give. This becomes more relevant in cases where there was difficulty finding individuals in the target populations. Flyers stated that services were directed at young people between the ages of 14-21 years old; during outreach efforts, however, this often was stretched to include young adults up to 25 years old, or sometimes even older during outreach campaigns for the exchange of assistance in finding youth who need further help. Before closing down, the aim was to expand to areas where more young people frequent such as Centennial Olympic Park and Little Five Points. The opportunity to apply more organized and effective strategy was too late planned, and thus not realized. Lack of funding for outreach and shelter led to the downsizing and eventual shutdown of the program.

Volunteering at YPM:

Volunteering with Young People Matter involved action with the outreach campaign and shelter resource center. On Thursday nights at Atlanta’s Woodruff park, stationed across from the larger fountain near Auburn Ave, we gave out full bags with necessities including toiletries (deodorant, toothpaste, feminine items); stationary (notebook, pen); clothes (socks; coats donated to partner organization); and canned or prepackaged dry food/snacks. Our outreach was straightforward, and repetitions of the organizational speech were tidy: “We are a youth drop in center serving individuals who are teenagers or in their early twenties. We are open three days a week from 11 AM until 6 PM.” We had difficulties sticking to the population our mission was geared to serve, and changed our location a few times around Woodruff Park, with other events planned at Centennial Park/Little Five Points. The goal was to try to find less heavily policed and crowded areas in order to be visible and friendlier to youth in need of assistance. We swept the surrounding areas to help teens—but really, in lapse of that, anyone—in need. To that end, in-need adults in their late 30s or older benefited from our services and bag/coat giveaways in Woodruff Park more than our targeted age range. We utilized this as a networking strategy to pass flyers to individuals who could redirect those who were underage and in-need back to the shelter; it helped to have individuals within the homeless community to spread the word, and to approach individuals who might be off-put by outsider’s intervention or bothering.


Throughout my time volunteering there, we were a small team, usually 2-5 of us handing out supplies and engaging in conversations about fundraising and outreach strategies, including our manager’s targeting of social media requests to celebrities via Twitter and Facebook outreach for donations and another volunteer floating by that they had worked previously as a hairdresser for Beyoncé (though it was unclear if this was serious or a joke.) Aside from direct volunteers, we also had contact with other organizations; a man affiliated with a church about to do its annual coat donation drive before winter invited us into a collaboration where he used our structure of the outreach night to implement the donation of goods directly to homeless individuals across the park and nearby downtown Atlanta area. He brought a small group of additional volunteers and we joined in passing out over 100 coats donated by church members. This added to other partnerships, such as our referral to individuals to visit the SafeHouse for meals on nights when our hand outs were non-perishable, non-edible necessities.


The park we did our outreach in was one I’d passed by on the way to class many times. My first year in Atlanta and over the holiday seasons and other sporadic occasions since, I brought various food items as my own personal outreach to people who were hungry, including sandwiches, candy, and other snacks—as well as made it a habit frequently, if I had food at home myself but had eaten out in between classes, to give my untouched still warm and delicious leftovers to anyone who asked or clearly was nomadic, down on their luck, and staring longingly. My first year having moved into Atlanta ended up being the first year I significantly struggled myself, however. Off the bat, moving there, I had an ethereal idea that if I was generous, I would never want. The years showed this to be untrue the many times I fell financially short, with requisite problems caused, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that I would not be here today if it weren’t for close friends who took me in during a few interim eras of my early 20's as if I were family or otherwise helped me during my darkest of times. Time teaches us prudence and humility, however, as well as the value of a round-about reciprocation—for those of us who are lucky enough. Looking back at the time of my volunteer participation, I find myself amazed and grateful to be stable, after having met other individuals still thrown off kilter by the 2008 economic crisis or other life events. I also find myself indignant for these individuals at the society that lets help for those in need fall through the cracks if those in need don’t have networks of personal social help.


During the time I volunteered at YPM, the center downsized drastically, with only a few individuals dropping in at a time for free internet—used for job hunting, and sometimes leisure. The manager maintained a stoic resolve to not police visitor activities, as all humans crave some kind of outlet and connection to the media world that saturates public conversations and trends. Increased funding for headphones to offer sound adjustment/privacy of music or show watching would have made this more amenable to multiple visitors utilizing computerized resources for different purposes at once, but the office was small and packed with other items for both assistance and leisure for in-need visitors.


When we didn’t have promised sandwiches to hand out due to miscommunication one night during outreach, I bought a woman some hot wings for dinner at a restaurant I previously worked at in the area. She had been sleeping at the airport, on Marta trains, and behind a truck whenever she couldn’t find someone to sleep with to be able to sleep in a bed—though she professed to have stopped this having met her current beau, a man who was also homeless. She spoke of trying to get on her feet, so I told her of the shelter’s resources. She seemed to be a woman of strong spirit, although her need was clearly great and her battle to recovery seemed a particularly steep hill. We talked throughout my first day volunteering and during the wait on her food; then, she enjoyed five more minutes and two bites with me before graciously excusing herself to return with the rest of the hot-wings to share with her comrades in the park, in a poignant gesture of willingness to share with her friends despite having so little (which made me wish I had more money myself at the time, on my shoestring budget, to have simply bought more food for her.) This wasn’t the only story I heard, but it was one of the more significant experiences of bonding I had with people we conversed with during outreach efforts.

The most transformative part of volunteering was thus the feeling of connection—hearing the stories of those who have struggled significantly, are struggling significantly, and who likewise had similar mixed feelings of shame and gratefulness towards help offered as well as similar goals to persist in the hope of overcoming the challenges the universe doesn’t seem to stop throwing. It was a connection and a disconnect; many people I met had difficulties that made my own definition of insurmountable pale in comparison. This is transformational, however, not just in some moving way, but in an enraging way: this is the scale of the problem. This is how often those with the most issues to face are given the least help in areas that prioritize the buying of life. This is what we need to be doing more about but are failing to—and are ill-equipped to—effectively address.


Conclusion:

Homeless shelters and other social service outreach organizations allow individuals who need help a chance at a safer and more stable starting point to survive the worst times of their life and go on to build something new. Organizations such as Young People Matter (YPM) are vital to this goal, but limited in their effectiveness if not properly funded, organized, and run. Most of the board for YPM was based in New York and had little direct involvement with Atlanta branch volunteers. This distance between the board and the organizations volunteers was a bit frustrating when seeking out information, but Young People Matter’s control at a local level also allowed flexibility to fundraise creatively and collaborate with other organizations in beneficial ways.


During my time volunteering for YPM in 2015, successive incidents of funding droughts remained problematic, however, with social media campaigns not drawing needed support. The website shut down; the Facebook remained up but only spontaneously active, then not at all. While federal grants for funding were handled at the organization headquarters, a more local strategy developed by the YPM Manager was to enlist volunteers to promote the organization through social media avenues such as twitter with direct requests for funding, specifically messages for such to celebrities [following the generous Tyler Perry donation which saved the center the year before my volunteer participation]. The goal was not only to remain open, but also to regain a house-space to open to homeless youth so that YPM may once again provide a place for individuals’ in-need to shower, sleep and eat warm meals. This did not occur, as the Atlanta chapter of the shelter has been shut down in recent years. Reminders like this reaffirm the need for organizations addressing homelessness to be better funded and developed with local expertise of area in assistance to strategy. Ideally, governments would mandate housing solutions outside of shelters and charity; even in cases of minimal socialism that would offer such, lessons from past organizations addressing these causes can yield vital insight into effective action.

* Note: Parts of this essay have been adapted from a semester paper turned for an extracurricular graduate seminar taken in addition to major coursework (Public Management and Policy Department - Introduction to the Non-Profit Sector: a seminar offering an overview of non-profit management, theory, practice, history, and grant writing techniques.)

Hannah Spadafora is the founder and editor of The Conscious World, and a researcher currently focused on economic anthropology, public policy, and social change (see: The Meaningful Work Project.) She is trained as an applied social cultural anthropologist (M.A.) with a heavy background in social political philosophy (B.A.), comparative religion (B.A.), English (minor), psychology (minor), and journalism/mass media (HS), and has experience across the ground level of office, academic, publication, and service industry professions. Previous research projects have focused on justice and human rights, and music fandom. Former classes taught include introduction to anthropology's four subfields (biological, archaeological, social-cultural, linguistic) and student success/first year program classes; these featured themed content on history, performance, ethics, imperialism, biographies, media, and contemporary events. Manuscripts in the works include a fantasy/sci-fi influenced dystopian novel series, as well as non-fiction writing projects on Buddhist/anthropological ethics and public policy; visual anthropology and community performance; and a more informal funny/self-help centered book, How to Fail at Buddhism.  These are written around remote jobs that pay the most basic of bills, but not the soul. An Idealist to the end, clearly. 

Article: Homeless People Matter, But We Don't Act Like It: Volunteering, Community Aid, and Social Change Column: The Local Spotlight

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