How Shifting Perspectives Can Solve Homelessness in America

6 min read

Kevin F. Adler grew up with an uncle who was experiencing homelessness.

As an adult, that family connection motivated Adler to start Miracle Messages, a non-profit supporting people experiencing homelessness through family reunification efforts, a phone buddy program, a $2.1 million basic income pilot program, and narrative change work.

With poverty researcher Donald Burnes, Adler is co-author of the new book When We Walk By: Forgotten Humanity, Broken Systems, And the Role We All Play in Ending Homelessness in America, released on November 7.

The book ties together a decade of Adler’s work and is a guide for how we can empathetically rethink our notions of homelessness, seeing others not as problems to be fixed, but as people to be loved.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

North Atlantic Books / Used with permission.

North Atlantic Books / Used with permission.

What motivated you to start Miracle Messages?

My Uncle Mark had experienced homelessness. For 30 years he lived mostly on the streets of Santa Cruz. I never thought of him as a homeless man. But he was just the beloved member of my family who remembered every birthday and was the guest of honor at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

After he passed away – he was 50 years old and died alone in transitional housing – I started thinking that everyone I’m walking by who’s experiencing homelessness is someone’s son or daughter, brother, sister, or maybe some kid’s beloved uncle. I wanted to better understand the stories of the people I was walking by. I realized how little I knew about my own uncle when he wasn’t at our Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner table.

I ended up just taking a walk down the street in San Francisco around Christmas time going out to everyone I thought who was visibly homeless and asking a very simple question: “Do you have any loved ones you’d like to reconnect with?”

You say we shouldn’t lump people together as “the homeless.” Why is it damaging to think of them as one coherent group, or with the same underlying reason for being homeless?

I cited in the book this 1967 primetime documentary by CBS News, called The Homosexuals. And I remember hearing about this, and I thought, we look at that now as antiquated. How ridiculous. How offensive. The diversity of experience of identity and perspective – from gay to lesbian to transgender to bisexual to questioning to queer is a whole rainbow, right?

I think “The homeless” as a monolith is still very pervasive in public perception and media accounts of this issue. There’s not much nuance between a mother with children who is escaping a domestic violence situation and a person who has experienced a natural disaster and is still trying to get their life back together after having their house flooded or burned down. It could be someone who has health issues and can’t afford to pay for the treatment, or didn’t have coverage because of job loss, or lost a loved one who got kicked out of their house, or who has a substance abuse issue.

If I see a person who seems homeless on the street, how should I talk to them?

Have a conversation. I tend to just say, “Hello, how are you? How long have you lived in the area?” If they seem engaging, then I may even ask about family connection, if they have family or friends nearby.

It’s helpful to have something on hand to give people that feels tangible. A pair of socks is great. It’s one of the most requested items on the streets. Someone who’s wearing the same pair of socks – you’re on your feet all day, there’s inclement weather, you’re wearing it day and night – you can get tremendous foot sores. It gets wet with rain. It can be a really messy, nasty thing. So, handing out a pair of socks.

And “Hi, my name is so and so.” I also think it’s okay to not engage with everyone you see. There are plenty of people I pass by every day and I don’t sit down and have a long in-depth conversation, or even do much more than maybe make eye contact, smile, and nod. What I’ve learned is it’s not about purity testing. There’s no absolutism like every person, you must do this.

What we need to do is take a moment if we disengage or we choose not to, or feel anxious or afraid, take a moment to check in. Why is that? And then take proactive steps to address those reasons.

What kind of change are you seeking with this book?

I wrote the book I wish existed 10 years ago when I started this journey. I came from a place of not knowing much about the issue of homelessness. I cared for and had a personal connection to my uncle, but I wanted to know what I could do. This book is about homelessness, but it’s really about us as housed people. What role do we play in maintaining, creating, and allowing a situation like homelessness? What elements, paternalism to exclusion, where cities make it illegal to be homeless? Hyper-individualism, where we assume when we look at someone and they’re successful, we say that’s a self-made man or woman. Does that mean someone who’s poor or experiencing homelessness: Are they deservedly poor? Have they “self-failed?”

I think understanding the systems that we sit in and that our country maintains that are broken, humanity’s shortcomings, and our role in them. As a result of understanding our role in creating some of the issues that we’re facing, that can actually be an empowering thing to say, here’s what we can do about it. Here’s how we can be part of the solution. I’m hoping that this book is informative, but hopeful, that it gives people a sense that change is possible. I feel more hopeful and more optimistic – having gone through the work that I’ve done over the last decade and writing this book – than I did 10 years ago.

North Atlantic Books / Used with permission

Source: North Atlantic Books / Used with permission

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