At Mobile Loaves & Fishes, we spend a lot of time with the homeless. We know them intimately. We’ve watched as many of our homeless friends have transitioned themselves into a better life, using the support we offer to build a home and a job for themselves. We’ve also watched as many of them have succumbed to their demons, spiraling downward into addiction, depression, lawlessness and even death.
Because our work is based in the belief that our purpose as humans (individually and collectively) is to serve one another as children of God, we refer to our homeless friends as our brothers and sisters. We are all part of a single family. We are all human.
So it was with great interest that our team watched the debate over the Homeless HotSpots unfold during SxSWi this year. For those unaware of the controversy, it seems that a NYC marketing firm got the idea to wire homeless individuals with WiFi, give them a t-shirt that says, “My name is (x) and I’m a HotSpot” and collect donations to use the wireless service which would then go to support the homeless individuals.
I heard about the campaign about a week before SxSWi started and I paused to debate it in my own mind. Once I learned more about their plan, I actually thought it was a pretty good idea. After all, Mobile Loaves & Fishes launched it’s own initiative this weekend called Street Treats, where our homeless friends are selling Blue Bell ice-cream for a small profit to support themselves.
I agree with the critics who say that turning people into objects is demeaning. Perhaps the marketing firm could have executed the campaign with a little more sensitivity. Certainly, at Mobile Loaves & Fishes we spend a huge amount of time trying to raise awareness about the humans behind the label of “homelessness.” These are not “vagrants”, “bums”, “tramps” or “addicts” – they are people who, like the rest of us, possess infinite potential.
But on the other hand, society has a really bad habit of wanting to put the homeless in a corner, throw some money at a shelter and pretend that they are actually helping these people. The same people who are complaining about objectifying the homeless have probably never sat down and had a cup of coffee with one of them either.
Most of us labor under the idea that homeless people are bums, desperate for and grateful for anything thrown at them by those of us who take the time to toss a few crumbs (or a few bucks) their way. In fact, many homeless people have an income aside from what they get panhandling, many of them have cell phones, and they are often educated, gifted and highly intelligent. What they don’t have is a community.
Alan Graham (founder of Mobile Loaves & Fishes) always says that the #1 cause of homelessness in America is the profound loss of family and I like to broaden that out to a profound loss of community. Even if your family is all gone, there should be a network of people who help you in that same way: as a person—not as a charity case. Someone who’ll take you for a haircut, invite you to their home, loan you money when you need it, forgive you when you make mistakes, give you a smile, pray with you, and remind you that you’re worth it all.
When I was downtown at SxSWi, I met one of the HotSpot guys. He was standing in the middle of the crowd. The dude was clean, wearing a new T-Shirt, handing out flyers and smiling from ear to ear. I took a flyer without saying anything as I passed because the crowd was so busy but when I glanced down and saw what it was I stopped and went back.
I introduced myself to him and told him I worked for Mobile Loaves & Fishes. He smiled even broader and told me he knew us well. I congratulated him on his work and he said thanks—he was excited to be a part of it. It was a great exchange. Clearly, this wasn’t a matter of ‘hanging a sign on a bum’.
The thing is, homeless people don’t actually want to be alienated by their homelessness. The derision, pity, or fear they see in the eyes of passersby is as harmful to them as any drug or alcohol. They want to be part of a community, the same way every other human on earth does. At SxSWi, I witnessed the same homeless dude who may have had to sleep in a shelter that night working smack dab in the middle of the biggest geek conference in America, swimming in a sea of humanity, interacting with people, earning money, and feeling like he was a part.
This isn’t about the money (or lack thereof). It never is. That’s what people who want to “solve homelessness” just don’t get. Money doesn’t solve homelessness. Communities do. Families do. People do. And anything that gets our homeless brothers and sisters interacting with people who would otherwise just write a check to a charity and dismiss them is okay by me.
Fellow L.A.-based homelessness activist Mark Horvath was in town for SxSWi and took the time to interview one of the gentlemen who was working as a HotSpot:
Amanda Quraishi is a writer, technology professional and interfaith activist working at Mobile Loaves & Fishes in Austin, Texas.