A Hands-On Approach to Challenging Myths about Homelessness

Earlier this year, we dispelled some of the myths about what homelessness looks like in the U.S. using data from the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress. Abt Associates’ staff produces this report each year on behalf of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

This month, with the release of the 2016 AHAR Part 2 and the 2017 AHAR Part 1, we are again reminded that each data point is a person — someone’s mother, father, son, daughter, or friend — and everyone can contribute to challenging the myths about people experiencing homelessness.

5 Ways to Challenge Myths about Homelessness
Many ways exist to engage people on the issue of homelessness and change the dialogue on the issue.

1. Learn: The AHAR is one of the nation’s most important resources for measuring progress to prevent and end homelessness. It is a great starting point for an in-depth look at national estimates of homelessness, trends among different subpopulations, and the changing demographic profile of people who experience homelessness.
 
Other resources include:
2. Donate: Whether in-kind or financial, nonprofit organizations that help people experiencing homelessness rely on our support.
  • If giving financially, consider a non-restricted, recurring donation. The funding that many nonprofit organizations receive from government programs or foundations can only be used for specific activities, so programs often need support for critical administrative activities;
  • If giving in-kind, ask organizations what supplies they most need, and remember less thought of items, such as women’s hygiene products or back-to-school materials; and
  • Increase your impact by encouraging friends, family, or your workplace to join in your donation. At many companies, including Abt, staff donates clothing, toiletries, and other items for local shelters. The group effort makes a huge difference!
 
3. Volunteer: Organizations in nearly every community offer diverse opportunities to volunteer, from mentoring a child or serving dinner in a shelter to organizing supply closets or answering phones. Find a local nonprofit and see what opportunities best suit your interests and schedule.
 
In addition, you can:
  • Be a volunteer surveyor for your community’s Point-in-Time Count — an annual census of people living on the streets, which informs Part 1 of the AHAR. Ask your local homeless shelters for more information; and
  • Get your workplace involved in the effort, either through a group volunteer activity, or through a longer-term service fellowship. Abt currently has seven alumni of the Service Never Sleeps fellowship for young professionals, which helps connect office work back to volunteerism.
 
4. Interact: People are social animals. How we engage with each other matters. When talking about homelessness, use “people first” language — such as “people experiencing homelessness,” rather than “the homeless.” If you feel comfortable, talk to someone you see who may be experiencing homelessness:
  • Make eye contact. It’s hard to see a fellow human suffering, but this small step helps acknowledge his or her humanity;
  • Say hello. It could be the door to a great conversation. It could be the most conversation that person has all day; and
  • Take a deep breath before taking offense. You may not receive a friendly response, but try to put yourself in that person’s shoes — he or she could be tired, lonely, hungry, or just in a bad mood like any of us can be.
 
5. Advocate: As you learn more about homelessness, remember to raise your voice whenever possible about the issue:
  • The National Alliance to End Homelessness provides an easy-to-use online tool for making a call or sending an email to your congressional representatives. They also organize an in-person annual Capitol Hill Day;
  • Facebook also has a tool for contacting your elected representatives on these important issues. So, while you’re sharing homelessness efforts with your network of friends, make sure to send it their way, too!;
  • Encourage your local, state, and federal officials to participate in national homelessness initiatives, such as the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, Built for Zero, True Colors Fund’s #40toNoneDay, and the Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day;
  • Know a landlord? The National League of Cities has resources to encourage and support landlords looking to provide housing units for people experiencing homelessness;
  • Lean in to conversations among your friends and family, challenging stereotypes of people experiencing homelessness as they arise; and
  • Share facts related to homelessness via social media. The Welcome Home Project has many touching, myth-busting, shareable materials.

A Resolution for the New Year
When research meets engagement, data points become people. According to the 2016 AHAR Part 2, the number of people who accessed a homeless shelter at some point during the year has decreased 15 percent since 2007. Our New Year’s resolution is to keep supporting the interventions that make this possibility of ending homelessness real — and challenging the myths surrounding the topic as we do.

How will you take a hands-on approach to re-thinking homelessness in the New Year?
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