Homeless Advocacy, Social Networking, Fame & Infamy

Homeless Advocacy, Social Networking, Fame & Infamy

In early November I was contacted by a Washington Post intern named Nathan Rott. He'd been covering homeless issues for about 5 months at the time. He'd also spoken to reporters Marc Fisher and Petula Dvorak who told him that I had over 4,500 Facebook friends. So, Nathan decided to profile me and to build the story around my use of the internet to advocate for the homeless through social networking.

He followed me around off and on for about 3 weeks, ending on November 27th. Then the story was held for about 2 weeks before being published; because, the editor wanted to put it on the front page. Then, on December 3rd I was called by a friend of a friend who wanted me to be part of a radio broadcast on WAMU 88.5 FM in which we would discuss a program called "Art Works" through which poor and homeless children and adults do art that is then sold on the internet. (The proceeds go to the artist or the non-profit of their choosing.) That radio show was pre-taped on December 10th. Earlier that same day, I received a phone from someone wanting me to accompany him in a T.V. interview about a bill being considered by the DC Council that would adversely affect the homeless. On Sunday, December 12th I received a call from Nathan stating that the article would run the next day. Little did I know how much the events of the next day would change my life.

Nathan's profile of me was published in the Washington Post on Monday, December 13th and got picked up by the Huffington Post on-line. Also that morning the pre-taped interview ran on WAMU 88.5 FM. The Post's sister paper "The Express" ran a captioned photo of me speaking to Howard university medical students about homelessness. Then, as I rode the bus from Thrive DC where I eat breakfast to the National Coalition for the Homeless so that I could participate in the Channel 9 interview, I received a call from someone at the Washington Legal Clinic who said that the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) wanted to interview me. As I finished the Channel 9 interview, the reporter said that he wanted to shoot some footage of me talking on my cell phone. Then, with perfect timing, the man from BBC called me. I would end up doing a radio interview with BBC that evening, for a total of six media events that day. This is not counting the publications that picked up my story unbeknownst to me.

But this media blitz hasn't been a day in the park. It has afforded me the opportunity to do public education on the issue of homelessness, which is awesome. nonetheless, a week after the Post article came out, I am still working feverishly to respond to the outpouring of support that I've received from all corners of the globe. I had 4,548 Facebook friends before the article was published and received over 600 friend requests. (Facebook stops you at 5,000 and you have to create a fan page.) I had 840 Twitter followers on December 12th, but gained 250 by day's end on December 13th. (I'm now up to about 1,250 followers.)

As a result of the Post article, I was interviewed by Voice of America on the 16th and will be on MSNBC at 12:30 PM on the 20th. That's not to speak of the fact that CNN plans to do a day-in-the-life interview of me later this week.

I've used the media attention to dispel stereotypes about the homeless. On BBC I explained that the top 5 reasons for homelessness in the U.S. are:

1 -- Lack of affordable housing
2 -- Lack of a living wage
3 -- Domestic violence (but for women and children this is no. 1.)
4 -- Medical bankrupcy
5 -- Mental illness.

and told them to note that alcoholism and drug addiction don't even make the top 5 and that many homeless substance abusers developed their habits AFTER becoming homeless.

Many people have expressed a willingness to help and have offered ideas as to how I can advance my homeless advocacy. They've told me to start a non-profit, open a PayPal account, write a book and to get my own radio or T.V show. The first 2 or 3 seem to be the most feasible ideas. But, in spite of these and other ideas that people have given me, the most pressing need right now is the need to organize. (Next to that is the need to recruit more homeless advocates.)

I must admit that I was not expecting all of the support that I've been receiving. Facebook friends have sent me foreign-language links of the Washington Post article from Italy, Portugal and Argentina. They've sent me compliments from those countries as well as Canada, the United Kingdom and Copenhagen. I have been trying to acknowledge everyone's comments, but may have to forgo that effort.

What's more is that I've been trying to cherry-pick the messages that are more than mere compliments and require active follow-up. (I didn't see the FB message inviting me to be on MSNBC until it had been in my inbox for four days.)

But along with all of the support, I've also received some negative feedback. I haven't seen most of it. A friend from New Jersey told me of the many negative comments being made about me on the Washington Post blog. She also told me of a conservative republican social networker who wrote an entire piece disparaging me. I've been too busy to check those sights and respond to the negative feedback. (Only one disparager has been smart enough to send his message to my Facebook page.)

Speaking of being busy, I have been spending many hours at DC's Chinatown Starbucks (where I am now) drinking coffee and using their wi-fi with my laptop which was a gift 3 months ago to catch up on my responses. This past Saturday night, I didn't get off of the computer until 11 PM and got to bed just after midnight. (I had to get up at 6 AM the following morning in order to make it to 7 AM Bible study and the 8 AM Eucharist at my church where I'm in the choir.)

Some of the naysayers tell me to get a job and that, if I want to advocate for the homeless, I should do it through a non-profit. This latter comment baffles me. So, if I advocate for the homeless pro bono, I'm supposedly not working. However, if I do the exact same thing through a non-profit, it qualifies as work. So, it's the pay that makes it work and not the importance of the task, huh? I can't quite wrap my head around that one.

As long as this blog post is, it only begins to capture the excitement of the past week. I was so tired this afternoon that I had to literally FORCE myself to sit down and do this blog post. I'm running on coffee right now. Well, in closing, it has been an eventful week and the action hasn't stopped yet. The fight to make housing a recognized human right has risen to new heights. It has gained momentum. I'm glad to be part of it. Nonetheless, I can't do it alone. There are other homeless advocates in Washington, DC. But I'm reminded of the words of Christ who said,"The harvest is plentiful; but, the laborers are few" and those of John Lennon who said,"Maybe more will join us". Will you be one of them?


Karen O'Keefe said…
Great job, Eric! I just saw you on the front page of CNN.com and watched the interview.

When people used to shout "get a job" to me when I was protested against war, I'd sometimes shout back, "get a heart." Don't let jerks get you down. Your advocacy has improved living conditions and opened hearts, and your points in rebuttal make perfect sense.

Merry Christmas, Eric!
Anonymous said…
Dear Mr. Sheptock,

A suggestion which might prove useful. Here's a principle to keep in mind in whatever you do...

"Where ethically and legally possible, shorten the distance between points A and B where distance is physical distance or time to reduce systemic waste."

When one looks at life and sees it as a system to be operated upon through the intelligent and effective use of the principle above, many things about life become clearer. It gives one the opportunity to see the fulcrum point upon which people and system move or operate. It, the principle, is empowering.

If you ponder what I've written and read the works of Dr. W. Edwards Deming (who lived in Washington, D.C.) and try to extract his methods while looking at homelessness in the USA or even one's own life situation, good things can and will happen. First read Deming's book "Out of The Crisis" and also read Kenneth T. Delavigne's book entitled "Deming's Profound Changes". Those books were critical for me and I think if you read them they will empower you to become even more effective in your advocacy.

One more thought. Try to get a www.screenr.com account and a inexpensive microphone to attach to a computer connected to the Internet. It will provide you with a voice so you don't have to type so much if you don't feel like doing so.

Computers help to invoke the principle I mentioned above. That's why everyone-every person who is homeless-should learn to use library computers (and carry a USB stick with portable software applications on them) because a computer in the right hands is a powerful thing (as you well know).

With all good wishes as you fight the good fight for the homeless in the USA,

Michael Flessas

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