Monday, December 20, 2010

My Response To An On-line Article Disparaging My Homeless Advocacy

As stated in my previous blog post, I've been the subject of a massive media frenzy since Monday, December 13th due to my use of the internet to advocate for DC's homeless. It has gained much support for me. But it has also caused some to express their disdain for both me and my efforts. I welcome the supporters, but am not opposed to people stating their disagreement with me. I'm still working feverishly to harness all of the support that I'm receiving and channel it into something that would make my homeless advocacy more impactful -- something like a 501(c)4, as I refuse to give up my right to participate in political activities by establishing a 501(c)3. I'm beginning to weigh my options. The article about my on-line homeless advocacy has, in effect, forced me to spend even more hour on-line.

A ladyfriend from New Jersey called me on Sunday, December 19th because she was bothered by a particular article in the Huffington Post entitled "Food or Facebook for America's Homeless?" and written by James Richardson. She'd called me several days earlier to tell me that about two-thirds of the commenters on the Washington Post blog were saying negative, even ignorant, things about me. (I've been too busy to check the site.) But she found this article to be particularly bothersome. I presume, after having read it, that it is the intelligent manner in which it was written that made it so bothersome. (Writing intelligently gives one more credibility than making crass, uninformed remarks does.) So, though I had much work to do, I saw fit to respond to this article immediately.

Oddly enough, James Richardson who despises my use of the internet to advocate for the homeless has given me another reason to use it -- so that I can write this article in response to his article. However, I must emphasize the fact that I respect his intelligence and that I don't choose to have an adversial relationship with him. I have instead come to see this as a teachable moment. And being that this exchange is taking place on-line, it affords me the ability to do public education on the issue of homelessness -- thanks to James.

First of all, James, I am not a "recoverING crack cocaine addict". I am fully "recoverED". furthermore, I didn't go to NA or any government-subsidized drug program. I quit cold-turkey on the morning of August 1st, 2005 and haven't used since. And, for what it's worth to you, homeless people who felt alienated by me due to their own erroneous assumptions that I was holier-than-thou have become more comfortable around me. Just for the record, I don't buy into that lifelong "recovering addict" mentality that keeps people going to NA/AA years after having quit. My guess is that such thinking only serves to help NA/AA justify its continued existence and enables it to receive an infinite stream of funding. (If you want to end wasteful spending, start there.)

You were right about me receiving e-mail alerts on press mentions of my name, though I'm not so sure that I'm the only homeless man in America that does. And yes this one DID register.

James, I commend you for quoting me properly when you said that I "refuse to accept any job that might interfere with my on-line advocacy" Others have misquoted me by saying that I refuse to accept any job, which I've NEVER said. I might add though that my homeless advocacy is not entirely on-line -- and never could be. I go to many meetings, rallies, protests and other events. I speak to various high school, college and church groups about homelessness -- some through the National Coalition for the Homeless and some as an individual. I converse with various homeless people, so as to hear their concerns and communicate them to government and/or other agencies. I am presently working through STREATS.TV to create a job-training program for DC's homeless. I work with other homeless advocates to find permanent solutions to homelessness. I'm also part of a Marxist study group where we discuss Karl Marx's social theory and analysis of society (though I'm not an atheist). If I never got away from the computer, I wouldn't have anything to write about. That's not to speak of the fact that you obviously spend a considerable amount of time on the internet.

You are right about many people liking me. And they'll like me all the more when I'm through responding to you. But consider why it is that they like me. Here's a quick recap of events. On March 5th, 2009 Michelle Obama visited the homeless at Miriam's Kitchen here in DC. A homeless man photographed her using his camera phone while someone else photographed him. The latter photo was posted in blogs with people asking (rather ignorantly I might add) why someone who can afford a camera phone can't afford to pay rent. This began a media frenzy about the homeless using technology: cell phones, e-mail, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and much more. A Dept. of Labor employee put that photo and an offensive caption in his work e-mail (which wasn't very smart). My fellow homeless advocate Steve Thomas sent it to the man's superiors at DOL, stating that he didn't want the man fired but would rather develop a working relationship with DOL. STREATS (of which I am part) then began to work with DOL to create a job-training program for DC's homeless. Then the Washington Post article came out on December 13th, 2010. So, Michelle visiting the homeless led to people being fascinated with a homeless person's ability to use technology (as if being homeless makes one brainless). That led to an effort to create a job-training program for DC's homeless -- which continues to this day.

I personally was part of the media frenzy around homeless people using technology. That metamorphosed into people being awe-stricken by the fact that a homeless person can see beyond his own problems so as to advocate for others. (See my June 12th, 2009 appearance on CNN.) Then, two Washington Post reporters who'd interviewed me in the past -- Petula Dvorak and Marc Fisher -- told a Wash Po intern named Nathan Rott about the fact that I had over 4,500 Facebook friends, thus the profile. That said, my tendency to help others in spite of my own problems is quite inspiring to many. (Let that be a lesson to you.)

James, you described the homeless as "an otherwise silent, underserved community" -- and rightly so. Maybe now you can begin to understand why I am so passionate about advocating for them. And yes I did deliver an urgent call to action to my on-line supporters to "Demand the City of Gainesville, Florida to Feed All Who Are Hungry". That can be found at Change.org under "Poverty in America". You failed to mention the thrust of the blog post which was to reverse a new city ordinance which only allows St. Francis House to feed 130 meals per day, even though they have the capacity to feed more than twice that number and have done so for years. Furthermore, that was a targeted campaign with no less than three Change.org bloggers writing about it.

James, you quoted me as having said that "Socialism isn't a bad word". You then followed by saying,"But for those with responsibilities beyond updating their various social networks, demanding they be fed to their fill is not an option". I've already indicated that I'm a Theistic Marxist who does much more than sit at a computer. As a matter of fact, I just left MSNBC before sitting down to type this.

As my friend from New Jersey pointed out, you should be more sympathetic toward the poor, having grown up poor. When you mentioned the lack of government aid in rural Georgia during your childhood, were you bragging about your mother's hard work or complaining about the lack of a safety net? You explained that, if your mother had spent her time demanding that there be a social safety net or begging for charity, you would have been hungry and homeless. (But you made no mention of your father.) This is reminiscent of how many homeless people are incapable of searching for jobs due to the inproportionate amount of time that they must spend acquiring their daily sustenance. Many poor people the world over get trapped in poverty because they spend so much time just trying to survive and don'thave time to improve their situation. Can you relate?

As you mention how many government programs exist for the purpose of helping the homeless and/or mentally ill, bear in mind that it was President Reagan who closed many mental institutions, increasing the homeless population exponentially. This helps to make the point that certain segments of the population are always going to need some level of government assistance -- be it in a mental hospital or homeless shelter. It's like squeezing one end of a balloon. The air doesn't go away; it just moves to the other end. And so, Reagan simply shifted the problem -- and increased the cost of solving it. You should also remember that many government programs only maintain homelessness, rather than ending it.

James, I'd have you to know that the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) -- the shelter where I presently reside -- is a non-profit that is run by volunteers. Though it is located in a building that Reagan signed over to the DC government after a long fight with the homeless community, neither the city nor the federal government pay its operating expenses. Also, I use money I earned to pay $58.30/month for my Virgin Mobile phone ($49.99/mo. + tax for unlimited, anytime minutes and $5.00/mo. + tax for up to 1,000 texts). I own a Toshiba Notebook (small laptop) which was a gift. I often go to Starbucks and BUY a coffee before sitting down to use their wi'fi. Aside from that I use the computers at the Library of Congress or the DC Public libraries, which are free and available to the public -- not just the homeless.

I have several reasons for not working for an established organization. The homeless (myself included) have many barriers to employment which I'll address in another blog post/article/FB note. I should also point out that, when an intelligent man has a poor work history and/or checkered past, he sometimes begins to fight for the underprivileged because it is one of the few options that will make use of his talents. It behooves people like yourself, James, who would rather not see me speak up for the underserved to ensure that gifted people can always find work, as this might pull them away from standing up for the poor. Nonetheless, social justice is a good thing. You seem to understand the barriers being faced by the poor and the homeless who try to rise above their circumstances. But you also seem to be adverse to the idea of me helping them.

I won't stop until we've ushered in a more just system.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

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?

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

RIP Mary Ann Luby -- Who Gave Me My Start As A Homeless Advocate

It is with great sadness that I say that Mary Ann Luby -- the woman who gave me my start as a homeless advocate -- passed away on November 29th, 2010 after a short battle with cancer (less than 2 weeks). While it stands to reason that she might've had cancer long before it was detected, I can definitely appreciate the fact that her suffering was cut short. She is greatly missed by myself and others nonetheless.

Mary Ann was one of two women who entered the Franklin School Shelter in mid-June 2006 to tell its 240 residents about the plans of former DC mayor Anthony Williams to close the shelter and to re-open the Gales School as a shelter with 120 beds, leaving half of us with nowhere to go. Mary Ann was a nun of the Dominican Order who did outreach work for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. The other woman was a community activist named Becky Sambol who fought for several different causes. They called a meeting amongst the shelter residents and about a dozen attended. That night we formed the Committee to Save Franklin shelter (CSFS).

Becky would remain involved for a couple of months and then bide her time with other endeavors. But Mary Ann was committed to one cause and one cause only -- the cause of the homeless. Mary Ann went with CSFS to meetings with various public officials. She helped us find our way through the maze of DC Government agencies to the people that could help us. She invited us to our first ICH (Inter-agency Council on Homelessness) meeting which was held in the One Judiciary Square Building with former city administrator Robert Bobb presiding. She told us about the National Coalition for the Homeless with its Faces of Homelessness Speakers' Bureau and encouraged us to become speakers. These are just some of the things that she did within the first 3 months after inspiring the formation of CSFS. To this day, I still attend ICH meetings and continue to speak for NCH.

I'd actually seen Mary Ann a couple of times before June 2006 as she came around to different breakfast programs to make announcements and circulate her publication called "Listen Up!" -- a one-page flier that she would type which informed the homeless about upcoming meetings and other events that were (or should've been) of interest to the homeless community as well as warn them about freeze alerts and instruct them on what to do during inclement weather. I attended a March 3rd, 2006 hearing at the Wilson Building (City Hall) as a result of her outreach. I would see her at least a couple more times between March and June, but had no idea at the time just how much she would come to mean to me in the months and years that followed.

In November of 2006 a committee member named David Pirtle taught me how to do e-mail. I would eventually begin to use e-mail to communicate problems being experienced by the homeless as well as work orders for needed repairs on the Franklin School Shelter to DC government. But at some point I also figured out that I could communicate a wide range of problems and questions to Mary Ann and get timely answers. She was never too busy to address my questions or concerns, whether I sent them via e-mail or stopped her when I saw her. I get a lot of credit for helping people; but, many folk don't realize how many times I simply e-mailed Mary Ann and left it up to her to take care of things.

In what would turn out to be the last months of her life mary Ann worked with STREATS to help create a job-training program for DC's homeless -- an effort that continues even now. However, what mary Ann is best known for is not what she did for the homeless, but rather what she taught them to do for themselves -- to advocate on their own behalf.

I was recently profiled by the Washington Post for how I advocate for the homeless pro bono and use the internet to educate the public about the issue of homelessness. (The article has yet to be published.) But the fact of the matter is that Mary Ann deserves much of the credit and recognition. But she wasn't in it for the glory -- a fact that I became acutely aware of as I tried to find pictures of her on the internet following her death and could only find one. Well, may this blog post and the many good things that people say and write about her begin to bestow upon her the praise that is due her for her dedication to the cause of the underprivileged as she rests in her heavenly home away from homelessness.

I'd be remiss if I didn't explain that even in her final moments Mary Ann was concerned with who would continue her work. That said, we honor her memory not by shedding tears for her, but rather by continuing her legacy of working tirelessly for solutions to homelessness and encouraging the homeless to stand up and speak out for themselves. (For what it's worth to you, that begins to explain why it took me until 8 days after her death to do this post -- I was busy advocating for the homeless.)

RIP mary Ann Luby.
We love you.

Well, what are you waiting for?!
Find something to do!

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