How I Became a Homeless Advocate — and How You Can, Too
You may have seen our blogger Eric Sheptock, who calls himself a homeless advocate for the homeless, on CNN today. His previous appearance can be found here. Welcome to the conversation.
Lately, many homeless people have asked me about what they would have to do in order to become a homeless advocate. While I'm ecstatic about them finally wanting to get involved in an issue that directly affects them, the short answer is that, to the best of my knowledge, there is no playbook or blueprint for homeless advocacy. While I haven't developed a course or textbook, explaining my experiences might just serve the same purpose.
In the summer of 2006, two women entered the Franklin School Shelter in Washington D.C., where I was staying, and told the 240 male residents about the plans of then-mayor Tony Williams to close the shelter and open one that held 120 men at Gales School. They asked who wanted to stand up and fight this planned closure. About a dozen of us rose to the challenge. We won our fight against Mayor Williams, only to have our shelter closed by the present mayor, Adrian Fenty.
The next year, the Committee to Save Franklin Shelter, or CSFS, was incorporated as a non-profit and renamed itself Until We're Home, Inc. By 2008, though, the president and secretary stopped attending scheduled meetings without explanation. I would eventually find out that it was due to personal and health problems, respectively; but, it was too late, as other members had already decided to disband. I was the only one left from the original CSFS and the only one who was still homeless.
Shortly after we formed the committee, a member of CSFS said to me, "Eric, everyone else on the committee knows how to use a computer except you. If you can't use a computer, we can't use you." He then took me down to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library and helped me to open an e-mail account on one of the 15-minute computers. I now have over 1,300 e-mail contacts, over 4,000 Facebook friends, over 700 Twitter followers and write for three blogs, including this one. I don't know what I'd do without a computer now.
As I began to attend various meetings, I got into the habit of asking people for their business cards or contact info. This proved to be especially helpful when the shelter needed any maintenance. If I reported a maintenance problem directly to shelter staff, either nothing got done or it just took forever. In one instance, it took three months to replace the single incandescent bulb that lit the front half of a large bathroom where the toilets were. The new bulb blew out in less than a day and it would be two more months before it would be replaced with a lasting bulb. However, I learned that if I mass e-mailed dozens of government employees, then problems got fixed quickly — due, at least in part, to the fact that they couldn't get away with saying they didn't know about the problem. I had become the unofficial ombudsman for the Franklin School Shelter.
Also in 2006, I began to write for the street newspaper Street Sense. People commended my writing skills and recommended that I start a blog. Then, in spring of 2008, I met the director of S.T.R.E.A.T.S. TV at a meeting in city hall. He invited me to be on his show and the following month he set up a blog for me. Then another friend asked me to begin writing for the People's Tribune. Then I was approached by Inforumusa.org and Change.org in 2010. Now my writings reach far and wide and help to keep many concerned citizens up-to-date on happenings within the D.C. homeless community.
Over the years, I've done numerous impromptu news interviews during rallies, protests and other events. I've also had scheduled interviews with radio stations, the Washington Post and the New York Times, just to name a few. But the real kicker came in June 2009 when I was asked to be on NPR, a segment which caused me to gain 269 Facebook friends and 553 Twitter followers in a single day. It also caused CNN to contact me for an appearance.
I've become part of the growing social justice movement through my involvement with groups like the League of Revolutionaries for a New America and Take Back The Land, the latter of which paid for my recent trip to New York City. Also at the start of this year, I attended Social Justice Camp and met a Georgetown professor who'd been following my blog. I then did some community organizing with her students, which earned me pocket money for my trip to the U.S. Social Forum this month, with me having been sponsored for the transportation as well as room and board.
But that wasn't my only work with students. I'd become a speaker for the Faces of Homelessness Speakers' Bureau at the National Coalition for the Homeless in 2006 and continue to work with them off and on. As such, I speak to various groups of high school and college students about the issue of homelessness. In August 2009, I was part of a panel of three local activists who spoke to 300 American University freshmen about local issues. In December 2009, I was one of ten NCH speakers who spoke to 200 first-year medical students at Georgetown University — each of us having been given a class of twenty students and two hours to speak with them.
All of this begs the question: "What have other homeless advocates and myself accomplished?" For the most part, we ensure that existing local laws are enforced. While that may not seem like much, it is highly beneficial to those who would otherwise be mistreated. We also influence a number of public policies (pdf) that affect the homeless.
We educate the public about the issue, thus defeating stereotypes about the homeless. And we are part of the movement to make housing a human right for everyone worldwide. Just as importantly, we often give the homeless information about policies and programs that exist for them. We've helped to increase public awareness of the issue and we've become part of the movement. It is the dedication of others like myself which makes people willing to donate to us and to sponsor us for movement-building trips. That is why I was able to advise others in Detroit to "dive headlong into the issue of their choosing and go where it takes them."
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