Ending The Invisibility Of Homelessness

Last night in San Francisco, 6436 of our neighbors slept on the streets or in shelters.

The lack of affordable, safe, and supportive housing is a scourge on society. It costs $90K to maintain a human being on the streets for a year, compared to $18K to provide supportive housing to a previously homeless person. Over the last 10 years, an influx of 75,000 people have moved to San Francisco, while only 17,000 new housing units have been built.

We can end chronic homelessness by 2020 by providing affordable, safe, and supportive housing options to the homeless and by electing representatives who will fight for housing as a basic human need.

But providing support means understanding that the needs of the homeless extend beyond housing.

“They” are individuals and they need to be able to tell their stories.

Stories like Ronnie Goodman’s, a 54-year old artist and half marathon runner in San Francisco. The studio where he works at 440 Haight Street showcases his paintings, adorned with colorful motifs of Frida Kahlo and jazz legends and social justice and San Francisco streets.

He gives back generously to his community, raising $15K by running half marathons and donating original artwork for worthy causes like Hospitality House, Coltrane Church, and the Street Sheet. Ronnie is also homeless. While he has been offered housing before, it was located in an area where he says, “I would feel tempted to relapse on my addictions.”

Ronnie Goodman artist and marathoner

Ronnie Goodman, artist and marathoner

Neuroscience research has shown that the medial prefrontal cortex — the part of our brain that activates when we see a fellow human being as compared to an object — does not activate when we see a homeless person. As a result, we can walk by members of our own family and not recognize them if they appear homeless.

Without knowing their stories, we risk perceiving people like Ronnie as less than human. It’s ridiculous that we know every detail of our acquaintances on Facebook, and yet know so little of the 3.5 million Americans who have experienced homelessness this year.

This issue is personal to me. Mark was my uncle. He was the most family-oriented member of my extended family. He remembered every birthday.

Mark was also homeless. He suffered from schizophrenia, and spent 30 years on and off the streets and in and out of halfway houses before he died 10 years ago at the age of 50.

The author's uncle, Mark Adler, homeless for 30 years

The author’s uncle, Mark Adler, center, homeless for 30 years

At the beginning of this year, I started HomelessPOV to help people like Ronnie and Mark capture their stories using wearable cameras, smart phones, and the help of their neighbors.

After collaborating with 15 homeless autobiographers and receiving over 300 messages from people across the country wanting to get involved, I left my job in edtech a few months ago to build NearShot, a new type of media and interaction company that uses immersive storytelling to connect people with life as it’s rarely seen but often felt.

The word “entertainment” has a negative connotation in our society, conjuring mindless Reality TV shows of sassy pre-pubescent beauty queens and rich people in mansions. We are restoring the idea of entertainment to its empathetic Latin root: “to hold inside,” as in, to entertain an idea or experience.

We are in the final hours of the 2015 campaign to curate #100stories of homelessness across America. Along with the filming sessions, we coordinate with local businesses and service providers to offer opportunities for homeless and non-homeless neighbors to interact and break bread together.

The causes of homelessness are vast and varied among the 15 autobiographers we selected. They include a lack of affordable housing, poverty, unemployment, trauma, addiction, medical expenses, domestic violence, mental illness, physical disabilities, evictions, divorce, relational brokenness, grief, despair, and other unexpected, life-altering events.

Throughout, there is one comment that emerges in each conversation: “I realized I was homeless not when I lacked housing, but when I lost the family and friends that provided me with support.”

A new brand of homeless services understands this, leveraging a bit of technology to build relationships, deliver much-needed services, and humanize homeless people.

Artlifting helps homeless artists sell and showcase their artwork. HandUp enables anyone to donate directly to a homeless neighbor in need. Lava Mae retrofits MUNI buses to deliver mobile showers to homeless people. And San Francisco community mainstays like St. Anthony’s just opened a new dining room in October, designed to foster human connectivity for another 64 years of daily meal services.

We are proud to partner with these organizations, and celebrate the work of others that build social capital. There’s sf.citi’s historic partnership with Project Homeless ConnectInvisible People’s use of video and social media to share stories from the streets; hackathons for the homeless in San Francisco and Seattle, and Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation’s transformative services that provide tenants with “the sense of connectedness and community that we often take for granted.” These organizations recognize that home is “more than just four walls and a roof.”

In this community, we can stand up for self-expression and social capital, for the importance of understanding each others’ stories and building relationships.  Let’s stop steering clear of each other and start engaging again as fellow human beings.

Technology alone is not the answer. But it can help us tell our stories — and make a difference in each others’.

Editor’s Note: Kevin F. Adler is the Founder and CEO of NearShot, a media + interaction company based in San Francisco, whose first project is HomelessPOV.