Monday, November 15, 2010

Up Close, Personal

A friend of mine sent me this email over the weekend. It's poignant as we come upon the holidays and our usual special focus turns to the tragedy of homelessness and our seasonal compassion. Don't get me wrong, its laudable, but I don't get the sense that we truly grasp what allowing this condition to go insufficiently addressed says about us and our priorities.

Dear Gerald,

Last year I had the unfortunate experience of visiting an upper income church the Sunday before Thanksgiving that left me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. With people hurting and in pain, a 9% unemployment rate, and hunger on the rise, the sermon focused on all the ways that the congregation needed to give more to take care of themselves. He emphasized expansion of the education building, and more fellowship dinners, and how they want to have the best youth programs around and that they need great facilities to do so. And all of that is true.

But what made me cringe was the way he acknowledged the economic pain being experienced by so many in his climactic conclusion. In a booming voice designed to compel action... he said “I know that there are a lot of people hurting out there right now, I know that times are hard and unemployment is high. But I also know that this congregation is full of people who have done very well despite the economy... and you need to open up your checkbooks to help us make our facilities nicer.”

Not a single mention of what the church should be doing to help those who have lost their jobs. Not a single mention of our need as Christians to be taking the lead in touching those who are hurting. Not a single mention of how we can minister to those who are frightened about how they are going to feed and clothe their children. But a huge emphasis on how they make their building nicer because we are not hurting like all those “other people” are.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I wanted to share with you two powerful stories about the Austin City Manager that may be of use to you as you wrestle with how to help your congregation be more focused on the “least of these” during a season of Thanksgiving. I suspect the City Manager’s actions were prompted by his faith orientation, and I am proud of him for taking such moral leadership. But I am saddened that this story wasn’t about church leaders instead of a governmental leader. In essence, the City Manager chose to go undercover as a homeless person to experience it firsthand and it was an eye opening experience. A brief video clip is at Two news articles about his experience are below. They are worth reading.

They walk among us, but they are invisible

The Statesman

Published: 12:00 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 13, 2010

What would you do if you were suddenly invisible?

That is a question being raised by Austin City Manager Marc Ott, who in 24 hours went from being a highly recognized figure in Austin to a homeless person whom folks ignored and avoided as Ott passed them on city streets.

To better understand the plight of the homeless, the city manager exchanged his expensive suit and polished leather shoes for worn soles and clothing to live as one of Austin's 2,000 homeless. And just like that he went from being somebody — city manager, husband, father — to being nobody as people crossed the streets to avoid him, looked the other way when he approached and avoided making eye contact.

You can read more details about Ott's brief stint in April as a homeless person in Ken Herman's column today, also on these pages, and watch a video in which Ott recounts those events. Last week, Ott returned to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless to finish what he started by sleeping there overnight.

It is right that we contemplate the plight of the homeless as the economy sputters, but that is especially true this week, which has been designated National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. Austin has serious challenges regarding the homeless that warrant our attention and action.

There is the matter of getting a good count. Official figures from February 2010 place our homeless population at 2,087. But advocates who collect those figures every year say that poor weather and a lack of resources, including too few people to do the counting, resulted in an undercount. They said that on any given day in Travis County, the population swells to 4,000 folks.

One of the greatest challenges in serving the homeless is finding homes for them. Certainly, the city's temporary shelters are maxed out. But advocates, such as the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition and Front Steps, say that Austin should focus on generating permanent housing as a way of reducing the number of chronically homeless people. That also would decrease the city's heavy reliance on temporary shelters, such as the ARCH.

The idea is to get the chronically homeless off the streets by placing them in affordable, permanent housing and, at the same time, match them with medical, job skills and other services they need to overcome the factors that keep them impoverished and homeless.

Austin has expanded such housing, called permanent supportive housing, but more is needed. That takes money. Ott wants to get it from a 2012 bond election. That won't be easy if it requires a tax increase. Aside from taxes, the fate of the bond package might well turn on location.

From an economic standpoint, it makes sense that the city and advocates for the homeless historically have looked to communities east of Interstate 35, where land and housing is generally cheaper, to locate housing for the homeless. But from an 
equity standpoint, it is unfair and unjustified to continue doing that because those communities have borne the brunt of the city's dumping when it comes to locating landfills, bus depots, halfway houses, shelters and other facilities that detract from property values or endanger public safety.

Failure to address that issue likely will result in failure to pass bonds as voters won't be willing to approve money for undesirable projects that will be located in their backyards.

There are ways that Austin residents can help. With cold weather coming, some groups are accepting blankets and coats, while others need volunteers. But the most urgent need is funding, and no donation is too small. So give your tax-deductible dollars to those organizations that are working to improve conditions for the homeless.

And all of us can do this: We can see them as people instead of acting as if they're invisible.

Day on the streets gives Ott striking view of the city

Ken Herman


Updated: 9:15 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13, 2010

Published: 11:56 p.m. Friday, Nov. 12, 2010

Seven months after the experience, Austin City Manager Marc Ott finally is ready to talk about it.

After not shaving for a week, Ott put on old clothes, stuffed some stuff in a duffel bag, and spent an April day and night doing his best to understand what it is like to be homeless in downtown Austin.

"For me, the experience started immediately in the sense that the way I characterize it is I became invisible," he said. "And what I mean by that is as I walked along the way and would encounter people, unlike a normal day for me, no one wanted to make eye contact with me. They'd look the other way or down or move to the far side of the sidewalk or cross the street."

Ott opted for simulated homelessness because he was uncomfortable talking about the issue without knowing more about it. See him talk about it on my video at

"It was as much personal as it was professional for me," he said. "Afterwards, I remember not wanting to talk about it much. ... There was a lot to digest."

But it just sort of came up during a recent Downtown Austin Alliance meeting at which Ott was supposed to talk about the kind of stuff a city manager talks to a downtown alliance about.

"I mentioned homelessness as an issue ... and I just never stopped talking about it. It wasn't planned," he recalled. Ott's story is about homeless people and good people who help them and how much more there is to do and a city manager now energized by experience to get it done.

Back in April, after walking through downtown, Ott headed to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH).

"And as I sat there it occurred to me, it struck me, that at any given moment ... the ARCH must be one of the most diverse places in our entire city, because I saw a little of everything. I saw black and I saw white and I saw brown," he said. "You saw all of this diversity in there, and it seemed to me, at least, the obvious thing they had in common was they were all struggling on a daily basis."

He recalled the "overpowering" burden of spending "a lot of time doing nothing. ... It was driving me crazy, to tell you the truth."

And he recalled feeling "embarrassed" as he waited in the lunch line at Caritas, "wondering about what other people must be thinking, the people that were driving by in their cars."

Ott also found himself attuned to how the homeless react to food on a plate. "You saw some people bow their head. And you saw other people address their food pretty aggressively in there," he said.

And he saw people offering food to each other.

"I was struck by that notwithstanding however dire the circumstances, that even under those circumstances, people don't necessarily lose their humanity ... their need to help or give something to somebody else," Ott said.

After lunch at Caritas, Ott went back to the ARCH, where he joined others in art activities upstairs. Later, there was some time outside the building where the homeless smoked, played dominoes and did whatever they could to pass time.

Later, the lottery that determines who gets one of the ARCH's 100 beds or 115 mats for the night was held. Ott drew a number in the low 30s, guaranteeing him a spot, but he opted to spend the night on the streets."You take your chances on the street, and you try to do what you need to do to stay out of harm's way and stay out of APD's way," he said of his night on the streets.

This past Wednesday, Ott returned to the ARCH to spend the night on a mat on the floor. He was deeply disturbed by the experience, including the roaches, the mildewed showers and conditions "that make me mad, to tell you the truth."

Ott is not blaming Front Steps, the organization that runs the ARCH. In fact, he is impressed with its efforts and level of caring. But, Ott said, change is needed at the ARCH, perhaps requiring additional city money.

"We've got to do something about it," he said, adding, "I don't control everything that effects that place. But I can't be silent about it. I know that."

On the April night on the streets, Ott approached, but didn't enter, one of the many homeless camps near downtown. He took refuge under Interstate 35 for a while. He got home around sunrise.

"Doing what I did did not make me an expert by any means," he said. "I'm not going to make any extraordinary claims because I spent 22, 23 hours out there doing what I did."

Indeed, homelessness cannot be simulated. There's nothing like the real thing. But a day of it can be an eye-opening experience.

"We talk about wanting to be the most livable city in the entire United States," Ott said. "I believe it's virtually impossible to realize that vision without successfully dealing with this challenge of our homeless population and providing affordable housing for everyone else as well."

"We can do more, and we can do better, and we should," he said.

By the way, there are nearly 6000 homeless people in Dallas County. We to can and should do more and better...

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