In the wake of even the most horrific tragedies in human history, we can find evidence of a palpable silver lining. That silver lining is a brief period where the ever-increasing disease of apathy is replaced by a fervent compassion for those suffering and a deep yearning to add some good to the world. Just when we think that all people are permanently hardened, we see the human race snap out of its complacency and become galvanized into action when disaster strikes. Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Haitian Earthquake, 9/11, in the weeks following these infamous crisis, everywhere you look you see resilient communities taking in strangers, individual-based programs popping out of nowhere, churches opening their doors for food and shelter, and grass roots efforts to raise awareness around the larger systemic issues that are further magnified in these concentrated moments of fear and anguish. All we need to do is study the 72 hours after any tragedy to see that Americans have displayed and continue to display signs of self-reliance and innovation at every corner. So if we have hard evidence that this ingenuity and compassion for human suffering can be harnessed, we must ask ourselves, why is our country still plagued with the century long societal crisis of homelessness?
I’m sure that all sorts of immediate excuses come to mind. Maybe it’s a form of empathy fatigue, or the result of watching decades of tax dollars and failed initiatives funneled into the effort to end homelessness only to watch the number of individuals experiencing homelessness seem to rise each year. Maybe we’re all playing hot potato with who’s really at fault, each finding it easier to point a finger than to lift a finger in the direction of progress. Or most dangerously of all, perhaps we’re finding ourselves facing a universal attitude of defeat. As any good mathematician will tell you, some problems have no solution, and a wise man will at some point come to realize this and move on with the rest of life.
As for me, I’ve always blamed the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) culture that says “ending homelessness is great…until it effects my life” that keeps us from ever catching glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel. But after working in homeless services, occupying stretches of City Hall, battling over oppressive legislature, and reading every book on societal problems I can get my hands on, I’ve come to take a different view. I have spent far too much of my advocacy energy trying to persuade the powerful policy makers in charge that their oppressive legislature and complex housing plans are not, in actuality, working. But where I haven’t focused enough energy, is on the other type of NIMBY, the one where that “NO” becomes a “NUETRAL”. It is this “Neutral in my Backyard” group, the ones who don’t see homelessness as their problem, who are the ones most responsible for our lack of progress in this movement. We have a global crisis and a grave injustice staring us in the face and we need all hands on deck if we want a shot at creating change. Policymaking meetings are always filled to the brim with activists on both sides of this divisive issue, service providers, individuals experiencing homelessness, and all the other stakeholders on this issue. That is all good and necessary and important, but homelessness does not just affect the homeless community. We need the teachers from local elementary schools to march their housed students to city council. We need the entire community of baristas at Starbucks to refuse to pour another latte until every person sitting on their stoop is housed. We need the high school football team organize a sit in on the half yard line to get the medias attention. We need every business to invest in hiring one homeless youth and stick through the hard moments. We need every empty-nest set of parents to make their house into a host home. We need doctors, lawyers, baseball players, artists, taxi drivers, electricians, college professors, you! We need YOU to stand up and say nothing other than, “I refuse to accept the reality that I am housed when my neighbor cannot be”. “No” is not good enough. “Neutral” is not good enough. The answer has to be a holy YES!