On Friday, I was fortunate enough to spend an hour chatting with Thomas?Rebman of Homeless and Hungry, the perfect person to have a conversation with right?before the kick-off of National Homeless and Hunger Awareness Week, November 15-23.
For those unfamiliar with his story, Tom received some attention over the summer when he voluntarily ?became homeless? for 30 days on the streets of Orlando. He began his venture?with only the things a homeless individual would have; the clothing on his back and a minimal amount of personal items. A sole exception was made for a cell phone, but only because it was used to document the journey and not as a resource on the streets.
This retired U.S. Navy officer, turned middle school teacher, turned full-time ?Homeless Educator,? embarked on this trek?initially as a summer reading project for his students. He not only wanted to keep the kids engaged in reading, but also hoped teach them a lesson in empathy. To his surprise, his blog received a huge response with over 120,000 readers in the first ten days.
The Homeless Experience
When I asked Tom how he would describe his homeless experience he said:
?A demeaning and very horrible existence. Ninety-nine percent of the time you were demeaned and belittled.?
?You can deal with being cold or hot. You can deal with being hungry. You can deal with those discomforts. The thing I needed more than a meal or tooth brush; was a hug.?
The dehumanization of the homeless is nothing new for societies and the restrictions and bans within our nation’s cities are hurting some of the most vulnerable and hopeless among us.
Tom told me a story of a family he met while homeless. A few months prior, they had a rental home. The 40 year-old-man worked as a painter and made $16 an hour, over double the minimum wage. He had always worked. His wife was disabled and in a wheelchair due to complications with diabetes. She received social security disability. They have two children.
This unnamed man went to work one day, as he had done every day for years, and the door was locked. The business had gone bankrupt. Like 76 percent of Americans, this family was living paycheck to paycheck with no emergency savings. They were on the street within five days of the job loss.
Once the job, house, car, and phone are gone, and your address is limited to just a city name; it becomes even more difficult to find work. Tom told me he spent most of his days attempting to find a job. He included his two degrees on the over 150?applications he completed during?his month of homelessness.
He had one response, on his last day on the street.
While Tom did spend much time applying for jobs, his need for money to pay for his bed in a homeless shelter took priority. He was forced to seek out day labor jobs, which often exploited the desperation of the situation, like the business that hired him to pass out fliers, only for him to find he was risking arrest by doing so in areas where the activity was illegal, or the offer to take a fraudulent check to a local business to be cashed (he obviously declined).
When day labor and odd jobs were unable to be found, he sold plasma, and often had to resort to standing in the blue boxes to panhandle with the hope of receiving the $6-$9 needed for his shelter bed that night. These blue boxes are located around the city, the only legal areas to ask strangers for money. Some days, he came up short.
Tom Explains the Rules of?the Blue Box
Sorry, I didn’t mean to distract you with?the video?explains the rules of the blue box – facing certain directions, not accepting money from passing cars, etc. Did you catch that? Homeless shelters charge the homeless to stay there.?I had no idea! I had to dig deeper.
Indeed, it is true, as substantiated by an article titled, ?Some can’t afford the cost of being homeless in Orlando? from the Orlando Sentinel in 2010, which stated this as well as another little nugget?of information.
?The nonprofit agency allows homeless people to stay three nights for free. But on the fourth, they are charged $9 a night unless they sign up for a program that requires them to work ? or at least search diligently for a job. And once employed, the homeless are expected to pay 30 percent of their income toward the program.?
Please read that last line one more time. “And once employed, the homeless are expected to pay 30 percent of their income toward the program.”?
Unfortunately, I didn’t know that information prior to interviewing Tom and consequently didn’t ask him about it. So, I did a little of my own research on the subject.
The Salvation Army, the second largest charity in the United States, and?had a total revenue of $4.08 billion in 2013, expects the homeless individuals to pay them nearly a 3rd of the money they make when they actually land a job. This is in addition to paying $9 per day for a shelter bed ($270 per month if the individual is fortunate enough to sleep there for 30 days straight). This is the same charity that pays the CEO $289,000 per year. Yes, a small salary relative to other CEO’s in the country. But, certainly one that places him in an extremely comfortable income bracket.
It seems these practices are what Tom was speaking of when he told me that the empathetic approach is the one in which he advocates. This is the same approach which Utah’s program to house the homeless is based which has been largely successful. There is much research surrounding the housing first philosophy. Unfortunately, many of the homeless charities are still stuck in the day of a ?tough-love? approach, which is not working.
Tom has read the studies. He has lived, side by side, with those he is trying to help. He says:
?Housing first works. If you give them a place to live, 80% don’t go back to the streets.?
The Good News
The mission listed on Tom’s website reads, ?To raise public awareness concerning facts of homelessness so that every citizen has access to basic needs of shelter, food, and medical care.?
That mission is certainly being fulfilled in his hometown. Tom has been instrumental in raising homeless awareness in Orlando. So much so, he grabbed the attention of the city leaders. He met with local leaders last week, and while he couldn’t give me specifics about the plans, he did say positive change is on the way for ?The City Beautiful.?
Now this retired vet will be taking his voluntary homelessness on the road. This time, targeting various cities around Florida. On Monday, November 17, Tom will be homeless yet again. His biggest fear is getting arrested. But, he said:
?I have to keep going. What can I do now? Go home and sleep in my own bed? This experience has changed me. I have to keep trying.?
When asked how long his homelessness will last this time, he replied:
?There’s no time limit. It could be a few weeks or it could be 90 days. Several months ago, no one considered Orlando as anything other than the most ruthless city to the homeless. All the efforts combined have caused a shift.?
It was a pleasure to speak with this remarkable man. His passion for cultivating a culture of?empathy for those less fortunate is profound. With that, I close with one last quote from the man that is working so hard to help people embrace empathy through knowledge.
?People don’t even look you in the eye when they say, get a job. You have a 24-year-old with a watch on his wrist that would feed you for a year, ?yelling at you to get a job.?
I think he has his work cut out for him. I’ll be following his story on his Facebook page. Seriously, go check it out. He has shared pictures and videos about his first experience – everything from the blue boxes to the blisters from the constant walking ? it’s all there, and more. He will be documenting his next journey, which starts on Monday.
Elizabeth Preston is a thirty-something wife and mother of three living in Florida. She is a fierce liberal with a passion?for equality and justice. She is a skeptic by nature and often the Facebook friend that rains on the urban legend parade with fact checking. Give her?Facebook page?a?like, follow her on?Twitter?and check out her personal blog?My Four Ha? Pennies.