“Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”
—JC, as quoted in Matthew 25
In my previous life, I ran an agency that provided housing for formerly homeless veterans and food and clothing for anyone who came to our doors. I’m never going back to Liberty House, of course, but I haven’t shut the door on future leadership positions with social-service agencies. In short, I am now a columnist, a memoirist, and a modified hermit in a Tiny White Box in New Hampshire’s Great North Woods. The future is a big place, and may well include anything short of a career as a midget wrestler.
While running Liberty House, I had certain advantages that other agency heads may have lacked. I am an alcoholic and addict, making it easier to establish rapport and identification with folks who are still active or, like me, in recovery. I’ve been homeless, and have lived as a “client” and as a “resident,” viewed by staff members as a bundle of “issues” instead of as a human being struggling to find my way back to normal. As a formerly-homeless alcoholic veteran, I see things very differently from leaders with more traditional backgrounds. I may have a master’s degree, writing skill and some speaking ability, but it was my life as a person in need that informed my day-to-day decision-making.
As it happens, the Granite Leaders Program sponsored by the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness, has asked me to speak briefly about my use of media. More honestly, Cathy Kuhn (GLP/NHCEH, pronounced glip-ne-ceh) finds me amusing in a lowered-companion way and occasionally enlightening when I stop cracking wise and demonstrate wisdom. She’s asked me to talk about—although she wouldn’t put it this way—how I’ve managed to get so much publicity mileage while still remaining a chucklehead.
The Granite Leaders Program is my kind of organization. Cathy has identified homeless (or recently homeless) (or one-step-away-from homeless) folks who have some leadership skills and a desire to change the world, beginning with homelessness in New Hampshire. My presentation will likely consist of a few anecdotes starring me as a dumb guy, then a few more featuring me as a mensch, with a theme of “How to tell stories people want to hear—and how to get the media to act as a loudspeaker.”
As a former teacher and principal, I’ve got more material than I’ll be able to cover in 45 minutes, so I don’t know if I’ll get to the six principles below. They aren’t written on tablets, but I do think they provide a good overview. If you don’t have time to read on—in which case, I wonder what kind of life you’re living and would suggest you reexamine it before it drifts away—a simple summation can be found in Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies,
you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-
“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
Principles for Agencies Working with Homeless (or nearly homeless) Folks
1. Look at everything you do through the eyes of the folks you’re paid to help
Think about what it’s like to be homeless or nearly homeless. Almost every minute of almost every day is filled with contempt for you. I’ve lived without teeth, and folks who met me seemed to believe a lack of dental work indicates a significant loss of intelligence and moral fiber. When you’re homeless, no one wants you around—not the shopkeeper, not the librarian, not the school crossing guard, no one—so the agency from which you seek help should be different. Being kind costs nothing, so do it.
When you’re homeless or nearly so, you may still have a job, even a job that requires you to be there during regular working hours. As an agency, keep your hours as flexible as possible, so you can help the largest number of people. There’s no reason, if you offer health care, for instance, that your clinic can’t be open from Noon until 7 six days a week, so folks can be served at a time convenient to them, not simply to your staff.
2. Go through every agency process as if you were a person needing your services
I mean this literally. Have every employee experience what your services are like, without any special treatment. If people need to wait three hours on line at your food pantry, make sure every staff member has had that same boring frustration—although almost none of your employees will have that empty-belly boost to irritation the working poor often carry with them. Make it part of your agency’s culture that the needs of the needy come ahead of the needs of the staff.
3. Model respect and regard for every person coming through your doors. Demand this of every one of your employees.
At Liberty House, I fired two different case managers within a six-week period for disrespecting folks coming through our doors for food, clothing or shelter. The employees hadn’t insulted or denigrated the folks; they’d simply been dismissive and discourteous to them. Treat every person who walks in your door as if they were your twin, and you won’t go wrong.
4. Have as few policies and procedures as possible. Write them in plain English, understandable by a typical fifth grader, and follow them.
“The more laws, the more criminals” is the kind of thing you find in fortune cookies, I know, but it happens to be true. You and your staff need to focus on the people coming in through your front doors, not the rule book being generated in a back office.
5. Get to know the people who come to your doors. While you can’t know every person intimately, choose a diverse group of folks and know them as friends—their names, their families, their circumstances, their stories. If you’re thinking of Joe and Magda and Francis and Takeesha, you’re less likely to think of “clients” or “consumers” or whatever bloodless euphemism your agency prefers.
6. Be honest and forthright about what you can do and what you can’t. Remember to undersell and overdeliver—many folks you work with see you as their last best hope to get through the week and back into the game
Please, be kind.