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Photo: The Empowerment Plan
Many people experiencing homelessness would like a job even more than a coat warm enough to sleep in outside.

A student’s idea to help people experiencing homelessness got a whole lot better after a homeless woman offered advice.

Kimberly Wong writes at Streetwise magazine, “Some students might believe that school projects are only good for a grade, but Empowerment Plan founder and CEO Veronika Scott knew that they could be something more. Scott was a student at The College for Creative Studies in Detroit when her professor assigned her class a project to fill a real need in the community. Noticing the homelessness that pervaded the city, Scott, who was only 20 years old at the time, began to visit a homeless shelter to try to figure out how she could help people who were homeless. …

“Scott visited the homeless shelter three times a week for five months. Hearing the ideas of the people living in the shelter showed her what she needed to do — she had to make a coat. She learned to sew from her mother, and even after the project was over, she continued to work on this coat that she hoped would change the lives of as many of the homeless as possible.

“The water-resistant coat she was designing would be able to be transformed into a sleeping bag at night or into an over-the-shoulder bag on warmer days. As Scott was in the process of perfecting the design for her coat, she was approached by a homeless woman who told her emphatically that what she really needed wasn’t a coat, but a job.

“Taking this feedback to heart, Scott partnered with a shelter and hired two homeless women to start making coats that would come to be known as EMPWR coats.

“Scott paid the women to learn industrial sewing and manufacturing and brought local designers on to the project. Just like that, the Empowerment Plan was born. …

“The Empowerment Plan has been running for almost seven years and has 35 employees. All of the employees were hired while homeless and have since secured permanent housing with their families.

“Jessica West, a seamstress team leader at the Empowerment Plan, is just one example of the way the Empowerment Plan has changed lives. West was sleeping in her car with her children before they moved into a homeless shelter. She discovered the Empowerment Plan while living in the shelter and has been working with them for two years. She and her children currently live in a comfortable home fully furnished by non-profit organization Humble Design, … one of the many organizations the Empowerment Plan works with to improve the lives of their employees. …

“Usually, Empowerment Plan employees work at the organization from one to three years, but this is by no means a set timeline. Above all, the Empowerment Plan is focused on the individual growth of its employees.

“The employees at the Empowerment Plan are paid through the sponsorship of EMPWR coats — and since the coats also go toward helping the homeless community, it’s a win-win situation. Sponsoring an EMPWR coat costs $100, which covers the cost of materials, the seamstresses’ wages, and overhead. EMPWR coats are mainly sponsored by individuals, corporations, and non-profit organizations. The Red Cross has even sponsored EMPWR coats for disaster relief. …

“While the organization currently relies on donations, it is working to become self-sustaining [with] a new retail line of coats with functions similar to the EMPWR coat but with its own style.”

More here.

Hat tip: Spare Change News, Boston’s street newspaper.

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Photo: Getty
Auckland Libraries in New Zealand figured out why their books were going missing and came up with a win-win solution.

If you know how to read, you want to read, and librarians want you to read. But not everyone has easy access to books. That is why some readers in New Zealand were sneaking books.

Mark Molloy writes at the UK’s Telegraph, “A New Zealand library has finally solved the mystery of why some books were going missing from its shelves.

“Auckland Libraries staff were bewildered after finding some books were being hidden in random places. They initially thought kids playing pranks were to blame, but later discovered it was the city’s rough sleepers who were actually stashing the books so they could return the next day to continue reading.

“ ‘A lot of our street community were wanting to put them underneath the couches or underneath book shelves and kind of hiding them in various places,’ librarian Sean Taylor told TV NZ. … Without a permanent address they were unable to sign up for a library card that would allow them to take the literature away.

“As a solution, Auckland Library created a new section where books can now be left overnight and picked back up again the next morning. …

“ ‘They are really well read. We’ve got a guy who I’ve had a discussion about the meanings of words and we’ll talk about the reference section and it’s the kind of intellectual conversation you’d expect from an academic.’ …

“Auckland Library says it sees itself as a ‘home for the homeless’ and holds regular cinema screenings and a book club for those sleeping rough. …

“ ‘One guy told me he moved to the city several years ago, and that none of his family back home knew he was homeless,” [said Rachel Rivera, manager of Auckland Libraries]. He used our computers to keep in touch with them. It was his lifeline to his family,’ she said.

“ ‘They value our service, like many of our communities do, for different reasons. But they don’t always feel safe and welcome, and that is something we can and should take steps to address.’ ”

More at the Telegraph, here. And look: Everything at the Auckland libraries website is in both English and Maori.

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Photo: Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio
Tony Price, formerly homeless, grows tomatoes in his small patio garden and shares the produce with friends and neighbors. Now that he has permanent housing, he’s able to take better care of his health.

In the last decade, there’s been a lot written about how a small percentage of people use hospital emergency rooms on a regular basis and what could be done to stabilize them and save money. In today’s story, we find that providing housing for homeless patients can yield positive, long-term results.

From Pauline Bartolone and Kaiser Health News at Capital Public Radio: “Hospitals in Sacramento and around the country want to get [homeless patients] off the streets, to improve their health and minimize unnecessary visits to the ER. … That’s why many hospitals are stepping outside their role as medical providers to invest heavily in housing for homeless people.

“Dignity Health’s ‘Housing With Dignity’ initiative got Tony Price into an apartment, paid his rent for four months and set him up with a social worker who helped him become eligible for permanent housing. …

“A 2002 study showed that providing housing and supportive services, to more than 4,600 mentally ill homeless people in New York City dramatically reduced their presence in hospitals, shelters and correctional facilities. …

“Health insurers are starting to invest in housing, too. Dignity and other Sacramento hospitals have long funded ‘respite’ programs that shelter homeless people for a few weeks after their hospital stays, but the goal of ‘Housing With Dignity’ is to keep them from being homeless again. …

“Ashley Brand, Dignity’s director of community health and outreach, said the program is helping address the hospital chain’s longstanding challenge of ensuring that homeless patients get follow-up care after they’re discharged. …

“No matter how many times Tony Price visited Sacramento hospitals while he was living on the streets, he never got well. His diabetes was uncontrolled, he repeatedly lost the drugs he was taking for anxiety and depression and, he says, he regularly drank himself into ‘oblivion,’ sometimes consuming as much as half a gallon of vodka a day. …

“Price qualified for the services offered by ‘Housing with Dignity,’ which put him into a one-bedroom apartment in Sacramento’s sprawling North Highlands neighborhood in May 2015 and assigned him a social worker, Chris Grabe, who drove him to medical appointments. …

“He has been off the streets for nearly two and a half years, and he’s been to the hospital only once since January. … He now gardens, and he recently volunteered at a church and as a leader of an Alcoholics Anonymous group.”

At Capital Public Radio, here, you can read how Grabe stuck with Price through early relapses and what is needed to expand this effort to more people.

Hat tip: House of Hope CDC on twitter.

12/8/17 Update: Meanwhile in Boston, where one in four Boston Medical Center patients is homeless or in dangerous housing, BMC is partnering with local housing organizations and spending $6.5 million to help patients. This is the latest manifestation on BMC’s whole-patient approach to healing. Read about it here.

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091817-panhandler-alternative

The Providence bus hub is in the center of town near shops, corporate offices, Burnside Park, restaurants, galleries, hotels, and other attractions. In bad weather it becomes an unofficial day shelter for homeless people, with the result that the whole area is a magnet for Rhode Islanders who need more help than a roof.

Panhandling has become a constant fixture there, and with businesses complaining loudly, the city has tried to address the issue in a variety of ways. Some of them have been ham-handed, like the short-lived initiative to put panhandlers in jail.

The latest approach appeals to me, despite seeming like a superficial way to address deep social problems. It involves a kind of parking meter, where the compassionate can donate indirectly to those who need help knowing that the money will not go toward anything that makes their lives worse.

Providence is also experimenting with a program piloted by Albuquerque, New Mexico, which pays people to do work around the city rather than panhandling.

A year ago, Edward Fitzpatrick at the Providence Journal described the thinking behind the effort to find constructive solutions.

“The Washington Post just wrote about Albuquerque’s ‘There’s a Better Way’ program, which pays $9 an hour for day jobs beautifying the city. In partnership with a local nonprofit that helps the homeless, the program employs about 10 panhandlers per day and offers them shelter. In less than a year, they’ve cleared 69,601 pounds of litter and weeds from 196 city blocks, and 100 people have been connected with permanent jobs.

“Republican Mayor Richard Berry told The Post that most panhandlers have been eager to work. ‘It’s helping hundreds of people,’ he said, ‘and our city is more beautiful than ever.’

“And now, the Albuquerque model is being looked at by both Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza and former Providence Mayor Joseph R. Paolino Jr., a downtown property owner who just became chairman of the Downtown Improvement District and called a meeting on panhandling and homelessness. …

“Paolino said he does not want to address panhandling in ‘the Giuliani way — throw them out and not fix any of the problems.’ Rather, he wants to work with social-service agencies so that if people are homeless they get shelter and if they’re addicted they get treatment, but if they’re dealing drugs they should be apprehended, he said.

“ ‘Although this is a crisis, this is an opportunity,’ Paolino said. ‘These social-service agencies never had the business community working with them before.’ ”

That program strikes me as a good idea. I have seen it in action. I also like the meters. For me, it’s a great way to keep pocket change from weighing me down while reassuring me that small amounts will add up to something meaningful. The money goes to reliable agencies, and people in need of assistance can contact them using information on the meters.

More at US News, here, and the Providence Journal, here.

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Photo: Lisa Wrightsman
When soccer player Shauntel Payton attended the Street Child World Cup in Brazil, she says, “A lot of people kinda didn’t know why I was there. Like, ‘How are you homeless? You’re from the United States.’ ”

I hope readers don’t mind that I keep revisiting favorite themes. Since there are always new followers, I have to assume not everyone is familiar with the topics near and dear to my heart.

One such topic, covered here in 2014, concerns the sense of freedom that street soccer can provide to people experiencing homelessness. The 2014 story took place in Chile. This one, by Martin Kessler at Only a Game, is from California.

“Seventeen-year-old Shauntel Payton is the second oldest of five children. … Growing up, Shauntel and her siblings lived with their grandparents. She says her mom was in and out.

“But around 2010, Shauntel’s mom moved into a transitional housing program outside Sacramento for adults who had been in homeless shelters or rehab centers. She was recovering from addiction. Shauntel and her siblings joined their mom. Shauntel liked living there — there were lots of other kids.

” ‘All the kids knew where I was coming from,’ she says. ‘We all came from somewhat of the same background, so we all kinda just connected.’

“Around the same time, another resident named Lisa Wrightsman was trying to start a soccer team.

“Wrightsman was a former college player. She was also recovering from addiction. When she moved into the transitional housing, she realized Sacramento had a Street Soccer team for men. But not for women. So she decided to start one.

“And if she wanted to recruit women, she was certain of one thing: Children had to be welcome at practices. … That’s how Shauntel and her siblings ended up at the very first practice for the Sacramento Lady Salamanders.

“The idea was that the kids would sit and watch while their moms practiced. But when the Payton kids started wrestling on the sideline, Wrightsman realized that plan wasn’t going to work. …

“So Wrightsman invited Shauntel and her siblings to scrimmage against their mom and the five other players. …

“Shauntel says those practices were important.

” ‘It was like a different vibe when we would go there,’ she explains. ‘We kind of connected better than we would’ve, I think, without having some type of outlet to come together and do something as a family.’ …

“As Shauntel’s siblings got older, they gravitated to other sports. But Shauntel stuck with soccer.

“When I step on the field I just feel like a brand new person,’ she says. ‘And when I shoot the goal, it’s like a feeling like I’ve never really felt before. It’s like freedom.’

“And that brings us to an event called the Street Child World Cup. Every four years, the World Cup host country holds a competition for children who have been homeless.

“In 2014, Wrightsman nominated Shauntel to join the U.S. team in Brazil. …

Shauntel had never left the country. But in Brazil, she met boys and girls from Zimbabwe, Burundi, the Philippines, and 15 other countries.

“Some of the kids were surprised to see Shauntel and her U.S. teammates.

” ‘A lot of people kind of didn’t know why I was there,’ she says. ‘Like, “How are you homeless? You’re from the United States?” I was really shocked. And I was like, “I don’t know.” ‘

“The kids shared their stories. One Indian boy told Shauntel how he spent his days working for pocket change to help his family. And how he saw his dad abuse his mom.

” ‘It made me kind of think back to my life and how much I took for granted,’ Shauntel says. …

“Shauntel says as soon as she got back to the U.S., she gave all her siblings big hugs and started crying.” She says the trip made her more hopeful.”

More here.

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Photo: Leila Navidi/Star Tribune
Kate Coleman, outreach coordinator at the Minneapolis Central Library, met with Byron Brooks about his housing issues.

Ever since the Ferguson, Missouri, library created a safe zone for residents during the 2014 riots, my eyes have been opened to the range of services that contemporary libraries offer the public.

In Minneapolis, for example, one library branch has a social worker who focuses on helping homeless patrons find resources.

Haley Hansen at the Star Tribune reports, “Kate Coleman worked with nearly 500 homeless people at Minneapolis Central Library last year … as part of a yearslong effort by the Hennepin County Library system to better help the homeless connect with tools and resources in the area. …

“Coleman’s position allows the library to be more than just a basic reference point for help. She said the full-time role fits in with the library’s overall mission of connecting all parts of the community with help and information. …

“Coleman works for St. Stephen’s Human Services, a nonprofit whose mission is to end homelessness. Her position is funded by Hennepin County’s human services and public health department and the Downtown Council. …

” ‘I think the library allows people to feel human and to just feel like they can comfortably be themselves when they’re here,’ she said. … ‘It’s my job to always keep up with what’s available and stay connected with those other community service providers.’ …

“Coleman asks [clients] about income, disability diagnoses and the length of time they’ve been homeless to help connect them with the services that best fit their needs.”

I suspect that people who are down on their luck may also be treated more courteously at libraries than at overwhelmed social service agencies. I hope the libraries never get overwhelmed.

More at the Star Tribune, here.

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Photo: SWNS
Annis Lindkvist, right, and her younger sister, Emma Åhlström, with Jimmy Fraser, a homeless Scot they invited for Christmas in Sweden. 

I have never been sure how to react to someone who is homeless, but I have learned smiling is better than walking past, head down.

Mother Teresa said to smile. A woman who runs an excellent Rhode Island homeless agency told me she doesn’t give anyone money but talks to people and tries to see if she can help with a referral or something to eat. A formerly homeless veteran told me he always talks to veterans and tells them where to find veterans services. Once he took in a stranger overnight. Some people will buy a sandwich or a cup of coffee.

Last week as I was talking to an employee of a refugee agency, I became curious about how he was led to his current work. He said, “One day I stopped walking past people.”

He didn’t initially look for refugee work, but he landed there after launching his personal outreach to homeless people and a subsequent stint in Americorps. He used to talk to people on the New York City streets, asked what they needed and delivered food, socks, and as many of their needs as he could.

So many good people out there showing kindness one person at a time!

This Guardian story about a Swedish tourist in Scotland who not only befriended a homeless man but invited him for Christmas with her family (and sent him airfare) is really over the top.

Libby Brooks writes, “A homeless man from Edinburgh has described the ‘incredible act of kindness’ of a tourist who invited him to spend Christmas at her family home in Sweden.

“Jimmy Fraser was begging on George Street in the city centre when Annis Lindkvist and her sister Emma, from Sagmyra in central Sweden, asked him for directions.

“They struck up a friendship and swapped numbers at the end of the trip, staying in touch by text before Lindkvist offered to pay for his flights so he could spend a week with her family over the festive period.

“Fraser, who became homeless following his divorce 13 years ago, said: ‘It’s weird, I know. I was begging on George Street and these two women came up to me and the next thing I knew I was in Sweden. People promise you things all the time on the street but they never materialise.

” ‘But I thought I’m going to go for it as it’s once in a lifetime. I couldn’t believe it anyway at first. People tell you “see you tomorrow, I’ll get you a drink” and then nothing happens. But this did happen, actually, so it was really weird.’

“The 54-year-old former security guard, who went to an ice hockey match, Christmas markets and midnight mass with his host’s family and friends, told the BBC News website: ‘It was a beautiful experience.’ …

“Lindkvist described her own doubts about issuing such an open invitation to a stranger. ‘We give money to charity every month but we have never done anything like this before,’ she said. ‘There were friends and family who thought I was really crazy, but I just opened my home to him and said everything that is ours was his too.’

“The 37-year-old, who works with dementia sufferers, said she had invited Fraser back to stay with the family again over the Easter break, and that he was ‘part of the family now.’ ”

More here.

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