One advocacy group is tackling a lesser-known but crucial facet of homelessness: self-esteem.
On any Main Street in America, it’s virtually impossible to avoid seeing the signs of homelessness. From cardboard signs asking for spare change, to single mothers and children living in charity shelters, homelessness is a problem that the United States hasn’t come to terms with.
There are an estimated 636,000 individuals who are homeless on a given night in America, nearly 4 in 10 of whom live on the streets, in cars, abandoned buildings and other places not intended for human habitation. Barely visible in this debate are homeless children. It is estimated that one in 45 children will experience homelessness in America each year. That amounts to over 1.6 million children.
These children will often live in temporary accommodation, moving from home to home, and sometimes from state to state. They will also experience high rates of acute and chronic health problems. This constant barrage of stressful and traumatic experiences combined with a lack of opportunities, experts believe, leads children into a downward spiral where low expectations and lack of education ensure for them a future of low income and poverty. And so the cycle of homelessness continues for generations.
With so many people experiencing homelessness, you would think there would a coordinated effort to deal with this issue.
Finding ways to help the homeless population is one of the hardest problems any big city faces. Columbia, S.C. has swept them from the streets and deposited them on the outskirts of the city — an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ policy other U.S. communities have looked at.
Following the city’s Emergency Homeless Response report, the local police department was given sweeping powers to remove homeless and even homeless-looking citizens from the downtown area. If they refuse, they can be arrested under public nuisance laws.
Today homelessness is viewed by most of the population as a nuisance they would rather not see. We treat the homeless as a burden to society, a problem to clear off the streets, but finding a solution is proving more difficult.
New ways to help the homeless
One of the most innovative tactics to help the homeless has come from Intersections, a multi-cultural, multi-faith advocacy group that seeks to “develop strategies that promote justice, reconciliation, and peace.” The group recently held a workshop in New York City hosted by the Coalition for the Homeless, who characterized the event’s objective as “finding peace of mind through music” — using music to help the homeless. This may sound a little too alternative for some, but there have already been encouraging results.
Fred Johnson, an arts initiative fellow with Intersections and the workshop’s leader, described the event:
“We spent time with our group creating and laughing and also exploring the truth that each of us has a unique gift to give to the world, and that while we will inevitably face some challenges along the way, we must hold on to the desire to forge ahead.
Afterwards the participants were inspired, envisioning tangible ways to apply what they learned in the program to their daily lives.”
These workshops use music to build confidence, self-esteem and develop good coping strategies for managing stress. The flexibility of the music program, sometimes using classical music, improvisational forms or RnB, encourages more participation and therefore more learning. Last month’s workshop with the Coalition for the Homeless was led by three music professionals: a cellist; an ethno-musicologist, conductor and percussionist.
The American Music Therapy Association’s work supports claims that music can help the homeless and relieve feelings of anxiety and helplessness while encouraging feelings of confidence.
Programs like these have received severe criticism from cash-strapped states as being a waste of federal money and offering no real support. But for Dana, an Intersections participant, she believes this music is food for the soul:
“I can get food from the food bank. I can get a bed in the shelter and I can even get training on a computer to get a job, but what no one thinks of is whether I’m strong enough to survive and do all this. We need food for the soul, you know, soul food.”
For Dana, building up confidence and self-esteem is a part and parcel of solving her homelessness problem.
Self-esteem does count
In South Florida, there is a worrying trend of violence against the homeless. Seen as an easy target by teenage gangs and groups of men looking for fun, men and woman living on the streets have been subjected to unprovoked violent attacks, in which some are raped or killed.
In 2012, a survey of 250 homeless people living in South Florida conducted by the state’s Task Force For Ending Homelessness found that more than 4 in 10 women and 3 in 10 men have been victims of violent attacks while living on the streets.
In Minneapolis, Johnson, a 38-year-old, was attacked under the I-35W bridge. Living on the streets, the Native American man told Mint Press News about the attack:
“I was looking for a place I can sleep. I know a couple of guys who are always sleeping under the bridge. There’s safety in numbers when you can’t find an empty building to sleep in.
So I headed there, and on the way, two Black guys came up to me and start shouting racist things about ‘red Indians,’ that they should have killed all of us, [that] we’re drunk and stuff. I tried to walk by fast and avoid looking at them. As I ran past one of them, I was hit on the head with a bottle. Then I was punched to the ground and kicked repeatedly.
The police found me laying on the road. I had some stitches to my face but the attackers were never found.”
Programs like the workshops organized by Intersections will not stop violent attackers, but are designed to help homeless people see their options, to have the self-confidence to seek and ask for help; to find a safe solution to finding a bed for the night.
These programs build confidence in the homeless so they can access services and take full advantage of job training programs, and to stop the cycle of homelessness from spanning generations.