Sleeping Outside for Homeless Prevention

Fort Collins, Colorado is a community that has been named among the best places to live in the United States. Its awards have included #4 healthiest city in the U.S. and the second best place for job seekers in Colorado. Though our community prospers with the university atmosphere, the thriving microbrewery culture, and physically active residents, there has still been a 36.5% increase in homelessness since 2000.

Last night I slept outside in Fort Collins as part of an annual initiative to raise awareness for homelessness in Larimer County, and to empower youth to take action. I learned so much about the homelessness in my back yard, and about different organizations that are working to end homelessness and to support those living in poverty throughout the region.

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Our make-shift box homes for the night

As a chaperone for the event, I watched leaders in homeless prevention host a series of educational activities to help the high school students learn about homelessness in Larimer County. From talking about statistics in the community, to engaging with a calculator created by New York Times about cutting deficit and the challenging issues that face our politicians today, we spent hours learning about and empathizing with our neighbors in need.

Following these engaging activities we watched a documentary film called Storied Streets, which follows several people living without a home throughout the U.S. and discusses the circumstances that led them to living without a home. Each of the individuals in the film had experienced circumstances that could happen to any of us, like unexpected medial bills and paying for education. According to the film, the main causes of homelessness include; 1. Lack of affordable housing, 2. Lack of a livable wage, 3. Medical issues/conditions, 4. Domestic violence, 5. Mental illness. (For more statistics and facts like this click here).

The film discusses stereotypes about the homeless in the U.S., and the dehumanization that has led to violent abuse. One example of the abuse was a series of Youtube videos called “Bum Fights,” where the film makers would pay homeless individuals to commit dangerous acts including lighting themselves on fire, and fighting. This was considered entertaining because many in our society don’t see the homeless as humans–they are considered the “other.” Homeless are commonly stereotyped as having something (a disease or illness, for example) that those who have a home don’t, or missing something that those who have homes have, which in tern makes them unworthy to fit into our society. “Bum Fights” showed the film makers urinating on, throwing glass bottles at, and abusing the homeless in other senseless acts.

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Gathering outside between 12:00am-1:00am

Following the screening of Storied Streets, our group headed outside to the box tents we had put together earlier that afternoon. We stayed by the fires for a few hours until about 2:00a.m. then headed to bed. Sleeping outside helped bring to light quite a few things that might seem small, but are details about living without a home I might not have realized otherwise. When we went to sleep, I had to take off my boots, two of my jackets, my scarf, and hat, just to get in my box. I left my jackets and belongings outside of my box because there wasn’t room inside. When I woke up this morning after 4 hours of sleep, my jackets and boots had filled with dew and were frozen stiff. Unlike those who experience homelessness on a daily basis, I had a building to walk into, but many who live without a home day in and day out have to wait for the sun to come up to defrost their clothing. Covering my face from the cold, tossing and turning from having my legs folded into my chest in my small box, and the dew soaking into my box, I started to feel what hundreds of people experience every night.

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Frost collecting on my box and my belongings at 6:00 a.m.

I noticed I was hungry when I woke up, not having had eaten since 7:00p.m. the night before. If I were homeless, I know that I wouldn’t control when, where, or what I eat. The lack of sleep and slight hunger made me think to myself… If I were homeless, could I interview for a job today? Could I find childcare for my kids today? Could I do this again tonight?

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Closer view of the frost on my jackets

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Frost gathering on my belongings

My night sleeping outside was an engaging and eye opening experience. Talking with the high school students who, full of energy and enthusiasm, discussed engaging with the national, state, and local government to create change in our community and nation. We discussed ways that we can help individuals who are experiencing homelessness today. We discussed humanizing homelessness and bringing this issue to light.

Storied Streets mentioned that there are four times as many animal shelters in the U.S. as there are homeless shelters, and this November 2014 one of the high profile issues in Larimer county was funding for a new animal shelter (those of you who know me, also know I am not speaking against animal shelters). I do think it is interesting to note that we have so much compassion for animals, but not the same level of compassion to our neighbors who have been sleeping on the street because they are unable to find affordable housing.

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Gathering around fires for warmth.

A man who has featured in Storied Streets spoke about his experience facing homelessness. He had lived on the street for 18 months, and during that time there was a three-month span where no one had called him by his name… He hadn’t heard his name in three months…

I think his story represents the work we have yet to do to treat our neighbors with respect, honor, and dignity, and to help those who are facing a time of difficulty.

To donate to an organization that is working to end homelessness in Larimer county and who helped put on this event, visit Homeless Prevention Initiative online (Click here to donate) or Homeless Gear online (Click here to donate).

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Community Cafe Feature: SAME Cafe

I recently started volunteering for a non-profit cafe in Fort Collins called FoCo Cafe, which stands for Feeding Our Community Ourselves. FoCo Cafe follows the community cafe model which integrates pay as you are able model and often times locally … Continue reading

Empowerment for Sustainability

If you are not already following “Humans of New York,” my recommendation is to start today. The blog was started by a guy named Brandon in the summer of 2010. Brandon left his job in finance in New York City and started creating a unique and comprehensive “catalogue”of the inhabitants of New York City. His original mission was to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and document their stories on a map. Along the way he began to ask his subjects questions about their lives along with documenting their stories through photography. He would include short quotes from them with their pictures. The result is an incredible social media site that gives glimpses into the trials and triumphs of everyday people like you and me. It is incredible the result that comes from asking your neighbor a few questions about themselves. The blog now has over nine million followers and in the words of Brandon, gives “worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers on the streets of New York City.” Check out Humans of New York on the blog website and Facebook.

The blog has now teamed up with the United Nations to launch the Humans of New York World Tour. From August-September 2014 the website will be documenting experiences of people around the world. Check out the Website to learn about unique stories from places like Kampala, Uganda.

I recently came across one HONY entry that struck me, and I think hits home for the development world.

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“We don’t like pictures like this. It is not good to deduce an entire country to the image of a person reaching out for food. It is not good for people to see us like this, and it is not good for us to see ourselves like this. This gives us no dignity. We don’t want to be shown as a country of people waiting for someone to bring us food. Congo has an incredible amount of farmland. An incredible amount of resources. Yes, we have a lot of problems. But food is not what we are reaching for. We need investment. We need the means to develop ourselves.”

(Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo) View original post here.

There are different and often conflicting models in the development world, but the majority of successful models seem to cross at the all-important idea of empowerment. I was deconstructing this notion to bring it to the most bare-boned structure possible, and here is what I have come up with.

A service-oriented life is fulfilling, that is saying that one who donate their time to others receives a “feel good” sensation. Volunteerism, and particularly international volunteerism is often criticized for this fact– that is gives the volunteer (often a person from a Western society) a good feeling for a few days/weeks/months, then they can return to their 50-gallons-of-fresh-water-a-day lifestyle. At its core, I do not think this piece of volunteerism deserves criticism. In my opinion (and the opinion of numerous psychological studies), the Western mind has some room for happiness and inner peace. As Simon Anholt speaks about in his TED talk, “Which Country Does the Most Good for the World?” many industrialized nations are very internally-focused and thus lack (as he calls it), the “good factor.” The countries that have the highest rank of “good” on the “The Good Country Index” are those that think externally before they think internally, meaning they put the well-being of other countries on par with that of their own. Countries such as Ireland, Sweden, and Kenya, are among the top ranked, if you are interested. Simon discusses that the countries who have higher “good” also have higher psychological well-being.

So if thinking externally, and volunteering, or living a service-oriented life is not bad, then where does the criticism of this lifestyle or philanthropic/ non-profit organizations come from? This is what I love about this HONY entry. Service goes awry when the recipient of the service does not have the opportunity to receive the same level of self-fulfillment as the volunteer/ non-profit employee/ donator/ giver receives. This man from the Democratic Republic of Congo is expressing that the people of his country need to feel empowered, they need to feel dignified, and respected.

In the development world we often talk about programmatic sustainability and empowerment– two things that coincide closely. Particularly in programs that focus on the well-being of humans, the program must have a model that will make the partners feel empowered, thus the program will be sustainable. As the person who is featured in this photo says, “Yes, [Congo has] a lot of problems. But food is not what we are reaching for. We need investment. We need the means to develop ourselves.”

How to Overcome Awkwardness with Udon

Last night I walked out of Hannam Village and onto the busy street corner with the smell of noodles and Korean coffee easing from every brick building- it was almost time for the dinner rush and the smells of South Korea were filling the streets. I walked slowly down the street taking in all the smells and looking in all the shop windows. I finally found the little restaurant I had in my mind all day- I had seen it earlier that day when I went out to a bakery. The little old woman who owned the restaurant opened the door to greet me and we bowed to each other slightly as I said, “annyeonghaseyo,” or Hello. I sat at the table closest to the window and as I sat down she handed me a menu in Korean. I sat there looking confused for a few minutes before she brought me a menu in English.

 I have traveled a lot in my 21 years, but this was one of the first countries I have traveled to where I can’t read the phonetics of their language (Greek being the other). It’s a slightly intimidating feeling not being able to communicate at all, partly my fault for not working harder at learning the basics before I arrived. There are a few people who speak English here, but for the most part I am incredibly lost. That’s one of my favorite feelings though.

I decided to order a Gimbap, a Korean version of Sushi and a side of Udon. The woman came up to my little table by the door, I pointed to what I wanted, and we bowed our heads to each other when she understood what I wanted.

When I sat down by myself I began to feel a little self- conscious, thinking things like, what are people thinking when they see me, what do I do with my hands, what do I do to entertain myself? After a few minutes though, my mind stopped with the thoughts about myself and I began to think externally again. It was at that point that I looked around and saw that there were a few other Korean women eating by themselves too. I watched the feet of the Korean Nationals walk by outside the glass door- it was dinnertime and everyone was bustling around to get their food.

My food came pretty quickly and I said, “Homsomnidad (Thank you)” as she walked away. I took a picture of the beautiful dish and quickly realized I had no idea what I was doing (once again). No one else had received their food yet and I had no idea how to use the utinsles, so I just began with my basic knowledge of Americanized Japanese food, and picked up the metal chopsicks. I took a bite of my colorful Gimbap and let the flavors explode. It was so fresh. I also ate the Udon noodles with the chopsticks, but I’m still unsure as to whether I did that correctly or not. Once, when I reached for another piece of Gipbap, I dropped the metal chopstick and it clanked loudly on the table in the small restaurant of 5 tables. I laughed quietly at myself, picked my chopstick up, and tried again.

A Korean couple sat down at the table next to me and decided they didn’t like the Korean music on the radio, so they played their Bob Marley loudly on their iPhones (ahhh, Globalization). The owner of the restaurant didn’t even flinch, which surprised me seeing as her restaurant was quite small and there were quite a few other customers. As I sat there at my tiny table, watching the feet of the Koreans pass by the door in front of me, my thoughts sank deeper and deeper with every bite of Udon. Toward my final bites, my thoughts clustered around the thought of humanity. There are some things that are just universally human, like that guy who just ran into a chair and made an “Ugh” sound, looking quickly at the ground awkwardly- I would have done the same thing. I’m not sure if I ever cared about differences between people, but especially in that moment on the last bite of tasty Udon noodles I thought to myself, humans are humans, whether I am sitting next to them in an inactive war zone, or a coffee shop in my hometown in the Rocky Mountains.

When I finished, the sun had begun to set and I was ready to go home. I walked slowly out the door, nodded and said “Homsomnidad” to the kind owner once more. Then I slowly wandered back to the gates of where I am staying, full belly and happy heart.image

Save The World… By Searching the Internet??

While I was browsing through local non-profits in my community, I stumbled upon an international adoption agency called Hope’s Promise.   This licensed child-placement agency was established in 1990 by Paula Freeman, after she and her husband adopted their daughter, Hope (About Us). The many experienced and qualified staff members at Hope’s Promise help facilitate both domestic and international adoptions. They have a deep understanding of the emotions involved with adoption, so they provide support and communication throughout the process. The agency works with Infant Domestic adoptions, international adoptions, as well as embryo adoption, which involves adoption of frozen embryos.

I have found that this agency has a very holistic approach to the process of adoption. By providing support for mothers giving up their children, support for adoptive families, and comprehensive information for both groups about the process, Hope’s Promise is ensuring ease of the process for all who are involved.

When I was reading about how I can volunteer with this company, they describe a search engine that directly funds their program. By using the search engine, Good Search, which is powered by Yahoo.com, we are actually donating to companies like Hope’s Promise. It’s as simple as that; switch your search engine from Google to Good Search and start changing the world. Don’t you just love stuff like this!?

So here’s your Two Hands Tuesday mission- switch your searching. Change that search box in the upper right hand corner of your internet window from Google, Ask Jeeves, or whatever you are currently using, to Good Search and make a commitment to using this for your internet searching needs.

Two Hands Loves the Earth

I am all about this glorious world where we live. I believe that my two hands can not only create change on a person-to-person level, but also on a global, environmental level. I believe that as earthlings, we have a duty to take care of mother earth. Earth Day is 7 days from today… have you started making your plans for changing the world? I have. To make your life a bit easier this year, I am going to provide a few options, in the event that you share my same passion for saving the world. Here are 7 options… maybe you can do one activity every day for the next week (that would make me very happy).

Ideas for Saving Mother Earth on Her Special Day

1. Plant a tree! This is a classic activity to do on Earth Day. New trees help clean the air as they mature by removing carbon dioxide from the air. You will directly receive some good Karma from this act, as they will help you breathe in the future by releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. If you can’t plant a tree, check out Treenex, where every greeting card you purchase will plant a tree in a forest.

2. Say Bye-bye to the Autos for the day. Use those gorgeous feet you were blessed with or ride that bike that is collecting cobwebs in the back of the garage! Live, work, or study super far away?? Check out Vride, where you can sign up for ride-sharing in your area instead of taking your car everyday. I love this company because they use vans (similar to gua-guas in the Dominican Republic) so there are always new faces to meet and friendly people to talk to!

3. Participate in a local Earth Day event. Find your fellow earthlings who are passionate about this wonderful day, and either plan an event for your community or sign up for an already existing event. Check out the Earth Day Network to find your event or group!

4. Pledge to stop drinking bottled water. Check out the video- The Story of Stuff, The Story of Bottled Water. Did you know that “San Fransisco’s tap water comes from the Yosemite National Park and is so pure that the EPA does not require it to be filtered? A bottle of Evian water that is $1.35 could be refilled with San Fransisco tap water once a day for over ten years before the cost would total $1.35” (DropthePop.info). Besides, metal water bottles are so much better looking.

5. Inspire your children! Teachers, babysitters, nannys, mothers/fathers, this is a perfect activity for you! Grab a sheet of paper and use all the colors in the world to spark some inspiration. Pick a few random pieces of garbage that you consistently see around your neighborhood and write them in a checklist on your colorful sheet of paper. Hand it to your kiddos and go! Who ever collects the most garbage (in a recycled plastic bag- we have to put them to use SOMEHOW, right?) gets to pick out their own flower or vegetable to plant this spring! I love hatching two birds with one egg.

A list from my scavenger hunt

My Earth Day Scavenger Hunt!

6. Rid the earth (and your family) of chemicals. Ecos Earth Friendly Products are sold in stores like King Soopers, Target, Vitamin Cottage, Whole Foods, and Albertsons. This company has made a commitment to creating products that do not use harsh toxins or chemicals like; petrochemicals, bleach, ammonia, and phosphate. This “clean guarantee” allows you to feel sure that you are not negatively impacting your family or the environment, and you are also supporting a sustainable company!

7. Clean out your closet! Yesterday I did a little spring cleaning and discovered that I owned 214 pieces of clothing. I was disgusted with myself because I had recently heard a story of a woman in Nigeria who owned two outfits; her work outfit and her church outfit, but sold her church outfit so her son could go to school. I cleaned out my closet, and now I own 80 pieces of clothing, including shoes. Still extreme compared to that incredible woman in Nigeria, but better than before. Next, shop at thrift stores for your next clothing purchase; who wouldn’t want to save 70% on a pair of shorts, and reduce the environmental impact of the clothing industry. For an interesting article about clothing waste and it’s impact on the environment, check out Environmental Health Perspectives, Waste Couture: Environmental Impact of the Clothing Industry by Liz Cloudio. In the article, Cloudio quotes, “The [cotton] crop accounts for a quarter of all the pesticides used in the United States, the largest exporter of cotton in the world, according to the USDA.”

Here’s my experience cleaning out my closet (more about this in a later post)-

before cleaning out my closet

Before my Earth Day Spring Cleaning- 217 pieces of clothing

After cleaning out my closet

After my Earth Day Spring Cleaning- 80 pieces of clothing

A box of my donations

My donations!

I walk without shoes so children don’t have to

Today is TOMS One Day Without Shoes. According to the official Facebook page for the event, 57,271 people are walking around the world without shoes today. I have been a fan of TOMS Shoes since the day I heard of them back in 2008. This company was started by a man named Blake Mycoskie after he traveled to Argentina. While he was there, he met a woman who was running a program that provided shoes to the children of her country who could not afford their own shoes. Blake discovered that the woman was frustrated by the lack of resources for her program, because a lot of the time she would not have enough shoes for all the children or she would not have the correct sizes (Do Something That Matters, Blake Mycoskie). I have encountered this problem in my work in the Dominican Republic, and you can read about this in my post, Smuggling Guanabana and Complete Imperfection. From my most recent trip to the Dominican Republic, I found that I can completely relate to what this woman described; it is infinitely frustrating not being able to help the people who are in severe need of assistance.

Blake created TOMS, a for-profit company, to provide shoes for the children that he worked with. Within one year of the development of the idea, Blake returned to Argentina with 10,000 pairs of shoes. With every pair of shoes that is purchased through TOMS, the company provides one pair for a child in need. One for One. I love this philosophy and the model for their company, because they are meeting the needs of the children without encountering limitations. They are able to measure the feet of each child and fit them with their perfect shoe. There are no color or style issues with the shoes (a problem I have encountered with Coloring Countries) because each pair of shoes that are donated are black,  canvas shoes, which are the standard requirement for schools.

April 10th, One Day Without Shoes, is a day to create awareness for the TOMS movement- and a glorious job it does! I was stopped 17 times today by people who are curious about my bare feet.  When I got stopped, I was able to describe this wonderful company and the work they do. My fellow bare-footers all smile at me as I pass, and some even give me a high five. We bond over our passion for helping others. This is part of the reason why TOMS is so successful, they make it very easy for Average Janes and Joes to change the world. I have found that the majority of the world (particularly youth) are frustrated with our global situation, and want to help others; hence, the success story of TOMS.

Even though I have glass in my heels and my toes are worn through, my heart is warm and fuzzy. I think that the challenge of today made the reward all the more fulfilling, especially being thrown out of the grocery store. =)

So your Two Hands Tuesday mission this week is to go purchase a pair of these life-changing shoes.Your purchase will allow a child to attend school, when their lack of shoes was previously holding them back. It will also prevent the child from contracting a disease through the cuts that they receive from walking barefoot everyday. Here is the link to the website, check out their selection and pick out a wonderful pair for yourself! TOMS Website.

My Two Barefeet

Annie's Bare Feet, April 10, 2012