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Faces of Homelessness Speakers' Bureau

Presentation Manual

The Panel

The "Faces" Panel makes a very powerful impact on participants. People will be able to make a personal connection to any statistics they may hear. Myths can be dispelled and stereotypes can be broken down as the audience gets to see people experiencing homelessness as individuals. The audience members begin to hear the perspectives of the homeless people and hear their solutions to the problems. The panel is a stronger presence today because of the tremendous strength of our speakers, who share their stories of homelessness, from the obstacles they faced to gaining the inner strength they needed to succeed. These stories of endurance are motivational, powerful and emotionally affect all those who listen. The panel has proven to be a valuable resource in empowering the public, as well as the speakers, to become advocates for change.

Project Goals

Homelessness is on the increase even within the context of a strong economy. Ironically, rising wages for some have increased the costs of housing throughout the nation. At the same time, the destruction of such a large proportion of affordable housing has spelled disaster for many people. Public awareness on this issue is at an all time low. Indeed, many people are unaware that although unofficial unemployment rates are low, many of the new jobs created are in the service sector at minimum wage. National studies of homeless people reveal that for example, 44% worked at least part-time the previous month, and many of them still cannot afford places to live.

Ending homelessness must begin with understanding that homeless people are individuals who are members of our community, who have once been, and still are, our neighbors. Public perceptions and attitudes toward persons experiencing homelessness or in danger of becoming homeless need to change in order for positive, long-term solutions to be realized. The "Faces of Homelessness" Speakers’ Bureau is an important part of the fight to end homelessness in America because it links the many different levels of our society together.

The "Faces of Homelessness" Speakers’ Bureau gives participants an opportunity to:

  • Put a human face on homelessness. Most people have never had a conversation with a homeless person or learned what their life was like before becoming homeless or during homelessness.
  • Build bridges with the homeless/formerly homeless presenters. Formerly homeless presenters have effectively described what made the difference for them personally in breaking out of the vicious cycle of homelessness.
  • Understand a very difficult and complex problem one person at a time.
  • Challenge the myths of homelessness so that they may understand the realities.
  • Promote, support, and facilitate dialogue between housed and homeless Americans to effectively address this growing problem.
  • Build public awareness of homelessness on a local and national level.
  • in the fight to end homelessness.

Tips for Recruiting Homeless People as Speakers:

1) If you personally know homeless people who would like to speak, ask them directly.

2) Send letters to your local shelters asking them if someone from the shelter would like to speak. It’s good to get a few "success stories" of people who are no longer homeless, as well as stories of people who are currently homeless. If you contact the shelter, you need to make follow-up calls to make sure the speakers will come. Sometimes shelters will not be willing to let their clients speak. Shelters that house women fleeing domestic abuse, families, or youth, often want their clients to concentrate on their own problems and are sometimes protective. If possible, get a mixed group of speakers, but if you can only get older males, it will still work out.

3) Make sure to arrange transportation for your speakers; this can include giving them a bus/cab fare or simply picking them up.

4) Make sure to contact the shelter and inform them about the speaker coming to wherever the presentation will be. They can lose their bed for the night if they stay out too late.

5) Be sure to give the speakers a little cash incentive for taking the time to speak. Depending on your budget, $40 is the suggested honorarium for each speaker.

6) Invite the homeless speakers to eat in your school cafeteria before the speaking event.

7) If you are having trouble finding speakers in your own area, take a look at our Directory of State and Local Coalitions.

Sample Outline

NOTE: The outline provided can be of assistance to provide some more information to audience members, but be careful for it to not overshadow the speakers. The panel can be just as effective with speakers and nothing else, but absolutely will not be effective without the speakers.

I. Intro:

  • Why is homelessness so hard to understand?
  • Why is there not more of an outcry?
  • We know there is a problem, why isn’t more being done?

This is usually the more general introduction to homelessness. The essence of a Faces Panel is to get people to try and care a little more about homelessness. A good introduction is to have a discussion on why we have such a huge problem, yet seemingly very few people care enough to really do something about it. A Faces Panel is about reminding each other that everyone has a story to tell and we all need to be heard, and that people experiencing homeless are not any different. It is good to introduce the situation to people with a story or situation that they can relate to in terms of struggling with the issue or some of the common frustrations that an average person may have in dealing with the homelessness.

  1. Stereotypes/Experiences:
  • Who do you think is homeless and in danger of becoming homeless?
  • What are some of the experiences you have had with homeless people?

It is always good to get a feel for the type of group you are presenting to. Plus, it can often give information that could help direct or give the presentation structure. Also, getting people to talk about the stereotypes is a good lead in to the video, which breaks a lot of them.

  1. Video (15) (Click here for the Faces of Homelessness videos)
  2. Reflection/ Emotions (5)
  • Which pictures stood out in your mind? Why?
  • What is your response when you see a similar sight in real life?
  • How did you feel as you watched it?

The responses usually come pretty easily on this part. Most people will talk about the kids, how people look like you and me. The kids are a great way to break to stereotype of the single old man. Families with children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population today. This is a good lead-in to talk about who really is homeless. Be careful not to paint the picture that stereotypical homeless people are not deserving of help. If they are homeless, living on the street, whatever, they need help, and no one should have to live that life in out country.

  1. Who is actually homeless?
  • 750,000 any given night
  • African American: 50%
  • White: 30-35%
  • Mentally ill: 20-30%
  • Substance abusers: 30-50%
  • Employed: 20-30%
  • Families with children: 40%
  • Veterans: 15-20%
  • 40% of homeless men have served in the armed forces

People like stats, and this helps give them a more realistic picture. If you boil it all down, it means that homelessness is still increasing. An interesting thing you could bring up is that the same groups of people who are homeless today would not have been homeless 20 years ago. The reason is because there just are not cheap and affordable places for people live now, and that is the case for even the chronically homeless, the substance abusers, and the mentally ill.

  1. Speakers

To get the speakers started, meet with them beforehand and ask that they address the following in their talk: if they are formerly homeless- what their life was like before homelessness, what their life was like while they were homeless, what it was that brought them out of homelessness, and what it was like after homelessness. If the speakers are currently homeless, have them share what their life was like before homelessness, what it is like to be homeless, and what their hopes for the future are. Also, encourage them to talk about solutions as well. We need to hear directly from them what the answer should be. Ideally, each speaker should talk for 5-10 minutes. If you kind of know what they are going to be talking about, it might be kind of nice cite a stat that relates to what they talked about. For instance, if a speaker had been through the foster care system, you could say that 27% of homeless people have been in the foster care system or group home before their 18th birthday. Or, if the speaker can relate their story or situation to a larger in the community it is going to be that much more effective. Having a homeless woman talk to college students about how she works at the college dining hall, but is not paid enough to live off of is very powerful statement.

Obtain a moderator to introduce the speakers. This moderator should be someone that knows about homelessness on a national or local level. It is sometimes hard for homeless people to relate to people with homes, and vice versa. Therefore, it is sometimes necessary for a moderator to act as a bridge between the two.

  1. Why are People Homeless?

It is good to put the reasons of why people are homeless after people talk because you can often tie in parts of their stories to the larger scene. It is very important to cite specific reasons from your own community as for the reasons of homelessness.

  • Economic situation, demographic characteristics, their disabilities, childhood histories, access to family and friends, personalities, and… COMBINATION of these factors
  • Lack of affordable housing (reduction of units an increase in poor)
  • There is no city or state where a person working full time at minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market. To find the figures for your own area, go to http://universallivingwage.org/.
  • Decline in public assistance: the average wait for Section 8 vouchers: 26-28 months.
  • Stressed economic conditions
  • Substance abuse
  • Personal crisis
  • Environmental conditions (cycles)

We could go on and on about the reasons. We usually try to emphasize the changes in the housing market- rise in rents, destruction of low-income units, lack of public assistance. It is especially important to bring up the question of why we have so many homeless people in spite of how well our economy is doing. The main story here, though, is that everyone has a different story, and you can’t put one face on the entire problem. Often times what people have gone through early on in their lives have played a large role in the outcome of the rest of their lives.

  1. What People Can Do.

    This is a very important section, so that people will not feel helpless after hearing the stories, and that they will feel like there is actually something tangible they can do. Please look at NCH’s fact sheet on "What You Can do to End Homelessness." You can also check our Housing Alerts page to see what is going on legislatively as well. Also, it is very important for the speakers to address this issue as well. They will often have a unique perspective and ideas that have not been brought up before.

  1. Q&A
  2. Take questions from the floor. Let the audience know that no question is too stupid or embarrassing. You should mention that some speakers might get a little emotional or riled up if posed certain questions. Expect tears when people are asked about their contact with family. "Noodles," another speaker for the National Coalition for the Homeless, marched into the audience when a young man politely asked if it was worth enduring the inconveniences of a shelter in order to be able to sleep inside. The young man looked fairly fit and was of average size for his age, but he cowered in his seat when Noodles gave his emphatic, "No." Gregory, one of the more gentle speakers, calmly explained that a lot of shelters don’t provide lockers, so their belongings get stolen.

  3. Closing/ Solutions:

It is very important for people to not feel helpless, and to realize there is actually a lot of things that they can do to make a difference. Obviously, it needs to start in the local communities, but can certainly include issues on a national level. This is a great way to link in what needs and projects there are at the local level. A good topic to have people talking about is if charity gets in the way of justice. Is volunteering at soup kitchens and shelters keeping us from asking why we have them in the first place?

For more general information about homelessness, please read about some of the other resources.

Contact us:

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National Coalition for the Homeless
2201 P Street NW
Washington, DC 20037-1033

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Page last modified: Oct. 11, 2011

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