Shared from the 2/1/2021 Colo Spgs Gazette eEdition

GUEST OPINION

Working together to end homelessness

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Over seven days ending on Jan. 2, Mike Coffman, the Mayor of Aurora, lived on the streets of Denver and Aurora to gain a different perspective on how to address the “problem of homelessness.”

With limited resources, he slept in shelters and encampments and had conversations with several people experiencing homelessness. As a result of his time on the streets, Coffman developed several conclusions based on his experience that will likely inform his plans to address the challenges of homelessness. (The Gazette, Jan. 24).

On the surface, this experience resonated with me. Since moving to Colorado Springs in 2014, I have spent seven days sleeping outside to learn about some of the challenges associated with homelessness. One major difference is that I did not do this alone.

This has always been done in partnership with organizations who support people who experience homelessness where I, and others who have participated, have benefited from additional education and expertise that these organizations provide.

In partnership with Springs Rescue Mission, The Place, and Leadership Pikes Peak, which help to run our Poverty Immersion in Colorado Springs, our medical students, all of whom will care for people experiencing homelessness and various health conditions as future physicians, learn more about the challenges of living with limited resources.

With an appropriate setup of educational programming, facilitated conversations, and opportunities to debrief, participants who have never previously experienced homelessness can learn more about the challenges that our homeless population faces, and more importantly, gain a tremendous amount of empathy toward humans who are suffering.

Critics of the homeless, or homeless “problem,” frequently use dehumanizing language, justify their current condition by their poor choices, and bemoan the deployment of resources to help people whom they presume refuse to help themselves. Our society has become comfortable criticizing what we do not understand and with whom we cannot not empathize.

I will be the first to admit that spending an occasional night sleeping on the street or at a shelter for a learning or fundraising experience does not come close to replicating the daily stressors, emotions and challenges of homelessness.

While I can easily return home the next day for a hot shower, homemade food, and the safety and security that my family and home provide, people who are homeless do not have an easy way out. A recent editorial makes the solution seem simple as beds and meals “are readily available” through our safety net agencies and anyone who chooses the “dubious ‘lifestyle’” of an encampment “will stay on the road to oblivion.” (The Gazette, Jan. 27).

Mayor Coffman and others who conclude that living in encampments is “a lifestyle choice” where people have “no desire to leave” are likely displaying confirmation bias, which involves interpreting new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. With an open mind, in my experiences of working with organizations that serve homeless clients and in speaking to and caring for people experiencing homelessness, one thing is absolutely clear: humans do not want to be homeless.

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the safety and security that come with having shelter that you are comfortable with are some of the most basic of human needs.

Trust is a barrier to changing your shelter situation whether you are being offered a “better” alternative or being forced out of your current situation. Empathizing with and seeing people who are homeless as “us” rather than “them” is the first step to establishing trust and improving the human condition of those who are homeless.

Mayor Coffman’s conclusions on his experience have been met with strong condemnation by people and organizations who dedicate their time and resources to serving the homeless population and working toward ending homelessness. The Denver Alliance for Street Health Response and other homeless advocates, while correct in some of their criticism, have potentially made it more difficult to engage Mayor Coffman and others who might consider learning more about the challenges of homelessness by labeling his experience as a “publicity stunt”, “experiment” and “masquerading.”

On one hand, these responses come from passionate experts who dedicate their time and energy to help serve vulnerable humans who are victims of terrible circumstances and who are frustrated by the continued lack of resources, empathy, and political courage that would help to improve conditions and opportunities for a population that continues to struggle and suffer.

On the other hand, this response does not help improve the dialogue necessary among community and political leaders to better understand these challenges to work together to end homelessness.

I genuinely believe that Mayor Coffman’s rationale for this choosing this experience was not a “publicity stunt” and had more to do with gaining more information. Part of my goal of connecting to homeless organizations and sleeping on the streets was to gain new information and a different perspective from an unfamiliar experience, and multiple experiences and conversations over time have enriched my perspectives.

Of course, the mayor’s response to criticism from “so-called advocates who distort those truths” only further contributes to the discord and inhibits the conversations and partnerships necessary to relieve human suffering. I wholeheartedly agree with Mayor Coffman when he said, “we will not develop effective solutions so long as we are operating in silos.”

Ideology, biases, opinions and emotions are insufficient to solve complex societal problems. Improving conditions for people who are homeless, and better yet ending homelessness, requires respectful communication, active engagement to learn about and empathize with people who are suffering, and collaboration between leaders in the public and private sectors to dedicate resources to support evidence-based solutions.

A snapshot of one day, or even one week, does not provide enough information to solve complex problems.

We all need to do a better job of working together to address the challenges of homelessness and avoid the vitriol and criticism that has become too commonplace and accepted in society today.

Dr. Erik Wallace, MD, FACP, is an associate professor of

Medicine and associate dean for the Colorado Springs

branch at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Dr. Wallace’s viewpoints are his own.

See this article in the e-Edition Here