The Once and Homeless Thing

Jun 2014

“I always wonder why birds choose to stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere on the earth and do anything they want. Then I ask myself the same question.”

– Marius Kramer

“Of course your best days are ahead of you. The movie starts when the guy gets sober and puts his life back together; it doesn’t end there.”

– Bucky Sinister, Get Up: A 12-Step Guide to Recovery for Misfits, Freaks, and Weirdos

When I was in high school I was part of a charity that worked on a project to end Youth Homelessness. The charity won a big grant of around $200,000 to implement the project. At the time it was one of the largest grant wins for that region. We all celebrated since it was a huge thing for us.

When it first started, everyone was excited because it felt like we were doing something that mattered. It was an open-ended grant, so they awarded us the money and then we were to think of ways to spend it that would be impactful and fix these social problems. The city I grew up in had a problem with youth homelessness and nobody fully understood why.

So for months we would all get together and brainstorm ideas. I was relatively junior on the team running it, and the senior people were all university students and members of the community. They had the greatest say in what would get through. At the time, it felt like we spent so much time in meetings and few time actually doing what the grant required of us.

I remember the term we would always use to refer to them. It was maladjusted youths. Most had some kind of combination of a learning difficulty or drug or alcohol addiction and coming from a broken home. And the critical tipping point was nearly always their parents. It would go something like, the child would have a fight with their parents and end up homeless, sometimes for months at a time.

Eventually we narrowed in on 3 tasks. Setting up a nice shelter for those effected to go to when in need, that had showering facilities and a councillor. Setting up food vans at strategic locations to provide free meals that were cost-effective to make and run. And general education workshops to teach life skills to get back into and integrate into society.

We then spent the next couple of months putting all of this into action and setting them up. We bought an old and decrepit government building and refurbished it into a shelter, hired a van, created workshops. The final part was to launch a big marketing campaign to actually notify the “maladjusted youths” of the services there to benefit them and how they could take advantage of it.

One of the other junior members of the team suggested we save the money and do something really simple like putting up posters and flyers in parks. The idea was laughed aside by the more experienced members that it would never work. They had lots of data that said the youth of today were on social networks and watching TV and thought they were the best methods of reaching them. Because they were the most senior, we had to go along with it.

And so we implemented facebook campaigns and designed and bought TV ads. A small agency agreed to make the ad at a huge discount because it was a not-for-profit. The bulk of the money actually went on marketing the services, not actually delivering them. The project ended up being a spectacular failure and the money was spent with few results. Nobody was coming to our services.

There was a disconnect between the people implementing the program and the people who would benefit from it most. We’d missed the common sense check of how would you actually contact someone like this? How would they be most likely to hear about us?

It turns out a homeless youth doesn’t have an active internet connection, let alone watch TV. They just weren’t finding out. This went for months. Until towards the end of the program, we were running out of money and needed a Hail Mary. We ended up going with the junior members original idea of posters in parks and other public areas. They worked spectacularly. As it happens, that’s where homeless youth end up.

The first week the posters were up, we had a flood of people come to use the shelter and visit the van and enrol in the courses. Within the first 2 months, every measure we had said rates of youth homelessness had plummeted. It turned out one of the most effective methods was actually one of the cheapest to implement. We could do a run of thousands of posters for the same cost of running one TV ad. But we didn’t, and sadly, it was done too late. We’d run out of money.

Later that year, the project shut down. And we transferred all of the assets of the not-for-profit back to the government. From the outside it looked like it was doing great. We’d get congratulated by everybody. Friends and family sitting at home would see the ads on TV and applaud the good work we were doing, not knowing the numbers and how bad they were. Everyone on the team implementing it added a line to their resumes and got bigger and better jobs. The real people who lost were the ones the program was actually for.

As part of the project we had interviewed and collected a dataset of hundreds of in depth interviews with homeless people. About what they wanted and needed that would most contribute to bettering their circumstances. Even though the project itself was a failure, this dataset was part of the final report to government which became part of their core milestone data to develop policy to address and combat homelessness country wide.

A few years later, we got an email from someone who’d taken over the project. Apparently the shelter we’d started were still running. We’d bought the infrastructure that a new group of activists had taken over and with a grassroots effort had turned into a thriving and safe place for troubled young people to turn to. Without the grant money they’d have never been able to set it up.