A couple of months ago, Ahren, our Main Frame Coordinator, came to the team with the idea of putting together a focus group with the goal of discussing the issues people experiencing homelessness face. The focus group would also serve to improve how we, both as an agency and individually, could help advocate for everyone who comes through our doors. Everyone on the team thought it was a wonderful idea to provide a space for us to speak to our guests and gain firsthand knowledge of the problems they have experienced. The group was planned for December 13th, and I had the pleasure of being asked to co-facilitate the group with Ahren. I don’t think either one of us knew that by facilitating this focus group we would be introduced to so many personal tragedies, triumphs, and such a sense of community between the people in the room.
We began the group by having each person introduce themselves, if they felt comfortable, by saying just their first name. The group was quiet at first – no one said much more than what they were asked to share. Ahren and I then introduced ourselves and explained to the group how important advocacy is to the values and morals of this agency and how their stories can help us to fight the social injustices they face. We then opened the floor to anyone who wanted to share. Hands slowly began to rise, and the more people talked, the more energy was added to the room. It was amazing to watch! People were able to share their hardships with others who understood what they are going through. People were able to share different resources they have found over the years, and in turn, helped others in the group. People were also able to laugh together and forget, if just for a moment, what faced them when they left our doors. By the end of the focus group, our guests had come up with nineteen challenges that people experiencing homelessness face. Some of the challenges they mentioned were: affordable housing, stress and tiredness, evictions, job availability, addiction, medical care, mental health, and safe & clean shelters. One particular item that was on their list was lack of storage. When this was said, everyone in the room nodded or voiced their agreement. When the particular guest who brought it up was asked to explain what he meant, he stated, “I stay at a shelter at night and have to take all my stuff with me in the morning. I’m not able to leave my bags there. Do you really think people want me in a store or at a job interview with all my stuff? It just makes it known that I don’t have anywhere to go.” This was so eye opening to me. Everyday guests come through our doors to receive services, many times with bags upon bags in their hands. I never thought about where they would place their items if they needed to complete a task that did not allow for them to bring their belongings.
I write about this experience to say that everyone has a story. I write about this experience to remind myself that every person who walks through our doors deal with daily challenges that I cannot even fathom. I write about this experience to say how important is it to understand what we are advocating for – to hear it from the people experiencing it and not just assuming we know their needs. It’s because of stories like the ones we heard in our focus group that the OAC continues to advocate until all of our guests have a place to call home at the end of the day.