'When We Walk By' offers insights on how to support our unhoused neighbors and, in the process, reclaim our shared humanity
When We Walk By: forgotten humanity, broken systems, and the role we can each play in ending homelessness in America, is a new book that was co-authored by Kevin Adler, the CEO of Miracle Messages, a California nonprofit that helps the unhoused reconnect with family and loved ones, and Don Burnes, the co-founder of the The Burnes Institute for Poverty Research at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. We spoke with Don Burnes about the importance of social connection for people experiencing homelessness.
Sam Fuqua: It seems like one of the central ideas of 'When We Walk By' is that we are not, perhaps, paying enough attention to social relationships for people who are experiencing homelessness. Is that correct, and can you explain that?
Don Burnes: Yes, that is correct. And we talk a lot about the need for networks of support that most of us have. I like to frame it in terms of 'who do you call at 2 o'clock in the morning if you have a crisis?' We all have people we can call. And by and large, folks experiencing homelessness don't have that kind of network of support. If they do have people they can call, those folks generally can't provide much in the way of economic support. So it becomes a real relational poverty, if you will.
About the first third of the book, maybe closer to 40%, focuses on our attitudes about people experiencing homelessness and our failure to appreciate them as fellow human beings. And that brings a huge price in terms of the attitudes we have, the negative stereotypes we continue to demonstrate about folks experiencing homelessness, and the kind of stigma we attach to folks experiencing homelessness.
That is a major focus of our book and we try and provide in the last chapter some ways in which many of us could begin to move beyond those kinds of stereotypes, and stigma.
Sam Fuqua: The title, 'When We Walk By,' really resonated with me, because I, like most people in cities, I live in Boulder, I have walked by. There's times where I don't respond to someone who's asking for money and it may be out of other things going on in my life, it may be out of how they approach me, but I find myself becoming a little inured to it, and a little harder, and I don't want to be that way.
But as I look at at my city, the city where I've lived for over 30 years, I see many of my fellow residents, you know, getting a little harder about it. And some of it has to do with crime that they attribute to people experiencing homelessness, drug use, encampments, etc. But I don't want to be that way, I don't want to walk by, and yet I do. I don't know if you're hearing this from other people.
Don Burnes: Yes. We spent a long time trying to figure out a good title and when we tried 'When We Walk By' on people, people really gravitated toward it because a lot of us do walk by, either on the streets or at traffic lights with people panhandling.
And basically what we're saying is 'don't walk by. Stop.' If you don't have anything to give to somebody, at least say 'hi, how are you doing?' Recognize them. And that really becomes an important first step in treating them as human beings.
I like to say if that person was your uncle or your brother, or if that woman was your sister or your aunt, you would go out of your way to try and provide some kind of assistance, at least recognition as a human being.
Let me give you a quick example. I was at a traffic light recently here in Denver, and there was a young guy with his cardboard sign that said, 'I'm not cute enough to get into housing. Please help.' And I rolled down my window and said, 'Hi, I don't have anything to give you, but you know, I think you are cute enough.' And he laughed and slapped his knee and said, 'That is the best thing I've heard all week.'
Simply acknowledging him as another human being really becomes critical. And so whenever I'm at a traffic light and there's somebody there panhandling, I don't give them money, I just say, 'hi. How you doing? I hope you're having an okay day.'
Sam Fuqua: Can I ask Don, why don't you give him money?
Don Burnes: That's a good question. I'm not sure I can answer that. And at one point I was giving out peanut bars or something. And most of the time people were very enthusiastic about that, but then I had a box of peanut bars in my backseat, and I didn't give out any for about six months, and the whole box sort of disintegrated. So I've stopped doing that.
But simply acknowledging people, there was a incredible study done in New York City in 2014. The researchers had family members dress up like people experiencing homelessness, sitting on the sidewalk looking unkempt, and then asked family members who were not aware of this and sent them to walk by over the course of the day.
And in the five families, none of the family members stopped and recognized their family members who were sitting on the sidewalk.
Somehow, that's unacceptable. We really should be saying, 'Oh, how are you? How you doing? Is there anything that I could do to help?'
We have to be open to that. And unfortunately, for all kinds of reasons, many of us aren't. That's what I mean about relational poverty.
I mean, it really works both ways. People experiencing homelessness, they don't have a lot of good relations, so they're experiencing relational poverty. But from our standpoint, we don't have a positive relationship with them, and that's kind of a relational poverty on our part, because we have poor relationships with those experiencing homelessness. We have to make a conscious effort to change that.
And the other thing I would say, and I sort of hinted at this before, everyone, including people experiencing homelessness, everyone is someone's somebody: brother, sister, father, mother, aunt, uncle.
Recognizing them for being a human being is really important and can be transformative, both for me and for the other person.
Sam Fuqua: Don Burnes is a nonprofit executive and philanthropist who helped found the Burnes Institute for Poverty Research at the Colorado Center for Law and Policy. He is the co-author of the new book When We Walk By: forgotten humanity, broken systems, and the role we can each play in ending homelessness in America.
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This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio. It was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.